Frontlighting And Backlighting

This is an excerpt from the Book called “Robert Irwin Getty Garden by Lawrence Weschler . Continue reading to learn more about Frontlighting And Backlighting , thanks to the author.

Frontlighting And Backlighting; Patience; Thinking Long- Term And Being Outlived; Underlying Structure; Perfection And Changeability. 

Weschler: so, where are we here? 

Irwin: We’re just at the beginning of area three. Which is taller, more enclosed, more verdant, with richer green leaves and a bright Kelly green as the kicker. Less texture on the whole, and a lot of larger- leaf plants. 

Weschler: Okay. 

Irwin: This, by the way, here, is quite a spectular plant, this one right here (Geranium maderense; right). But look at it. It’s a plant that gets quite big, such that the branches start going down to the ground and acting like extra feet to balance it, because it gets a flower head that’s literally three, four, five feet around. Just huge. A big flower, made up of hundreds of small flowers. It’s one of the more spectacular plants you’ve ever seen. Amazing that so very few people know about it. 

Now, one key to the plan of the garden is that as you go down into it, basically you’re going south, so that the sun, generally speaking, is on the back side, aiming at you. Now, there are a lot plants which really look better when they’re lit from behind. They have translucent leaves like those you can see there. See how bright they get. When we walk around to the other side, you’ll see: they won’t be nearly as interesting or as spectacular. But there’s a number of plants that are the reverse. Like the one right behind it here, the hebe, which is the opposite. It doesn’t look particularly good lit from the back side; it looks really good lit from the front side. 

Weschler: We’ll make a note to remember to look at it from the other side when we get there. 

Irwin: So, on the way down, you try to feature the plants that are best lit from behind, and on the way back up, in terms of your orientation, you try to feature plants that are enhanced by being lit from the front. A simple idea really, just taking advantage of the light as given. 

Weschler: The other day you were pointing out a plant where it’s going to be a few years before the flower even happens. Generally speaking, isn’t it going to be years before the garden as a whole really kicks in at full force?

Irwin: The first thing that everybody cautioned me about as I came into the plant world is that you have to have patience because gardens take a while. One year you try this and if doesn’t work, you try it differently the next. It takes two, three, or four years, and it takes even longer than that to really make a garden. In the case of the trees, I had to make a decision is generally being made in most cases these days, which is to buy large trees and put them in so you have kind of an instant karma for the big opening. You’ve got people coming from all over the world, so there’s a strong motive, you know, so they roll out the grass and they put in a big tree. And that’s what they did everywhere else on this site. They brought in large, mature trees. 

Weschler: For the photo-op. 


Irwin: For the photo-op, exactly. Especially all the stuff around the building. Which is okay in a way, except that you really can’t get a great tree that way, except that you really can’t get a great tree that way. First of all, back at the nursery, to make trees so they’re salable and to rush them long, they do things to them: They top them and what have you to speed along the growth and fill out the tree. This tree, for example, is ideally a single leader tree: the single central trunk going all the way up. That’s its real strength. But anytime one of them is more than two years old now, you just can hardly find any that haven’t already been topped off and become dual or triple leaders, you know? So the tree never obtains its real stature: I mean the beauty of it as it grows naturally. 

Weschler: Right. 

Irwin: So, in this case, I had to buy small trees and wait ten years. Which is what I’m having to do: ten years before these trees are how I propose them to be. So, at least in terms of how I propose the garden, it will not be finished now for another seven years. Which is a big difference from being a painter or something like that, where you never work on something with that long a time- frame. But for me, first of all, it’s a change of values- the values I get to base my decisions on- and it allows me to do something which is more intimate from the outset. Since it was material that I wasn’t familiar with, had never really worked with before, I was doing a lot of just guessing the first time around. Second time around, now I can look with a different eye. I can look at this combination and say, “Well, I really like that. I don’t like this. This one’s not doing what I thought it would do. What can we do if we change it? “And then do it again next year and then do it again the following year. In other words, now I’ve got this living palette with a mind of its own. 

The First year, I decided if I w2as going to err, I was going to err on the side of excess, because I wanted to see what was possible. I wanted to see all the possibilities. And so this past summer, I felt the garden was actually too chaotic .Even for me. And so for next year, I’ve got a better idea why that was so, and what I really liked. What I could eliminate. What I could, in a sense, consolidate. Things that I could maybe feature a bit more, organize a bit better. And I’ll do that. But you can’t do that without having it there to look at, really; you need that firsthand, hands-on- 

Weschler: You’re saying it’s going to take ten years for all this to happen? You’re seventy years old. I mean, this is a garden that’s going to- 

Irwin: Right. 

Weschler: But you’re doing a work that clearly, by definition, is going to have to outlive you. 

Irwin: Well, yeah. But in all sorts of critical ways, it’s going to be resolved, if not finished. There are a lot of things about it that are not going to change: They’re not going to change the path or the stream. They’re not going to change those trees once they’re in place. All the structure and all the major elements are going to be there. The one thing that’s very flexible and continuously changing its plant material. But I’m going to give them a pretty elaborate plan that they can follow the spirit of. You Know? That spirit will be clear when I get to the end; the idea of sequencing the areas, the idea of the different kinds of strategies we’re using, like reserving the strongest colors for the end. I mean, when I leave, I will actually give them a very specific document that they can follow. Now, they won’t follow it in every detail; as time goes by, they’ll move away from it to some degrees, I’m sure. To what degree, of course, I don’t know. 

Weschler: How does that compare with the occupants of, say, a Meier building-how, after he leaves, the occupants inevitably start changing it? 

Irwin: It’s a whole different idea about the ideal or the sublime. Meier’s got this idea of some kind of abstract perfection, some ideal form, some Euclidean nirvana, and in his mind, apparently, everything has to be absolute- and he pushes hard towards that end. With I guess that idea that his contribution will somehow transcend change. The problem with that is that it isn’t real in the sense of actually existing the garden thing- as I was saying the other day, things essentially have to really live in the world. And if you get the thing properly structured- all the really main elements, the scale and all the relationships and the other of things re3ally properly put together- it has the strength to survive being lived in. 

Weschler: With all the unpredictability of that. 

Irwin: With all the unpredictability. Exactly. 

Weschler: And the various ambitions and- 

Irwin: And courting all that. Courting unpredictability. Courting surprise. Allowing it to happen. And when it happens, in my mind, it’s better that what you can plan. That’s where the real surprise comes in. There are just things that you… Four plants will grow together in some unpredictable way- I mean, I’ve seen it. I looked and looked and looked and looked. And I liked this and I liked this and I liked that flower. But every now and then I’d see what some- body else would call a mistake, an accident, and they’d say, “Gee, we didn’t really plan that, but these four plants grew together. “And I’d say to myself, “That is more interesting, more beautiful, than anything else that we’ve been talking about. “ The plants really have ended up complementing each other in some truly surprising way. So the idea is that you aim at some overall resonance, you put all that in play, and sometimes things work, and sometimes they don’t. But on the whole, once you’ve got the thing going, it always works. It’s just whether it happens to turn out absolutely brilliant. Because when it’s brilliant, it’s brilliant, you know? 


It’s the other side of the ambitions of the fifties, the rush to plan the world. They tore down whole areas of the town figuring they were going to rebuild everything all brand new, they had this utopian idea that they could just build whole cities. It never came out very interesting. It was always very dull. And the reason is, it didn’t have the real richness of a time- layered complexity. It didn’t have real contradictions. It didn’t have real surprises. Everything came from one kind of thinking. And I soon realized that, at least at this moment, nobody seems to be smart enough to do that, you know? Whereas, when a city develops over a period of time, and decisions are made by different people in different periods of time, there’s a kind of a richness, a kind of layering- in which you start seeing, one kind of aesthetic up against another, and that overlapping to me is much more interesting. 

That’s part of why I was drawn to the idea of doing a garden this one time– as opposed to all the other sorts of things that I might do- this idea that aesthetics is not something that is stylistically bound, that is really is a way of going. It’s more like philosophy. It’s a method, not an end or a final product or even a state of grace that one finally arrives at: It’s a way of continuously approaching the world. You don’t arrive with all your preconceptions and say, “This is my style, and I’m going to put my trademark on things in this way. “Instead, you really deal with the situation. And I’m beginning to think that finally, in the end, two hundred years or three hundred years down the line, that’s more the way artists are going to work. They’re going to work more from an aesthetic base rather than a stylistic one. And once you have a developed aesthetic, it works everywhere.  

Weschler: And I imagine the natural place for staging that argument, or the best way, would be in botanical material, which is liveliness by definition, as opposed to a room of scrim, for example. 

Irwin: Absolutely Well, like I say, it’s like bearding the lion in his den, because when you start working with plant material, you’re working with something that’s not only infinite in character but totally quixotic at the same time: it’ll challenge you as much or more than anything you can possibly imagine. And just to keep up with it is a full-time occupation. It’s a never- ending this because… 

 Weschler: So we’re now looking down from the fourth bridge. 

Irwin: Right. See where I’m pointing, how that plant’s got the kind of swordlike shape to it? Then you’ve got the one behind it that is similar but different. Then you’ve got the really strong green behind that, we’re like filling that in. Then you’ve got the really dark one with the sort of different kind of swordlike form. Then we’ve got those tall cannas standing behind there with the larger leaves. Then, on the left of it, you’ve got that variegated plant with the gray- green, or the bright green and dark green in it. Then you’ve got this plant in front of it which is real soft, but basically of the same character. I mean, that’s a terrific area. For me, it’s a sensational area. It’s like a tapestry, all woven together, which is really the look I’m after. 

In a different way, I once saw that taken to the greatest extreme imaginable in a Zen garden in Kyoto where they had, over a period of like 150 years, grown this hedge which is now like fifty feet long and twenty feet tall. It’s not really a hedge. It’s just a whole tapestry of plants that are all grown and intergrown, and they’ve taken the time to clip and manicure this thing, you know, over and over and over. So it’s literally maybe fifty plants all growing together in this incredible tapestry. And it was so spectacular. It’s like the Japanese will do: that kind of absolute maniacal attention to detail over long periods of time. That’s real karma. But the thing is, that happens in nature naturally. 

And another thing, Remember how back in the early days, when everybody was saying, “This is difficult and you don’t know what you’re doing, “and I replied by talking about finding some really dependable plants for the mass plantings? Well, it was the same for down here as well, plants that we could really count on. The only problem, to some degree, was that they’ve been so successful, they’ve been used and used to such a degree, that people have tended to habituate to them. They’ve become invisible. So one of the ways of putting them back into play was to show them always in combination with things that are a surprise, combinations that you’ve never seen before, so the plant is suddenly rediscovered. 

Weschler: So, for example… 

Irvin: Well, here, behind the bench, some of these have died off at this time, because it’s winter, but thus white rose here, which is called an ‘Iceberg’ rose- a lot of roses, as I say, don’t have particularly good leaves.

Get a free Quote
Get a Free Quote
Frontlighting And Backlighting