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The Self-Taught Gardener: Winter Tour

A trip to Chrystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, reminds our Self-Taught Gardener Lee Buttala about the importance of good architecture, structure, and landscape design, especially in the dead of winter.


Winter trips inspire me and remind me of what is to come in the seasons ahead, particularly when we head south. And a recent trip to Arkansas to see Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (a simple 12-hour detour on my way to visit a friend out west, with my dog Fred in tow), provided me not only a preview of spring – swelling buds, hellebores covered in morning frost and witch hazel breaking into bloom — but also a reminder of the importance of good architecture, structure, and landscape design in the seasons before the world around us explodes into leaf and flower.

A tree comes into view as one heads up the museum’s long drive, and as one nears, it becomes evident that this sculpture is the product of art, not nature.

I was initially underwhelmed as I turned into the entry drive of the museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. The museum and its ecologically sensitive landscape design had received a lot of attention when the museum first opened and, although I was excited to see this collection of American art acquired by the Walton Family Foundation, founders of Wal-Mart stores, I prepared myself for the possibility of disappointment, not unlike the feeling one has when seeing a movie that has been critically acclaimed. The long path in from the road seemed almost nondescript. When I first saw a sycamore and a concrete entry court in the distance, I was still questioning if I were at the right site. But as I came closer and came to realize that the sycamore was not a living tree but a steel sculpture reflecting the winter light, I felt sure I was at the right place.

A Louise Bourgeois sculpture sits over the entrance the museum, connecting nature, art and architecture in one fell swoop.

The site still felt subdued. Not until I pulled around the corner into the car park and headed for the entry courtyard of the museum, which contained a giant spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, did I see the mastery of the main building and its relationship to the land that surrounded it. The building sat in a hollow, alongside an equally hidden body of water, and came into view like the lair of a supervillain in an old Bond movie, revealing itself in a manner that almost seemed to demand dramatic music.

The architecture of the Crystal Bridges is set into the landscape like the lair of a James Bond villain.

Before entering the museum, I took Fred up a courtyard staircase for a walk through the surrounding woods to see some artwork set around the property and to view the buildings within the context of the woods. Along the path, artwork sat in contrast to the lightly managed woods.

The landscape becomes more manicured as one nears the museum spaces, and artwork punctuates the garden.

There were a few plantings of hellebores and some witch hazel and the sculptural twigs of oakleaf hydrangeas making themselves known in the winter landscape, but for the most part the woods felt like they were there to counter the artwork and the buildings at the center of the site, and that mysteriously came in and out of view as we walked about the woods.

The museum itself, an architectural gem, designed by Israeli architect Moshe Safdie.

The museum, an architectural gem by Israeli designer Moshe Safdie, was set into this sylvan hollow, along with another masterpiece, a Usonian house by Frank Lloyd Wright that was moved to the site through the generosity of the Walton family. Both buildings made it clear that great architects share something in common: an understanding of how critical setting is to good design.

How a house relates to the world it inhabits is critical. The landscape designers at the museum worked hard to create a setting for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian house that mimicks its original site.

In both cases, the buildings seemed to bear unique connections to the land, relationships that were effective even in the gray tones of the season. And just like a good artist selects the right frame to serve as a foil for a painting, the native woods, with minimal editing, served to frame the views of these two masterworks. It was as if the two buildings were being treated as two of the masterworks in the collection itself. , and indeed they may be two of the most significant pieces of art in a collection that includes work by Warhol, Pollock, and innumerable American masters. Initially, I was sorry to be visiting in a season when the landscape was not in full swing, but came to realize that there is no bad time to visit this site. As the season progresses, the site and the buildings will relate to each other in new ways. Ultimately I concluded that I could not wait to come back, to see this museum in other seasons. The museum’s permanent collection inside includes important works by Warhol, Pollack and innumerable other American masters, but the landscape surrounding two of the museum’s most artful acquisitions, meant that Crystal Bridges would always be worthy of another visit, maybe when the oakleaf hydrangeas are in bloom.


A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.


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