Gardens of Stone

This is the sixth post of seven, each a response to Kate Shrewsday’s request for an itinerary of MTM’s Seven Architectural Wonders. Each text post has a corollary visual post; the text and image posts will alternate between the blogs of Kate Shrewsday and the Andra Watkins. Since I am no longer a paid pedant, I will try to make these as entertaining and enlightening as possible in 600 words or less. One ground rule: I cannot include a work of architecture I have not experienced directly and personally, just as one’s list of Great Books should not include a book one hasn’t yet read.

 To see the corresponding images for this sixth post click here!

Architecture may be the most temporal of all the art forms: It is an attempt to create a setting for both immediacy and immortality.

If one recalls the beginning of this blog series one should recognize that only one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World still exists today: the Great Pyramid of Giza. That it persists is probably more surprising than the fact that all the others have disappeared.

Of the seven, the most beguiling to me has always been the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, for the architectural garden holds within itself the contradiction of continuity and change. I choose with this post to celebrate this contradiction.

Hidden behind high stone walls off to the side of the more famous Place of Versailles, the Potager du Roi, or Kitchen Garden of the King, has been producing fruits and vegetables for over 300 years. Within its walls lives a maze of manicured horticulture, the ordination of row upon row of clipped and espaliered fruit trees arrayed in a design of rigorous geometry. This has the surprising effect of transforming ephemeral plants into enduring composition, a work of architecture wrought from living tissue.

For over 1000 years the rebirth of spring has been marked in Japan with the custom of hanami, the ritual of viewing the delicate cherry blossoms. In Tokyo, one of the most poignant places for celebrating sakura with sips of sake is Aoyama Cemetery. There amongst the stone stelae that stand as mute markers of millennia, the pale pink flowers remind of the fragility and temporariness of each individual life and the continuity of generations.

But my choice for the sixth of my seven architectural wonders is the National Museum of Roman Art in Merida, Spain. Collecting up the Roman ruins that underpin much of the region, the museum is a celebration of the continuity of classical Roman architecture within a proudly contemporary construction.

The design adopts the traditional methods of Roman masonry, but incorporates them in a modern composition of parallel planes marching across the site. These planes are punctured with arched portals and skewered by steel bridges. Light pours in from above through large skylights, the slanting rays of the sun modeling the surfaces of the collected artifacts. The enfilade sequence of spaces, the proportions and materiality recall both the ancient baths of Rome and the simplicity and straightforwardness of twentieth century industrial architecture.

To face antiquity with a statement so assured and inventive is masterful and inspiring. This modern museum cultivates a garden of antique treasures, seemingly immortal artifacts integrated into the very fabric of the architecture. It attains a sense of certainty and calm repose, an architectural statement that is timeless and of its time.


14 thoughts on “Gardens of Stone

  1. The espaliered trees were planted against walls for extra warmth that the stone would absorb during the day, assuring sweeter fruit. I always found that so fascinating as I live where there is warmth aplenty.

    Can we travel back in time to go and see these famous hanging gardens – I often wonder what translation errors may have led to an untrue expectation?

    I so want money, money and money, not for a huge house, but to travel and SEE. Spring in Japan is one of those time and place visits I’d so love to make.

    For a garden though I think the Chinese moongate – round door in a wall providing delights ‘framed’ is such a wonderful idea, I spent a while walking through and back one, just to feel the differences again and again on each side.

      1. I have never had the appropriate wall.

        It is time you settled down, built the house that works perfectly for you and create the garden that is yours alone;

  2. Each place as you describe must be breathtaking! I am definitely moved by the ceremony of viewing the cherry blossoms in the Aoyama Cemetery. The ritual of honoring the dead and the fragility of life while also celebrating continuity of generations is very meaningful to me. As a Native Californian with everything around me relatively “new” and the idea of antiquity only celebrated geologically, I am in awe of what you’ve been sharing. Incredibly special. Debra

  3. The lines get me: I have always loves juxtaposition of wide horizontal vistas like those bricks at the museum, and vertical pillars. There is something in common with the original Roman classical creations and this contemporary house of theirs. Some shared visual commonality.

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