Save Paradise

The movement to rescue a neglected urban garden.

The Dan Kiley park was a complete surprise the first time I visited. In the summer of 1998, while working at the Tampa Museum of Art, I braved the heat to take my bag lunch outside and climbed a few concrete steps to find some shade. I was instantly transported to a magical place. New to the South, I had no idea what kind of tree produced the pink and white cones of papery blooms bursting from every branch in this vast grid of an arbor. Memory tells me it smelled wonderful, but that may have been the tail end of the jasmine blooms. I was in a timeless garden, allées of trees divided by a wonderland chessboard of grass and white concrete rectangles.

The park had been built in 1988 as part of the NCNB (later NationsBank) complex at 400 N. Ashley Ave.; by the time I discovered it, the water features had been silenced and the grass was patchy. But the park hadn't yet reached the dreary, comatose state it's in now. The trees were lush, and I could sit on a bench and eat my sandwich, enveloped in a pleasant, slightly dappled shade. A few others lunched or napped nearby. It was our secret garden - and all the better, I thought. That I could stumble upon this lovely oasis in downtown Tampa gave me hope for more discoveries in my new city.

People still seem to share a sense of wonder about the park. High school athletes make it part of their training path. Photography students choose it as their first subject for architectural assignments. Less active youth call it "trip park," and not because of the uneven pavers. As a modern ruin, with its classical amphitheater and formal lines, it has a tarnished romance.

But the secret garden's no secret anymore. Supporters were roused to attention when it seemed that Rafael Vinoly's proposed design for the art museum and its Ashley Avenue site would require the garden's demolition. Then, when the Vinoly plan was rejected, the garden received at least a temporary reprieve - and now there's a movement afoot to return this landmark to its early glory.

Back To The GardenIt is no accident that this park elicits such a resonant emotional response: It was designed by the preeminent landscape architect of the last half of the 20th century. Dan Kiley, who died last year at the age of 91, created some of the most esteemed and beautiful landscape designs of our time. He is the only landscape architect to have received the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed on an artist in the United States. Venerated by the international art, architecture and design professions, two of his designs are the only works of landscape architecture designated National Historic Landmarks in the United States.

Kiley designed many significant public gardens, including those at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Oakland Museum of Art. And of all of his achievements, he believed that, if properly maintained, Tampa would represent his most important public design.

Kiley's gardens combine modernist simplicity with classical principles of order and a reverence for nature. His work was inspired by le Nôtre, the French landscape architect whose formal designs are ubiquitous throughout Europe, and he collaborated with great modernist architects I. M. Pei, Eero Saarinen and Louis Kahn. But it's not necessary to have an intellectual knowledge of design to enjoy his work; the magic is universally sensed, present even in the arid remains of the Tampa park.

A symposium and garden tour held earlier this month helped explain what Kiley intended. The event, organized by Sarasota landscape architect Sue Thompson and Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena, brought two men to town who were pivotal in the garden's creation: Harry Wolf, architect of the NCNB tower (recently renamed the Rivergate Center), and landscape architect Peter Schaudt, who worked on the park with Kiley, as well as Robert McCarter, professor of architecture at the University of Florida School of Architecture.

Wolf and Schaudt paid tribute to Dan Kiley and his park through slides and discussion, reminding us of the singular and exquisite place it used to be. The audience gasped at images showing the park's original beauty and vibrancy. Our awe was equaled by Wolf and Schaudt's shock the next morning as they toured (for Wolf, the first time in over 10 years) what's left of Kiley's garden.

Wolf remembers Kiley as having "a profound respect for nature, a sense of things sublime." He and Kiley collaborated closely on the NCNB project, and as a result the garden was a magnificent synthesis of architecture and landscape architecture. Kiley designed the garden as a formal extension of Wolf's concepts for the bank buildings; the geometric system of fenestration (windows) in the circular tower is echoed in the grid structure and its geometric proportions are repeated in the shapes that make up the garden.

Kiley's modernist aims were balanced by his desire to evoke the ancient theme of a paradise garden. His park design makes reference to Moorish architecture, referring to the fountains at Alhambra, as well as to Plant Hall's minarets across the river. "Our work at Tampa was an attempt to release people into space," he wrote in 1999, "to provide an experience markedly different from that of the city surround - much like the ancient Persian concept of Paradise."

The elemental Persian paradise garden was a walled retreat, with a rectangular pool and strictly aligned rows of shade trees, usually of a fruit or fragrant variety. Kiley successfully achieved the fundamental theme of the paradise garden - the contrast between a formal layout and the unfettered growth of nature.

Paradise Lost?The urban garden as an oasis of nature can still be experienced in the park, most beautifully when the crape myrtles are in bloom.

But for most first-time visitors, the initial reaction tends toward fear and loathing. The water elements - reflecting pools, a canal, fountains - are dry. The crape myrtles are "on steroids," noted Schaudt during the garden tour. Overcrowded and unpruned for years, the trees block the sunlight needed by the grass; the partial shade they once afforded has grown opaque.

A post-mortem article titled "The Life and Death of A Masterpiece" was the cover story of April 2004's Landscape Architecture magazine. Fortunately, reports of the park's death have been greatly exaggerated. And there's now time to consider the value of what we have.

Jane Thurber, landscape architect and instructor of landscape design at USF School of Architecture and Community Design, frames the practice of landscape architecture as having three core values: social, aesthetic and environmental. From the park's treatment of these values, we can make a general assessment of its successes and failures and consider its future.

Thurber finds the park to be weighted very heavily toward the aesthetic. "Is it beautiful? Does it have mystery? Do people respond emotionally? Yes. Is it legible in its current state? No."

The thickness of the crape myrtle canopy defeats legibility because it obscures the park's order. The social aspect of the park is affected, too, because the darkness discourages people from entering. Legibility is possible only if the natural growth of the landscape is properly tended - balanced by the human hand.

A roof garden built over a parking garage cannot be expected to have significant ecological impact or to recreate a native environment. In its maintained ideal, it succeeds wonderfully as a paradise garden, suggesting perhaps the ecology of Eden.

Root CausesThe park's derelict appearance and empty paths can be attributed in large part to lack of proper maintenance. Hence, Peter Schaudt's immediate prescription: "A shower and a shave."

Pruning trees, removing others, turning on sprinklers, planting jasmine around tree trunks and appropriate grass between pavers are some quick fixes. If this interim landscaping were maintained, the public might be able to see the garden for the trees.

But were there fundamental problems with the original design that led to some of the current problems? Some criticisms are easily seen in retrospect. Far too many crape myrtles were planted initially - 800 in all. The relationship of scale between the avenues of palms and clusters of crape myrtles has failed, the palms now obscured by what should have been an understory beneath their higher crowns. The grass species may have required too much light.

Many have also argued that the park is not only forbidding but invisible. The eight-foot elevation problem caused by the site's underground parking garage makes access a daunting problem. These difficulties may be traceable more to subsequent changes in and around the park than to the original design. Photographs show exquisite shimmering pools and verdant pathways, but these reflecting pools were removed by subsequent owners of the tower, and no longer separate the paths to the four stairways up to park level.

Oversized concrete bleachers have replaced the plant-covered walls. And the current Tampa Museum of Art's front exit leads visitors in the opposite direction of the park, down a parking ramp and stairs to the underground garage. That arrangement is particularly ironic when you consider that, as a modernist work, Kiley's garden is as important as anything in the museum, whose collections (other than Greek and Roman antiquities) have been criticized as lacking significance.

Was the design too complex? The combination of water elements, landscape and pavement at varying levels and great detail might have been over-designed. For a public space, financial and physical requirements of future maintenance must be part of the design plan. Preservationists should look to other master landscapes to compare the maintenance needs of this particular design. During the tour, Shaudt made a suggestion that perhaps wouldn't have been considered in 1988: he offered to provide a "maintenance manual" for the park, a service that is now routinely provided to clients.

The biggest criticism of the park has been the problem with water leakage into the garage. It has not been determined what caused the leaks, or even the extent of the problem. There needs to be study and analysis of the drainage problem and the feasibility and cost of repairs. Shaudt notes that technology has advanced quite a bit from the time this container garden was planted. Rooftop gardens are a regular part of the landscape architecture business now, and new materials prevent leakage.

A Renaissance?Buildings don't grow or shrivel, as do plants, so architects can afford to be aesthetic purists, more confident of their works' permanency than a landscape architect can be. Architect Harry Wolf likes to quote legendary Chicago urban planner and architect Daniel H. Burnham: "Make no small plans." Accordingly, he would like to see Dan Kiley's Tampa park restored to its original brilliance, with reflecting pools on Ashley and the garden's fountains flowing.

Peter Schaudt, accustomed to the nurturance required and the entropy inherent in his field, is a bit more temperate. From the window of his Michigan Avenue office in Chicago, Schaudt has a view of the lovingly tended Dan Kiley design in the south garden of The Art Institute of Chicago. He can envision restoration happening incrementally and in a manner faithful to what Dan Kiley intended.

But the question remains: Does Tampa have the will to make it happen?

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