Save Paradise

The movement to rescue a neglected urban garden.

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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.

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