The Monk’s Garden

The Monk’s Garden

The Monk’s Garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is modestly sized at just 7,500 square feet and surrounded on three sides by imposing brick walls. MVVA’s design of the Monk's Garden responds to the museum's meandering gallery layout, and the rich colors and textures of its idiosyncratic collection, in a contemporary landscape context.

The Monk’s Garden sits adjacent to the beloved central atrium of the original Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum built in 1902 and the addition by Renzo Piano completed in 2012. The high brick walls and narrow space presented a challenge to creating an expansive site within.

MVVA created a small, dreamlike woodland that entices visitors onto its serpentine paths. Approximately 60 trees, including stewartia, paper bark maple, and gray birch, form a rich palette of colors and textures that rewards detailed observation.

The first drawing for the Monk’s Garden was a quick scribble of curved, interlaced paths suggesting how visitors might move through the space, which would be defined by dense trees.

Winding paths composed of dark Endicott bricks and reflective mica schist meander through the garden. The paths playfully meet and diverge but never intersect, creating a sense of continuity and boundlessness.

Textured tree trunks and a lush camouflage of foliage draw attention away from the enclosing walls. The trees are underplanted with a tapestry of almost three dozen different species, arranged to enhance the unstudied woodland effect of the garden.

The effect is contemplative and calming, a welcome complement to the stimulating density of works in the museum. At certain points, the paths widen into places to sit alone or in pairs, tucked away or positioned to take advantage of views.

The idea of a closely planted grove in this tight space emerged through sketches early in the design process. The dense planting within the walls encouraged the trees to reach upward, retaining their slender form and emphasizing their elegant trunks at eye level.

Alluring textures, eruptions of blooms, the strategic use of evergreens, and vivid autumn colors define the sensory experience of the garden throughout the year. Trunks and canopies break up views through the space, only revealing the garden in its entirety when a visitor winds along the paths. The ground plane is filled with shade-loving perennials that flower in each season: dwarf Solomon’s Seal in spring, hostas in late summer and early autumn, and hellebores in winter.