Whitehead Institute “Splice Garden”, Cambridge, MA, USA

Location: Cambridge, MA, USA
Client: Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research
Design Team: The Office of Peter Walker and Martha Schwartz (Martha Schwartz, Bradley Burke)
Size: 875 square feet
Status: Completed 1986

This 25 foot by 35 foot rooftop garden in Cambridge, MA is part of an adventuresome art collection assembled by Director David Baltimore for the Whitehead Institute, a microbiology research center. The site was a lifeless rooftop courtyard atop a nine-story office building designed by Boston architects Goody Clancy Associates. Its dreary, tiled roof surface and high surrounding walls conspired to create a dark, inhospitable space, overlooked by both a classroom and a faculty lounge. The lounge offered access to the courtyard, making it a potential place to eat lunch.

Along with its spatial woes, the floor of the courtyard was constructed with a concrete decking system that could not hold additional weight. There was also no source of water for the rooftop, no maintenance staff, and a low budget, precluding the possibility of introducing living plants. However, it was entirely possible to convey a sense of a planted garden by providing enough signals for the site to read as a garden. There are many examples of other cultures that create garden abstractions. For example, in Japanese gardens, symbolic landscapes often imply a larger landscape. This was the strategy at Whitehead –– to create a garden through abstraction, symbolism, and reference. Schwartz wanted the narrative of the garden to relate to the work carried out by the Institute. The garden became a cautionary tale about the dangers inherent in gene splicing: the possibility of creating a monster.

This garden is a monster — the joining together like Siamese twins of gardens from different cultures. One side is based on a French Renaissance garden; the other on a Japanese Zen garden. The elements that compose these gardens have been distorted. The rocks typically found in a Zen garden are composed of topiary pompoms from the French garden. Other plants, such as palms and conifers, are in strange and unfamiliar associations. Some plants project off the vertical surface of the wall; others teeter precariously on the wall’s top edge.

All the plants in the garden are plastic. The clipped hedges, which double as seating, are rolled steel covered in Astroturf. The green colors, which are the strongest cues that this is a garden, are composed of colored gravel and paint. The intent was to create for the scientists who occupy this building a visual puzzle that could not be solved. The garden is an ode to “better living through chemistry.”