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Peace & Coexistence: The George Garvin Brown Garden

By Pam and J.P. Shadley, RLA, ASLA

When the "Origin Fountain" is still, a small pool at its edge reflects the city and accents the Center for Interfaith Relations' motto "Many Faiths, One Heart, Common Action." The pool is also a well-used bird bath. The church tower belongs to Louisville's Cathedral of the Assumption.
Photos courtesy of J.P. Shadley

The Center for Interfaith Relations' mission is "to develop spiritual, educational and cultural experiences that inspire and foster individual growth while increasing understanding and harmony among diverse cultures." As landscape architects for the Louisville, Ky. project, we drew inspiration from that statement in designing a lushly-planted urban garden which features brick, water and stone and uses nature and symbolism to foster reflection on universal human values.

Pam and J.P. Shadley, RLA, ASLA

Project Goals

The CIR was founded in 1985 by a group of civic leaders representing many religious faiths as a unique and innovative interfaith spiritual center. Originally called the Cathedral Heritage Foundation, the Center was renamed to reflect its expanded purpose of uniting the international community on issues of worldwide importance.

Through its interfaith programs, symposia, workshops and events, the CIR addresses such issues as environmental degradation, nuclear proliferation and conflicts in the Middle East, among others. The Festival of Faiths, with its sustained attendance of over 5,000 participants, is the world's largest annually held interfaith gathering and the cornerstone of the Center's programs. The Garden is the newest addition to CIR's campus, which also includes the Interfaith Museum, the fully restored (1852) Cathedral of the Assumption, a K-5 school, and a well-attended soup kitchen where dinners for 125 homeless people are served daily.

The Origin Fountain is an intimate experience. It celebrates humility with water as a modest beginning, a simple spring coming out from the ground. The fountain's rough granite sides are topped with more granite that has been heated with a blowtorch. This "thermal finish" is smooth, but not slippery enough to allow slips and falls.

Previously a 120x120-ft. asphalt parking lot, the project site is a nicely-proportioned small urban niche located on the edge of an office, restaurant and retail district. As a sunny, south-facing opening in the architectural street wall, it enjoys great visibility from vehicles traveling on busy Muhammad Ali Boulevard. On the north and west sides it is framed by attractively-aged terra cotta brick walls that provide afternoon shade. The south and east edges are adjacent to pedestrian walks with heavy foot traffic and opportunities for people-watching. The garden also has great views to the surrounding city and skyline and its visitors benefit from many nearby restaurants and food vendors.

Project goals included creating a safe and comfortable setting which is enjoyed by people from all walks of life; a place with wonderful horticultural and 24-hour, multi-season interest, while simultaneously accommodating individual reflection and small performances and events with up to 200 attendees. It also had to be authentically "of Louisville" and a landmark attraction which invites people to CIR's doorstep while not compromising the experience of people who are visiting the garden for its own sake.

The garden's form is organized in radials with two contrasting fountains as focal points. A large public central plaza accommodates gathering and is complemented by smaller, more intimate subspaces.

Inclusive Vision

We sought to create a space that would capture the ideals of the center: diversity, tolerance, multiculturalism and inclusiveness. CIR's leadership initially offered two design concepts for the garden: one which drew from historic religious garden precedents and the other which would commission and assemble original sculptures representing all of the world's religions. Instead, we respectfully observed that for the garden to be most inclusive and universal it should welcome even those who may not prescribe to any religion. Remarkably, the CIR accepted and supported this perspective.

Though compact, the park is a unique slice of green space in urban Louisville, Ky. The site was formerly a parking lot. It opened in Nov., 2005. The street running left to right is West Muhammad Ali Boulevard.

However, in reverence for the legacy and traditions of religion, we thought that the garden could embrace one of the most beautiful and rich constructs of many of the world's religions: the use of metaphor. During the design process four conceptual themes emerged: water, the history and geology of Louisville, circles and the work of the Center for Interfaith Relations. Water is the shared metaphor that weaves all of the themes together: we are all made of water, the need for water is shared by every living thing and it sustains all life, water is central to all major religions, and water also gave life to the city of Louisville. Known as "River City" the north Kentucky town was settled along the depositional limestone formations which make up the "Falls of the Ohio River," where commerce began and grew in response to the need for boats to be raised and lowered over the Falls.

During the design process it also became clear that the circle was the most suitable form for the garden to embrace. The garden is small, and the many other forms that were tested were too complicated, static or forced, and less flexible than the circle. The garden is welcoming and familiar in large part because of its organization. The raised disk of the "Origin Fountain" is at the garden center and the walks, planters and main seat wall are all concentric to it. However, while there is comfort in this recognizable order, the garden is not simplistic as there are layers of application and meaning in the theme of the circle. In addition to the garden's formal structure, the walls and planters are complemented by random stone rings. On a basic experiential level, the rings create an interesting graphic and visual dynamic; however, for the many garden visitors who are attuned to religious metaphor, the circles can also be an abstraction of water, of the celestial, of people's experiences and of the center's work. Like raindrops in still water, each ring is beautiful unto itself, and yet as the circles intersect they do not reduce or compromise each other, instead they become more interesting. This is an ideal metaphor for the interactions of people from different cultural and religious backgrounds at CIR.

Water is a central theme in all major world religions. A forced perspective at the primary entrance concentrates arrival while the Heritage River birches frame the view to the Origin Fountain and the water wall plaza. (Note how the brick pavers here harmonize with the brick structure above the wall fountain.)

Organizing the Elements

The Origin Fountain at the center of the garden is located off the diagonal axis of the main fountain. The east side of the garden faces a large service ramp which required the additional screening provided by a deeper plant bed. The off-axis condition means that the entry progression is less predictable. The main fountain's water wall draws people into the central plaza. At over 50 ft. long and 15 ft. tall, the water wall creates a refreshing microclimate during Louisville's sweltering summers. Waterfalls from the upper weir to the mid-basin and again to the lower pool where people sit on the seat wall and touch it. Horizontal courses of split-faced stone recall nearby indigenous waterfalls, and the stone's rough texture animates the falling water. A dark stone "seam" in the white wall adds to the geological reference and adds seasonal interest.

The CIR has a choral group who use the basin and pool as a stage by draining the fountain and installing a temporary wood platform. In 2006, the first baptism took place in the pool. The use of stone throughout the garden imparts a sense of timeless permanence and is durable.

The water wall draws people into the main plaza and creates a cooling microclimate during Louisville's sweltering summers. Horizontal stone bands in the wall recall the layered limestone strata of nearby indigenous waterfalls. In a unique twist, the wall fountain has been fitted with a wood platform that serves as a stage for events and performances.

Because the site is in an emerging downtown area, safety is a large concern. Rather than fencing and closing the site at night, which we thought would conflict with the CIR's mission, site design tenets from William H. Wyte's work were applied to the design. Multiple access points into and across the site are critical to people feeling safe in the space. The grading and planting provide unimpeded views from the edges through to the large central open space, while at the same time creating a comfortable prospect from within the garden to watch the passing sidewalk traffic.

Many food vendors located in adjacent buildings service the people who fill the garden's tables and chairs every day, and appropriately scaled lighting supports nighttime use. Seating choices are provided by the seat walls, benches, and movable chairs for the coffee drinkers in the morning, office workers at lunch, and strollers and revelers enjoying nighttime activities. The access, open views, readily available food, and seating choices all contribute to attracting large numbers of people, which increases safety.

The radial walk leads through a grove of river birch and provides places for quiet conversation or individual repose. The youthful birch canopy already provides much needed shade for the seat walls and benches.

The landscape architects were the project designers and prime consultants leading a team of six sub-consultants from design through construction, including architectural, civil, mechanical, structural (pile and footing design), fountain engineers (pumps and equipment), and an irrigation designer. The garden had many benefactors, including the landscape architects, the general contractor, a major local corporation, and many individuals and businesses in Louisville who donated time and money to support the garden.

Paths, planting and grading were all carefully designed to assure unobstructed visibility through the site, especially at night. This homeless woman in this view said she spends "every afternoon here because it's so beautiful and it feels safe."

The George Garvin Brown Garden is a place of peace and contemplation, with many references to the shared miracle of life but none to any one particular religious belief. (The Kambala wood and steel benches are by MWH Object + Design.)

Challenges and Results

The project is significant in that it is unusually inclusive, being well used every day by all walks of life including children, urban professionals, the elderly and the homeless, often all at the same time. Project challenges included a large, non-design-professional client group with an annual rotating director (resulting in recurring cycles of fundraising, budgeting and value engineering). There were poor urban soils requiring extensive pilings, and a project schedule that required contract documents to begin in Jan. 2005 and construction to be completed by Nov. 14, 2005, in time for the annual Festival of the Faiths.

Teachers from the Center for Interfaith Relations' adjacent K-5 school bring their students to the Garden to eat lunch, play in the fountains and be outdoors. The new garden is one of the only green spaces in this part of the city.

As stated at the garden's opening ceremony by Owsley Brown II, descendent of George Garvin Brown, "the Garden is reflective of the goals of the Center for Interfaith Relations: providing a place where people of different religious backgrounds engage each other in understanding and cooperation."

The George Garvin Brown Garden is a place of beauty, peace, repose and contemplation, as well as a gift from the Center for Interfaith Relations to the people of Louisville.

The garden is transformed at night, when the water wall glows, accentuating the primordial power of water on stone. Water splashes and bounces as it falls over the split-faced stone. A battery of submerged lights illuminates the waterwall (also seen in the views above). Additional up lights in the planting bed illuminate the dry wall at right in the below photo.

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February 16, 2020, 9:28 pm PDT

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