A Garden Made by Hands, Skunks and Fungi

Defying easy definition, Seventh Avenue garden in Los Angeles – a collaboration between artist David Horvitz and landscape architecture practice TERREMOTO – is a strange and beautiful assemblage of stories and memories. It is, as David Horvitz suggests, a design that is constantly ‘un-designing itself.’ Formerly a vacant block, it is now a garden, which is to say it is a space that speaks to questions of access and ownership, intention and connection, ecology and being-ness.

The garden is the result of many hands, including TERREMOTO staff members, carpenters, builders, friends, artists and their children. ‘It was also made by fungi, earthworms, crows, skunks, the sun, the moon, water, time and the universe’, says David Godshall, principal at TERREMOTO.  ‘We tried to avoid drawing a plan, because a plan belies human dominion over the land (which we question). Instead we did sketches, but mostly figured it out with each other onsite. It was designed with intuition, emotion, open hearts and minds. The process was to avoid process and to enjoy the drifty nature of the thing.’ 

Illustrative of conversations on the edge of what a garden is and can be, Seventh Avenue garden provokes more questions than answers. What do gardens that speak not of control but connection look like? What does beauty mean? What does the land want? Who engages, who owns? Why, how?   

Below are two statements regarding the garden by David Horvitz and David Godshall. Artist and landscape architect. Bit players in a dance of form and emptiness, making and unmaking.

D. Horvitz statement:

A lot remained vacant next to my studio where a house had burned down. The property owner gave his permission to build a garden knowing that it could be developed or sold in the future. With the landscape architects TERREMOTO we began thinking. First, piles of concrete and rubble and rebar from the demolished buildings of Los Angeles County Museum of Art. A kind of Zen stone garden from the detritus of the city.

Then, about 100 native plants. Trees and shrubs. Oaks and sycamores. Manzanitas. Scattered wildflower seeds for a brilliant spring of flower petals and butterfly wings. Some remnants of the previous inhabitants (a rose, a juniper, some four o’clocks). Pieces of flat concrete pulled out of the bank of the Ballona Creek (maybe an attempt to solve the discrepancy between the name La Cienega and the missing swamps). These could make a nice walkway. Some more rubble from the site of the South Central Farm. Two Plumeria cuttings from the front of my Grandmother’s house down the street. Unroasted peanuts in their shells left in the same place for the local crows (how can I get a coyote to live in here?). I can’t forget the weeds who have travelled from all over the world and found a home here. They can stay.

It is a garden of additions, of stories. Memories. Futures. The flotsam and jetsam of all things. A design always in progress and un-designing itself. 

D. Godshall statement:

When I attended school for landscape architecture, no one really talked about residential work. It wasn’t a thing. After my first year of school, I realized that I was going to be finishing my program having no idea how to build a small garden. I supplemented this void in my education by working for a local design-build landscape guy during my first summer break, and I learned how to build a garden.

When I got out of school, I worked at a large office that only did institutional and civic work. People who worked there generally snubbed residential gardens as ‘unimportant’. My second job in landscape architecture was at SURFACE DESIGN and one of their many unique attributes was that, in addition to commercial and institutional work, they also did residential gardens, really well. It turned out that I loved working on residential projects. You can work quickly and with speed, and there’s joy in immediate action.

When Alain and I started TERREMOTO we had no reputation nor any real network. We started building a ton of small garden projects, because we needed money, and large public projects don’t just show up at your door when you’re a new small office.

Our office has slowly arrived at the unexpected observation-conclusion that, in our particular situation, positive ecological change can happen quite effectively through residential work, on private property. When said out loud, this feels super weird. 

The thing is, TERREMOTO wants RADICAL CHANGE, NOW. This sentiment pairs really poorly with engaging with a bogus, byzantine bureaucratic city government that’s incapable of even the most basic internal communication.

Public land in Los Angeles is ensnared in the unproductive muck of bureaucracy. How long have we been talking about the LA River and how much has happened? How’s the renovation of Pershing Square going?

Though it’s contrary to the traditional narrative, making positive environmental change quickly is more effectively accomplished (again, in our particular case) on privately owned land, because bureaucracy doesn’t get in our way.

To be clear, we’re not turning our back on public land or denouncing public projects (they’re important!). Rather, we’re externalizing a problematic observation we encounter with unfortunate frequency, and are voicing our malaise in order to study it, troubleshoot it, and hope you troubleshoot it too.

Intentional indifference in this situation becomes an interesting, useful tool. The choice to be intentionally indifferent to whether land is public or private (because land / the environment, though sentient, doesn’t acknowledge this distinction) is actually quite freeing and informative.

Birds, insects, fungi, water and soil don’t care whether land is public or private – it’s a distinction only interesting to humans.

Because we’re interested in making gardens that equate human use with broader ecological usefulness, the designation of whether land is public or private becomes less interesting to us. Taking this stance allows us to be wildly productive during this weird civilizational moment in which we find ourselves, and leads us to make our primary goal to do right by the land. To repair it, to restore it, to be kind to it, to respect it regardless if it’s public or private. To make gardens that orient to the physical and spiritual flourishing of all creatures that pass through them, human and other. 

Our garden with David Horvitz exists in a curious DMZ between realms public and private; it drifts peacefully in the River Styx between ‘ownership’ and lack thereof.

All images supplied by TERREMOTO.