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The Intersection of Landscape, Art, Environment, and Education

By Kirsten Siegel, Senior Project Manager, PLA, ASLA

When WGI joined the design team to develop a tropical wetland garden for Mounts Botanical Garden, walking on water was the answer! Incorporating art into the landscape traditionally entails siting a sculpture or piece of art where it is easily viewed within an open space. Even within lush gardens, the vegetation tends to be minimalized around centrally located art pieces. By blurring the lines between art and landscape, people are encouraged to interact with their environment, as opposed to merely spectating. The Windows on the Floating World incorporated artist’s installation pieces into an intimate garden setting to encourage exploration and discovery. By allowing the program to unfold through a series of unique experiences, the design provides educational messages that fulfill Mounts’ mission statement, “To cultivate a tropical paradise that enriches, entertains, educates, and inspires while fostering an understanding of the vital relationship between nature and people.”

The design team, WGI and Harries Heder Collaborative, aimed to fulfill the garden’s vision and core values by inspiring visitors through applying sustainable, Florida-friendly principles. By complementing the garden’s existing conditions, demonstrating proper plant selection, and encouraging water conservation, Windows on the Floating World provides an educational experience that promotes a sense of environmental stewardship.

After inventory and analysis, it was clear that the garden’s existing retention pond had  plenty of water to incorporate new wetland plants, but it was lacking sound, movement, and real access. Excavating and widening a narrow portion of the existing water body was the first step in transforming the site into a series of experiences, instead of a picturesque water body that could only be viewed from above.

Visitors see the first glimpse of the wetland from an existing upper walkway, where they can hear the sound of the new waterfall. To complement the garden’s existing conditions, the waterfall was created by reusing existing cap rock excavated from the site, along with additional cap rock carefully selected to match the existing rocks. Cap rock was also used for stacked stone retention walls, strategically placed to help preserve existing trees, while also creating new pathways for visitors to slowly descend five feet to the water’s surface. There is a gradual path that runs adjacent to the littoral zone, or a choice of two different stairways. Both stairways bring the visitors directly to the display windows; one provides a sense of arrival and discovery through a threshold created from rocks and a large existing oak tree, while another runs directly beside the waterfall for a sensory experience.

The multiple access and viewing points were key in developing a design that provides visitors varying perspectives that highlight different aspects of the wetland. When progressing towards the water’s surface, the artist’s interpretive elements are strategically placed to be casually discovered, and to blend in with the site. The “viewers” enforce the educational experience by directing focus to specific aspects and qualities of the wetlands. Each “viewer” has information and imagery etched on glass. There are viewers that educate about cypress knees, the littoral zone, and the role different plants play in cleaning and filtering the water. Other interpretative elements include a rain gauge and a weir that aims to make people aware of rainfall, water level fluctuations, and how these elements can affect wetlands.

The wetland’s main feature is a sculptural geometric walkway designed to allow people to walk on the water’s surface. Four display windows are formed from the negative space in the center of the walkways, showcasing Florida-friendly aquatic plants installed in removable fabric pots, allowing the garden’s staff to change the plants on display for an ever evolving experience that plays a role in the garden’s educational outreach program, Ambassadors of the Wetlands. Portions of the walkway bring visitors directly up to the waterfall, where they can reach and touch the water or the bromeliad-covered rocks.

The walkways were also designed to periodically flood and be covered by water during the rainy season and extreme rain events. The walkway was built out of ThruflowTM, a slotted material that allows water to drain through the surface. The temporary walkway flooding is intended as an educational experience, making people aware of the effects fluctuating water levels have within our wetland ecosystems. Ultimately, the water recedes due to a control structure regulating the retention pond’s water level, and the water surface lowers to the design intent of six inches below the walkway’s surface.

To continue the educational experience, hardscape materials and plants were carefully selected to help educate visitors on sustainable options that can be implemented within their own projects and homes. The pathways are made out of pervious concrete that allows water to pass through the material. The material was selected to enlighten visitors about permeable surfacing options that help recharge ground water and minimize runoff.

An additional ThruflowTM structure was built, providing yet another experience for the garden’s visitors. In a more secluded area of the site, a platform with built-in benches extends out into the water offering a place to relax and reflect. Just as the window walks give the feeling of walking on water, the seating area gives the feeling of sitting on a floating bench. The platform was strategically positioned in an area that opens up to expansive views of the retention pond capturing reflections of lush vegetation.

Windows on the Floating World educates visitors, inspiring them to learn more about the role and importance of wetlands and what they can do to protect them. In the artist’s words, “This tropical wetland garden is about water, immersion, and experience.” WGI helped design, develop, and transform a conceptual experience into a vibrant reality. By respecting and complementing the garden’s existing conditions, just six months after the project’s completion, this tropical wetland garden looked like it had always been there.

Learn more about the Mounts Botanical Garden: Windows on the Floating World here: https://www.mounts.org/our_garden/windows-floating-world/

About Author

Kirsten Siegel

Senior Project Manager, PLA, ASLA

Kirsten Siegel is a project manager with eight years of international and national experience in project management with a range of work that includes private and public recreational, residential and community design work.

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