Advertisement
Creativity

The Man Who Keeps Robert Irwin’s Stunning, 500-Plant Garden Alive

Central Gardens at the Getty Center, 2006. Photo by brewbooks via Flickr.

Central Gardens at the Getty Center, 2006. Photo by brewbooks via Flickr.

It’s not easy taking care of an artwork made up of over 500 living plants.
Just ask Brian Houck, the man in charge of preserving ’s most complex creation: an ambrosial garden filled with hot-pink bougainvillea, sun-yellow Canary Island daisies, and carpets of silvery-green, dizzyingly aromatic sage, as well as hundreds of other flowers, shrubs, herbs, and trees. Irwin, who is now in his nineties, conceived of the piece as a “sculpture in the form of a garden.” It famously blankets a 134,000-square-foot plot of land at the Getty Museum’s hilltop campus, overlooking the San Gabriel mountains, the Los Angeles skyline, and slivers of the Pacific Ocean roiling far below.
On any given day, Houck, the Getty’s grounds and gardens manager, can usually be found among the flower beds of Irwin’s work, known as Central Garden (1997). “It’s important to remember that we’re dealing with living things,” Houck explained over the phone from his office at the Getty, just a short walk from Irwin’s piece. “It’s not like you just put it there and it stays the same. Things are always changing.”
Central Garden at the Getty Center, 2008. Central Garden © Robert Irwin. Photo © 2008 J. Paul Getty Trust.

Central Garden at the Getty Center, 2008. Central Garden © Robert Irwin. Photo © 2008 J. Paul Getty Trust.

Change was an essential ingredient of Irwin’s vision for Central Garden, when he began dreaming it up in 1992. At the time, he was already a renowned progenitor of California’s movement. Since the 1960s, Irwin channelled the sublime power of light and color through fluorescent tubes, lustrous metals, and prismatic acrylic columns—installations that investigated “our state of consciousness and the shape of our perceptions,” he once said.
When he began collaborating with the Getty, Irwin wasn’t used to working with plants, but he noticed parallels between the natural materials and his usual ones. For example, plants also respond to their environment, fluctuating with the rise and fall of the sun or weather’s mercurial shifts.
With the help of master gardener Jim Duggan (who continues to advise the Getty today), Irwin painstakingly created a medley of greenery and ponds that would emphasize contrasts between color, light, and reflection. He wasn’t precious, however, about ensuring the garden always be made up of the same plants. While Irwin requested that certain hues and textures in the garden always remain true to his original plan, he was open to changing out the varietals, acknowledging that nature would dictate the future of the piece as the years wore on—and he celebrated that facet of the artwork. “You have to start somewhere, with some kind of plan,” he recalled to the Los Angeles Times in 2008, 10 years after the garden opened to the public. “But almost every time, somehow nature just took over and did something much more exuberant, much richer, much more complicated.”
Irwin’s mantra for the garden remains carved into one of its stepping stones: “Always changing, never twice the same.” And it’s these changes that keep Houck and his team busy.
Houck arrived at the Getty in 2015 with extensive experience tending to public gardens that doubled as homes to outdoor artworks. He previously worked at Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory and at the Lincoln Park Zoo as the director of horticulture, but Irwin’s piece at the Getty offered a new challenge: As a rare garden and a rare artwork, it differs from existing models in both art and horticulture. (Many artists, from to , have grown gardens, but not necessarily conceiving them as artworks.) Houck was initially daunted by the task, but was nonetheless determined to do right by the artist: “Being true to Irwin’s ability to create something unique became an important challenge,” he said.
Central Garden at the Getty Center, 2008. Central Garden © Robert Irwin. Photo © 2008 J. Paul Getty Trust.

Central Garden at the Getty Center, 2008. Central Garden © Robert Irwin. Photo © 2008 J. Paul Getty Trust.

Advertisement
To care for Central Garden, Houck routinely refers to Irwin and Duggan’s original instructions, which outline the importance of certain aesthetics in different areas. Each season, he examines the way the garden has grown and compares it to Irwin’s vision. He weighs a series of considerations: Is the ground cover still the same color palette the artist outlined? Are the allium plants thriving in the way that they should? Are the roses dying, and if they are, is the same varietal still available?
Some areas, Houck pointed out, are easier to maintain than others. The bougainvilleas that climb three tall, arcing trellises at the top of the garden are hearty and rather painless to prune (“You just have to be careful of the thorns,” he said). Others, like a stand of chartreuse cyprus trees, require regular pruning and sometimes full replacement. “At some point, a plant outgrows a design,” Houck explained. “So, either you adjust or take the extravagant approach of ripping it out and putting young plants in again.”
A large part of Houck and his team’s jobs consist of traversing West Coast nurseries to re-up on plants. At times, they must consider new options, when a given varietal is no longer available or isn’t growing well due to climate shifts or insect infestations. Recently, Houck embarked on a roadtrip to Oregon to find just the right dogwood and willow trees, which feature prominently in what he refers to as the garden’s “Winter Show.”
These nursery trips are among Houck’s favorite responsibilities. “Because the plants that are available change from year to year, it’s important to go look at the materials you have to work with,” he explained. “You’re looking at your palette; you’re looking at the potential of what can be done.”
Houck notes that Irwin would agree with him. These days, the artist makes less frequent trips to the garden, and has placed its care in the Getty’s hands. But Irwin’s vision still drives Houck’s decisions, as he and his crew tend to the artwork’s hundreds of plants, and their riotous, ever-changing colors and forms. “There’s no palette as rich as a garden,” Irwin once said, adding quickly: “You can’t plan nature; you court her.”
Alexxa Gotthardt

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Robert Houck’s name as Robert Houk. The text has been updated to reflect the accurate spelling.