In 2012 Dale Chihuly, one of North America’s most respected glass artists, realised his dream of a hometown museum for his work – with, as he always intended, the exhibition flowing into a surrounding, living garden.
Built at the base of Seattle’s iconic Space Needle in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, the museum section of Chihuly Garden and Glass is linked to the outdoors by a double-height 30m-long pavilion known as The Glasshouse. This contains a suspended sculpture of large glass flowers, comprising about 1340 individual pieces – one of his largest suspended sculptures.
Chihuly, by the way, hasn’t been a glassmaker for a while. He lost the sight in his left eye in 1976 after a car crash in England and had to give up full control of his glass-making due to loss of depth perception, becoming a team director. Then, just 3 years later, he dislocated a shoulder while body surfing, and lost the ability to gaffer his work. Since then he’s made drawings to show what he wants and others blow the glass for him.
The Seattle museum’s outdoor garden is also a work of art in terms of its plantings, colour schemes, texture and year-round interest – all carefully chosen to complement the glass art, which has been made thicker and heavier to cope with being outside.
Seattle has a typical maritime climate – wet and cold in winter (but not too cold and, more importantly, no snow) and dry and hot in summer (but not too hot).
Staff gardener Rachel Millard, who was quietly working in the garden during my visit and who landscape designer Richard Hartlage calls “one of the most talented gardeners” he’s ever worked with, had a rocky start when plant growth was affected by the soil which had been compacted during the building’s construction. The solution was a dose of mechanical aerating and today the garden is floriferous enough to attract hummingbirds, butterflies and bees.
Hartlage says the only dictate from Chihuly was that plant material should not exactly match the colour of an artwork nor completely contrast with it, which means subtle colour combinations pleasing to the eye. Hartlage has been quoted as saying that five and seven changes of colour were wanted in each square foot of bed.
There’s also a small bed of the Dale Chihuly rose, the petals of which are streaked yellow and orange to resemble the master’s own use of colour.