The Constant Gardener

A landscape architect draws on the past, present, and future to design living masterpieces.


Photograph by JARROD MCCABE

Michael Van Valkenburgh’s medium is the natural world. Combining a rural aesthetic with a keen understanding of ecology, the Cornell-trained landscape architect has created stunning outdoor spaces everywhere from private estates on Martha’s Vineyard to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. His impressive body of work has earned him myriad accolades, including the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper Hewitt National Design Award and the Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize. (He was only the second landscape architect in history to receive the honor.)

This past fall, Van Valkenburgh unveiled yet another high-profile project: his design for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Monks Garden, a slice of land that runs from the historical building to the new addition, protected from the street by a high brick wall. Perfect for a game of hide-and-seek, Van Valkenburgh’s meandering paths through the grounds allow visitors to enjoy a quiet respite from the city against the backdrop of carefully curated plant life.

Ahead, Van Valkenburgh, who teaches landscape architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, shares a few things that inspire his work.


“In my mind, the landscape is more important in a city than anywhere else,” Van Valkenburgh says. “I love the complexities of cities as both social places and physical constructs. Urban living also complements my daily work life, in which I am immersed in landscapes both real and imagined.”


“Putting aside time to play is an essential part of being creative. We have an office running club, as well as summer softball and winter volleyball. I do all three.”

Tree Farms

“The places where trees are grown are very special to me. I am always happy to be at a tree farm and manage to visit all different kinds of them many times a year.”


“I am an avid baker, cook, and cookbook collector. I spent about three months this past winter exploring true and basic Irish soda-bread recipes…all using the low-gluten flour from Ireland.”

The Past

Van Valkenburgh, originally a history major in college, indirectly incorporates his love for the subject into his work as a landscape architect. “I think a lot about how the people living before me might have experienced the same landscapes I experience today,” he says.


What I’m Listening To

“When driving in my pickup truck on Martha’s Vineyard, I get a chance to listen to music. When my grandkids were very young, they would enjoy country music with me. This past summer, we alternated between their mainstream radio favorites and my Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles recordings.”

What I’m Eating

“This summer, my wife, Caroline, and I spent many nights at the Beach Plum Restaurant, in Chilmark, and my most memorable foods of late were served there: Chris Fischer’s razor clams, amazing salads, and the delightful desserts of pastry chef Olivia Pattison.”

What I’m Watching

“I cannot get enough of Modern Family and Sons of Anarchy. I also have a bit of a sappy side and really enjoy watching the auditions for musical talent shows.”

Where I’m Traveling

“Last fall I visited Mexico City for the first time as part of our work on the American Embassy there. It is an amazing place. For vacation, I dream about taking the grandkids to Paris. I hope to visit Ireland with Caroline, my daughter, Lexi, and my grandkids, Grace and Jack, because we all share Irish ancestry.”