Van Ryzin: Landscape architects begin imagining a new Laguna Gloria

There’s been more to see in the past year at Laguna Gloria, the 12-acre lakeside estate belonging to the Contemporary Austin, the organization that resulted from the 2011 merger of Arthouse and the Austin Museum of Art.

Last year, museum leaders announced a new mission for Laguna Gloria, defining the site as a sculpture garden, an art-in-nature environment for permanent and temporary installations of sculpture. New vision declared, the Contemporary promptly received a $9 million grant from the Betty and Edward Marcus Foundation, the majority of that money earmarked for commissioning and acquiring sculpture and permanent outdoor installations that creatively respond specifically to the Laguna Gloria environs.

Several installations were already in the works before the Marcus grant. Now, they gesture toward what Laguna Gloria might be in the future.

A sleek, quasi-modernist pavilionlike sculpture by Liam Gillick now roosts on a prominent lakeside spot just below the Driscoll Villa. Along the peninsula pathway, a colorful interactive series of sound-making sculptures by Charles Long entertain with their quirky noises. And standing sentinel over a meadow near the end of the peninsula is a grid of nine 1-ton steel sculptures refashioned by Marianne Vitale.

However, none of these installations would have the presence they do without the benefit of some landscape improvement that’s already been accomplished.

Quite literally there is more open terrain to see now at Laguna Gloria.

After commissioning Austin environmental planning firm Siglo Group to conduct a land management assessment of the site, the museum has started the removal of invasive nonnative plant species that had overtaken much of the peninsula waterside.

Now open stretches of lakefront emerge for the first time in decades. Indeed, Gillick’s installation — “Raised Laguna Discussion Platform (Job 1073)” — sits on a portion of ground previously overrun with invasive nonnative giant cane.

The clearing of invasive plants and unruly undergrowth has opened new pathways to lovely waterfront spots previously inaccessible. A striking grove of cypress trees now comes into the clear.

Recently, the Contemporary announced that, after a competitive search process, it selected the prominent Boston-based landscape architecture firm of Reed Hilderbrand to design a complete master plan for Laguna Gloria.

Reed Hilderbrand now begins a nearly yearlong process to re-conceive the entire 12-acre Laguna Gloria site, including the villa and the landscape gardens around it, the peninsula meadow and the waterfront along Lake Austin and the lagoon from which the site draws its name.

“The combination of both the historic gardens as well as what Clara Driscoll called ‘the wilds’ — this outer edge of the site — really represents a very interesting ecological challenge,” said Christopher Moyles, a principal with Reed Hilderbrand in charge of the Laguna Gloria project. “Our role will be to edit the site so that’s it’s clear what the different ecologies are so we can heighten them and understand the site’s different habitats.”

The ecotones emerge as the most fascinating — the transitional zones between different ecosystems where differing ecologies are in tension, Moyles said.

Any ideas are, of course, merely ideas now. The master plan is a year or so away from being finished, let alone enacted upon. And many issues need to be addressed, including new vehicle circulation and parking strategies; imagining siting for new buildings such as a café and visitor’s center; and clarifying the plantings, the historic gardens, the meadows and the clusters of woodlands.

And of course enhancing the site to welcome sculpture.

“Our role is not to dictate or dedicate certain areas for sculpture or to maintain a static landscape,” Moyles said. “But rather we’ll look to edit the site so it’s clear what different ecologies and different ecotones are and so then artists can respond to it.”

Among the ideas floated by Moyles and his colleagues during the selection process as a suggestion for expanding people’s experience of the water’s edge is a boardwalk that could extend over the marsh grasses between the peninsula and the lake — a marsh now more visible than it has been been in years.

“We want to try to celebrate the water’s edge, engage it and set it in motion, get people to experience it in new ways and see if there are potential sites for sculptures at the edge of or even in the lagoon,” he said.

Reed Hilderbrand is familiar with Texas. In Houston, the firm developed a master plan for that city’s Arboretum and Nature Center that addressed the park’s catastrophic loss of trees, a result of a destructive combination of drought and hurricanes.

Likewise they’ve conceived of a master plan for a somewhat similar museum with historic buildings and sculpture garden, the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Mass. Interestingly, the deCordova also borders a body of water, a large pond.

The layering of history and culture at Laguna Gloria is “breathtaking” Moyles say.

“It’s very exciting for us,” he said. “We’re completely thrilled.”

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