One of the more annoying questions posed to landscape architects has to be “What do you people do?” In most peoples’ imaginations they occupy a space somewhere in between Frank Lloyd Wright and a gardener. In reality their jobs are far less ambiguous: they are tasked with making empty space inviting, sustainably manageable, aesthetically connected to primary structures, and salubrious. As one landscape architect told me, “If it is outside, we’re responsible for that.” And in fact, they do even more than this.
Landscaping is an essential industry in Fresno, and to get it right here in the Valley, the skilled architect must juggle several competing demands at once:
(1) select tough enough vegetation to withstand oppressive heat
(2) make it gentle and cool enough to make people want to linger outside
(3) make it structurally strong enough to withstand wet and leafy winters
(4) defend it against ubiquitous invasive species
(5) make it creative enough to deal with water scarcity.
They also have to deal with the demands of their clients, many of whom are surprised by how much goes into good design and who often only expect to may minimum wage. Balancing all of this is not easily done. What’s more, landscape architects often go unnoticed by those who most appreciate their work. They’re like the best waiters at the best restaurants: If they’re doing their jobs correctly, you’ll be enjoying yourself without noticing why.
But when it is done well, the payoff can mean the difference between a bland vacant lot and an extraordinary space.
Which leads us to one of Fresno’s best-kept secrets in this category: Community Regional Medical Center’s Healing Garden (also known as the “Rose Garden” by some employees) in Downtown Fresno (DTF), designed by RTKL, an international firm with a huge resume. Stated simply, this is landscape architecture done right.
First off, it is an exceptionally functional space that solves several problems: It fluidly links the main hospital with the Critical Care center; it provides a place of solace, comfort, and reflection in the midst of the often sterile and “bad news” environment of a hospital; and it gives employees and coffee shop patrons a place to enjoy a break in a quiet, scenic space. When you consider how awkwardly this could have been done (the garden occupies tiny, disjointed square footage in between two hospital towers), you will appreciate how marvelously the architects solved the design challenges at hand.
Second, the garden itself is arranged gorgeously. There are two seating areas on different levels, all separated by curvilinear walkways and garden paths. Somehow managing to be robust and delicate at the same time, I am surprised at how long the garden’s vulnerable beauty has lasted—a testament to good planning, good maintenance, and an awareness of where people are prone to walk. The whole effect feels effortlessly natural, like it has always been this way. Stay here long enough, and you’ll also notice a near-constant breeze that keeps the area cool. On my last visit there, a nurse was taking her break and said “I just love it out here. It calms me.”
Third, the garden feels remarkably urbane and sophisticated, in the same way that New York City’s iconic Paley Park feels urbane and sophisticated. Granted there isn’t a waterfall in sight, but the idea of a high-walled garden seems universally appealing to people who live in a city. Almost as if by accident, people find themselves lingering here.
Fourth—and this is entirely for selfish reasons—the very well-run coffee shop at CRMC is one of the only places in town that serves Peet’s Coffee that actually tastes like the Peet’s Coffee served in their retail stores. Taking my coffee out to the patio to sip, enjoying the free wifi on my laptop, and taking in the whole relaxing atmosphere is one of my favorite Fresno “moments.” I realize there is some degree of risk in divulging my favorite Fresno hiding place, but it is just too good to not share. Enjoy…
Parking here can be a bit of a challenge (access via Clark and Divisadero and park on Divisadero), which is perhaps one of the reasons why this garden is still mostly a secret garden. This location can also be a bit of a jaunt for those who don’t live or work close to downtown. Finally, although it is elegantly illuminated, this isn’t the best place to linger at night as the door to the coffee shop from the garden is almost always locked after nightfall. Even so, it is a superb space. Be sure to make a point to check out this wonderfully understated, small, and inviting garden as soon as you can.
And support a landscape architect.