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Landscaper for the Soul

Alum Julie Moir Messervy, MAR ‘78, MCP ‘78, designs contemplative gardens that feed the spirit.

Julie Moir Messervy’s home is like an exuberant garden of many colors. Pumpkin orange, pea-soup green, strawberry red, lemon-drop yellow, and marine blue spring from the furniture, floors, and walls. There are patterns everywhere-spirals, circles, flowers, leaves. On a brilliant midwinter afternoon, sunlight floods the rooms, which open onto each other through spacious portals. Everything glows. But somehow, this cacophony of colors and patterns works, a testament to Messervy’s intuitive approach to garden design, a sensibility born of two years of study with a Japanese garden master in the 1970s and refined ever since.

For the last 25 years, Messervy, MAR ‘78, MCP ‘78, has been designing private, public, and corporate gardens that involve more than planting beds, lawns, trees, and carefully placed rocks. They are, rather, the external expressions of her clients’ inner gardens. We all have them, she says, fashioned by imagination and dreams. Most are based on childhood memories about places that brought happiness or comfort or safety. “Julie has a way of thinking about the landscape that is unique,” says Jan Wampler, one of her architecture professors at the Institute who has followed her career closely. “The landscape of the soul is central to her work. She thinks about how the landscape can lift our spirits.”

Messervy has shared her philosophy of gardens in numerous books and lectures around the country, and in the classrooms of MIT and Harvard. Her books, most especially The Inward Garden: Creating a Place of Beauty and Meaning, have brought intellectual rigor to what is intuitive about garden design, making it accessible to others.

Attention to her clients’ inner needs is a natural outgrowth of Messervy’s training in Japanese garden design, which focuses on harmony in contemplative spaces. She discovered Japanese garden design while taking a course at MIT on the country’s architecture. Spellbound, she interrupted her graduate work and in 1975 went to Kyoto to study with renowned garden master Kinsaku Nakane. Within a few years, Messervy began working with homeowners who desired Japanese gardens. But she soon discovered that many of her clients who said they wanted true Japanese gardens were, in fact, looking for any garden that would serve as a place for contemplation.

“Every garden is contemplative if it’s a good one,” she says. “You sit in a very secure position and lose yourself in it and go beyond it at the same time.”

So Messervy began using her expertise and experience to design such places. Before she begins the process, Messervy explores her clients’ inner gardens by having them plumb the depths of memory to discover powerful places from their pasts. She helps them define what they want and what they would like their gardens to do for them. Their ideas and desires usually settle into one or two of what she calls the “seven spatial archetypes of gardens”-the organizing principles that guide her designs. According to Messervy, the archetypes express our longings. They are also symbolic of our entire life cycle, from birth to death. They start in the womb (the sea) and move on to birth (the cave), to the period in early childhood when one is held on a parent’s lap (the harbor), to walking out into the world (the promontory), to becoming an adolescent (the island), an adult (the mountain), and, in old age, a part of the spirit world (the sky), then falling back to earth and starting over again. “It has this beautiful circularity to it,” she says.

But knowing the archetypes is not enough. Messervy also needs to have what she calls “the big idea”-the theme of the garden. Sometimes she deduces this theme or organizing principle from clues she picks up from a client. Messervy tells of one very reserved client who knew what she wanted in the overall garden design-her archetype was a harbor-but had offered little about the plantings. One day, the woman appeared in a chartreuse silk suit, and Messervy asked if that was her favorite color. Indeed, it was, and so chartreuse quickly became the unifying theme in the plantings. Another time, she took a client to a granite quarry to look at rocks for his corporate garden. “We looked around at all my favorite rocks with the lichens, but he wanted slag,” she says. “He liked all the triangular, harsh, jutty rocks with dynamite holes in them,” and so the edginess of those rocks became the theme of his garden.

Messervy most often designs private gardens in the backyards of her clients, but “yard” is not the moniker she would choose. She’d prefer, of course, “garden.” “I think we all think of the outside as a place that’s utilitarian for hanging clothes and putting out the dog and occasionally socializing. If you start to call it a garden, it becomes a more special place.” And Messervy has created some very special places during her career.

Perhaps the most visible, and most unusual, is the Toronto Music Garden, a collaborative project with Yo Yo Ma that opened in 1999. The $3 million harbor-front public garden, one of six artistic projects created for a PBS film series, is a landscaped interpretation of Bach’s First Suite for Unaccompanied Cello. Messervy worked with Ma to interpret the music, but the result is her visualization. She created six sections to reflect the suite’s six movements. Paths spiral through flowers and trees, evergreens enclose an inward-arching circle, and giant grass steps offer views over the harbor. Spirals and circles are also the theme of Weezie’s Garden, a half-hectare children’s garden in Dover, MA, that is scheduled to open this month.

Ever alert to the world around her, Messervy draws inspiration and solutions for her designs simply by observing. As we leave her dining room, the afternoon sun hits two blue hyacinths flanked by orange candles in multicolored ceramic candlesticks. The intensity of the colors stops us. “This color scheme will come back to me when I’m trying to plan someone’s garden,” she muses. “If you see the world this way, there’s much more beauty, and it’s there for you to play within. The main thing is to create places of beauty and meaning so that people start to see the world through different eyes. I’m just trying to give them a new lens.”

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