August 4, 2014

The Seer with a Shovel

When I think of the great landscape designers who have matched wits with nature, the one who stands out for me is Capability Brown. His real name was Lancelot, but everybody called him Capability because, as Elizabeth Barlow Rogers (the landscape designer, preservationist and scholar who led the revitalization of New York’s Central Park) wrote, he always said to important landowners of 18th-century England that their holdings were capable of beauty if they spent enough money and put their confidence in him.

By that light, we might call Coy Talley, creator of the planted atmosphere at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, Agility Talley because he was so nimble, so patient in his amiable, easy, all-the-time-in-the-world way, in convincing the powers who built the Perot that the street trees and tidy shrubbery to which they were accustomed would have no place in this project. Where Capability Brown took the formal classical gardens beloved in France and adapted them to the natural inclinations of England, using artifice — as Rogers admitted, to “edit out the blemishes of nature,” arriving at what one poet hailed as “purest truth” — Talley tossed out the European order altogether, along with its love of hedgerows and radiant roses. Nor did he embrace the asymmetry of Japan, everlastingly green and calming, punctuated by painstakingly selected stones and handsome aggregate. Instead he pursued his own truth, “an expression of things as they are.” He pursued the truth of Texas.

Arrive at the Perot and as soon as you park you will spot a stand of horsetail reed, followed by pine trees and pond cypresses of East Texas, which will grow to 60 feet, equal to the windows of the museum’s upper stories. They someday will obscure the cars just as our pal Capability separated his formal gardens from sheep-grazing pastures with an ha-ha, a ditch that slopes down to a recessed retaining wall, invisible to those strolling among the rhododendron. Then the Perot is engulfed in a world of grasses — big, little and bushy bluestem plus upland switch grass — with Virginia creeper peeking through the underbrush below. This is the blacklands prairie, well known to people in Dallas, who have yanked Johnson grass from their gardens for generations, but at the Perot it looks perfect.

Walk around the building — startling in its wild strength and strange exhilaration, a masterpiece by Thom Mayne of Los Angeles — and you come across more tall grasses, more luxuriant and generous than the ones before, with masculine vitality mated with wispy, feminine, flirtatious ferns; red yucca and sumacs falling, casually, carelessly over the top of the wall. It’s hard to imagine that this ever was the home of a dilapidated paint factory. “It had no redeeming features,” says Mayne by telephone. “It was a leftover site, a tough site.” Together, he and Talley created a new setting, sloped as if on a hillside. Where before the place had been brutal and barren, as if ravaged by a nuclear weapon, now it glories in nature, constructed as it could have been, should have been, like “a part of Dallas before it was ever inhabited,” muses Mayne.

It is still a part of Texas, and that’s what comes next. Rocks suddenly shock a stroller outside the Perot, with Hackett sandstone tumbling in shards down a steep, slanting roof, evoking the surface of the moon and the writer who once opined that if you want to film a story about the end of the world, do it in Midland. But this is rugged, high-plains territory, eerily beautiful and compelling in its power to destroy and regenerate itself on its own terms.

There is in this landscape, unforgiving, untouched by the civilizing influence of Capability Brown and the Age of Enlightenment, an odd hope that human beings can prevail over the march of their own folly. Talley has shown the way with two underground concrete cisterns, each bigger than two residential swimming pools put together, with a capacity to capture 50,000 gallons of water collected from the roof and condensation from the air-cooling system. On most days, this water is sufficient for the needs of the Perot, and nothing further is required from the waterworks of the city except for drinking and cooking. In a charming gesture to a serious enterprise, Talley has created on the plaza three rows of metal pipes beneath an overhang. They look rather like a pipe organ that somewhere must be playing, but no, through these pipes comes water, dripping from the roof into the cisterns, a whimsical reminder of what the Perot is determined to achieve — without saying so too directly.

Who is this Agility Talley anyway? You might say he’s the real McCoy. That was his grandmother’s name, shortened to Coy for him. He grew up in Camdenton, Missouri, a county seat with fewer than 4,000 people as of four years ago, but blessed by life on the Lake of the Ozarks, known also as the Magic Dragon since it is shaped like a serpent. But this was no disruptor of the Garden of Eden. A miracle of the Great Depression, the reservoir made possible this Midwest oasis when the Osage River was impounded and tourists couldn’t wait to come. Perhaps young Coy learned from that reservoir what human beings could do to nudge nature into a more cooperative configuration. He might have learned also the importance of water: its uses; its saving graces if treated with respect. Whatever the lessons of the lake, he carried them to the University of Arkansas where he majored in landscape architecture and has a son there now, studying, of course, architecture. From Fayetteville, Coy came to Dallas and an environmental planning firm called Johnson, Johnson and Roy, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Like so many who move to this part of the country, he expected to stay only three or four years, but a decade later, there he was, still with the firm but ready to go out on his own. That was 1992. Now he operates his own business, Talley Associates, in a downtown setting on San Jacinto that once was owned by Bud Oglesby, one of the most influential architects ever to work in Dallas.As much a planner of cities as a planter of them, Talley is pursuing projects in Mexico, Nicaragua and Memphis. (Yes, Graceland, the home of Elvis, needs a hotel to help accommodate the 600,000 people who show up each year.) He’s helping create a future plan for Rockwall and hoping to connect a school for art, science and technology in Fort Worth to its museum district and trails along the Trinity River.

All this will be accomplished by his associates and by Coy himself in a modest office with a lot of glass through which it is better to look out than look in. There is no restful place for the eye to alight. It is stimulation that feeds Talley, not repose. Papers of every size are strewn about, with nary a neat stack in sight. No doubt there is in this creative clutter a hidden simplicity and the truth of Carl Jung: “In all chaos there is cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.”

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