Whatever else you may have thought of former mayor Barbara Hall, she will forever be a champion for besting Boston, whose Brahmins looked down their noses at what would eventually become the award-winning Toronto Music Garden. After much bureaucratic red tape, landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy and collaborator cellist Yo-Yo Ma gave up on trying to build a music garden in New England’s famed city by the sea. Instead, they headed north to Toronto where they were warmly welcomed by Mayor Barbara Hall, Director of Parks Susan Richardson, and financial backer Jim Fleck. Starting with a windy plot at the western reaches of Harbourfront near the foot of Spadina Avenue, Messervy and Ma began to transform the lakeside property into the Toronto Music Garden.
As any of the volunteer tour guides will tell you, the garden’s design is inspired by Bach’s Suite Number One for Unaccompanied Cello, and features six distinct areas that follow the movements of the music: Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Minuet, and Gigue.
Ten years after its installation, Torontoist asked Vermont-based landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy for her thoughts on how well the garden has stood the test of time.
Photo by Randy O’Rourke.
Torontoist: Have each of the themed areas of the Toronto Music Garden developed as you had envisioned in your original design?
Julie Moir Messervy: In the early days after the garden was first built, you could see clear across the whole landscape from each of the three hills. As the garden has grown in over the past ten years, each area has become more distinct from those around it, making the total experience of the garden more exciting as a visitor moves from one “movement” to the next. I especially am pleased about the growth of the conifers in the Sarabande. I always saw it as a shady, verdant, contemplative garden to match the feeling in the music. It’s taken a while, but the music and the garden finally feel in sync. Similarly, I always wanted the Allemande to feel like you’re winding through paths beneath a high grove of trees, which, thanks to the growth of the birches, it finally has become. Patience is required when you design landscapes, but it is so rewarded with proper maintenance and care, which the Music Garden has.
What has made the garden so successful?
I believe that to design something special, you need to be inspired by a “big idea” that helps bring structure to your design thinking. In the Music Garden’s case, the first Bach suite provided me with just such inspiration. It became my job to turn the music into physical form. I was certainly helped by the wonderful setting—the long thin pie-shaped site along the waterfront—and also by the condominium buildings watching out for the garden across Queens Quay West, giving the garden a sense of security no matter how high the plantings grew.
I also think that a northern piece like the Music Garden definitely needs good bones and a clear and interesting structure that will keep it looking good throughout the long winter months. The organization of the six movements and the location of the three hills all help make this happen.
Do you have plans to build any other gardens in Toronto?
Plans to build other gardens? Just ask and I’ll be up there! I love working in Toronto and would welcome an opportunity to design another garden or park there, or anywhere in Canada, anytime. I should mention that my latest book, Home Outside, features the work of the many talented landscape-design professionals from Canada—it would be a treat to collaborate with any of them.
The Toronto Music Garden is celebrating its tenth anniversary with its Summer Music in the Garden series. Frequent free tours are available, guided by volunteers from the Toronto Botanical Garden.