Trees are dazzling creatures. Emerging from tiny seeds, some species can surpass the height of a human being in a single growing season, while others take decades to develop into a fully grown canopy. The Cascarilla Garden explores the spatial qualities of this ephemeral transformation, where the system’s phenology becomes legible and performative.

This project extends our understanding beyond the visual stimulation of flower sequences and fall colors into intentional and ecologically rich spatial relationships that evolve and transform through time. In countries like Ecuador, where there is almost no landscape design research, ventures like this help landscape architects understand the phenological potential behind design processes.

The Cascarilla Garden is located on the Andean valley of Tumbaco, Ecuador with an altitude of 2350 meters above sea level. Despite its high elevation, no seasons are present to drastically transform the landscape into winter or summer given Tumbaco’s geographic location just barely 10 minutes and 51 seconds below the equator line. Therefore, subtle weather conditions such as rainy and dryer season are enough to renovate the landscape. The Cascarilla Garden aims at exploring these variations.

This experimental garden employs only woody trees species to transform the open, clean surface of a small residential development into an exterior room. The project challenges the idea of a static, traditional landscape and proposes an approach where plants are structural, spatial, active, dynamic, revealing, functional, and performative. Time becomes an active agent of change, creating new and peculiar experiences awaiting discovery.

The experiment began 26 months ago with the strategic planting layout of 20 trees species. Once planted, the species were left to the mercy of ecological succession and natural selection competition. Giving its name to the garden, a triangular ground plane filled with African palm nuts –cascarilla– extends through the entire surface of the planting layout and shifts between being plantable, walkable, or sittable at any given time. In addition, the palm nut layer protects soil erosion, keeps the floor moist avoiding quick water evaporation, helps roots grow, and keeps the surface cool even in sunny days. Though palm nut is the most constant element in the garden, it hides deep unseen interactions that happen underground like the root structure, which is probably a mirror image of the fierce competition on the surface.

The garden studies the canopy strata of planted form. This grove is a careful choreography of trees disposed in a meticulous 3×3 meters grid, where the trees plot configuration eventually grows and weave together to form a series of ephemeral rooms. Within a 12-month period, the competition between species resulted in rapid-growing trees stand out from other canopies, while the ones that did not survive created a series of in-between spaces: tree rows became transitory screens that now provide opacity, habitat, and shade to the new human and nonhuman users.

The experiment implies an exploration journey of transparency, tone, and texture of the surviving trees and the species’ ability to shape the ever-transforming exterior rooms. The tree palette was carefully selected for its growth qualities and its temporary attributes such as the presence of flowers, fruits, foliage, and aroma. The conditions of limits, borders, transparency, aperture, closure, shade, and temperature continuously create comfort zones desirable for outdoor activities, and resting spots complemented with versatile mobile furniture.

Unexpected encounters have been prompted to happen between humans and nonhumans. Small grooves such as the Cascarilla Garden become ecological hotspots and safe grounds for a great variety of species, pollinators, insects, and birds. Such interactions have been spotted and documented in diagrams and infographics that conceptualize the dynamics between plants and landscape architecture right by the equator.

Similarly, unexpected sprouts came about from dead trees, filling up former empty rooms. These newborn plants are now left alone to adapt to this competitive environment. As of today, the experiment is still in process.

Project location: Ecuador / Tumbaco

Design year: 2017

Year Built: 2018


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