SPARKLING GARDENS

TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

To construct his startling and surreal landscape at the Festival de Jardins in the Loire Valley of France, Los Angeles designer Andy Cao imported 10 tons of recycled glass from his hometown, seven miles of rope from Manila and eight huge blown-glass spheres from Brooklyn. The rope ended up at the wrong port, and three of the spheres broke. Labor problems forced him to work long days with student volunteers, and even then they barely finished in time for the grand opening. His initial plans submitted to this competition sat for weeks in customs. And a few days before his flight home, his pocket was picked on a train to Belgium.

But, hey, he's happy. The garden designer and glass artist had a great spring break in Europe. When he stepped off United flight 937 from Paris two weeks ago, he was the conquering hero returning home to Los Angeles, a wad of triumphs in his back pocket. Dressed in jeans and a black Armani shirt, the slender, 35-year-old landscape designer may have looked more tired than triumphant, but his installation at the French festival was the only American design at the prestigious summer-long event.

Held at Chaumont-sur-Loire, about 114 miles southwest of Paris, the festival is known for its innovative, sometimes jarring designs. The event director, Jean-Paul Pigeat, said that when the annual festival debuted 10 years ago, visitors expected traditional gardens and were often angry at the avant-garde designs they found. Now that's precisely what they come to see.

There are 30 individual "gardens" at the festival, each housed inside a tulip-shaped plot, separated by yards of greenery. They were chosen from 1,000 initial applicants, which were narrowed down to 300 and then only 30.

Cao's sparkly garden became a favorite of French TV and of visiting schoolchildren. "You should see their eyes light up when they spot the glass marbles," said Cao. They liked the glass so much that too much was disappearing into little pockets, so the event organizers blocked off the path into the garden. Now visitors can only peer at the garden, not walk though it.

The garden attracted the attention of Cristallerie du Val Saint-Lanbert, one of Belgium's premier makers of fine crystal, who had heard of Cao's recycled-glass garden at Chaumont and wondered if he might make one at their chateau in Liege, using crystal instead. That's why he was on the train to Belgium days before flying home.

Soon he will begin a yearlong fellowship in landscape architecture at the American Academy in Rome, where Andrew Than-Son Cao was awarded a Rome Prize that allows advanced or creative study in a variety of fields.

He has designed glass gardens for inside the Mandalay Bay casino in Las Vegas, as centerpieces on tables at Spago, around the Chateau Marmont hotel on Sunset Boulevard and in a number of backyards. Andre Balazs, owner of the Marmont, "was impressed with how [Cao] used the reflective qualities of glass" to brighten "darker, tighter outdoor spaces."

Not bad for someone who "barely survived" the landscape architecture program at Cal Poly Pomona.

He, his mother and five siblings had left Vietnam in 1979, casting off into the Pacific in a rickety craft with other boat people. They eventually joined two older brothers who had left earlier and settled in Houston, which is where Cao started his architecture training.

He later moved to California and changed his major to landscape architecture at Cal Poly, "where I was one of the worst students," he said. He did better in the art classes he was taking concurrently at Orange Coast College.

Cao had little interest in planning lawns and hedges--he wanted to make dramatically different gardens that would verge on being environmental art. He had been thinking about a garden that would be a map-like representation of his native Vietnam. While trying to figure out how to represent the piles of drying salt typically seen along the Vietnamese coast, he came up with the idea of using crushed white glass. He had seen glass used as a sculptural material in museum installations.

The glass made convincing salt piles, and he soon found other ways of using glass in his landscape. He made cobalt-blue glass seas, yellow and green glass hills and plastered crushed glass on walls to represent sky. He even made glass steppingstones. He became mesmerized by "the sparkle of glass in gardens." The Times first showed his innovative Echo Park garden in 1989. Public television's Huell Howser would later visit and so would House and Garden magazine. Howser even ended up using glass in the garden of his Palm Springs residence. Other garden designers apparently took note because glass is appearing in limited ways in other gardens.

All of the glass in Cao's own garden was recycled. Working with a large recycling company, Cao carefully sorted the glass into colors, broke it and tumbled the pieces so they ended up as reasonably smooth little pebbles that could actually be walked on barefoot. They're just like the smooth little pieces found at the beach that have been tumbled by the surf.

He and partner Stephen Jerrom have turned the Glass Garden into a small business. Their studio next to the old Chapman Market on 6th Street in Los Angeles is filled with experimental recycled-glass products for the garden. Glass is everywhere, which makes it look like an accident has just been cleared from the studio. There are rows and rows of pebbles in every conceivable color. There are the glass marbles that are used as a mulch, steppingstones and glass tiles.

Jerrom, Cao's biggest booster, sees himself as the businessman and implementer. He is the one setting up the "hot shop," where they can melt and play with glass. It is he who is packaging the glass mulches and marbles that they someday hope to sell though Target stores, just as Michael Graves does his architectural designs.

This leaves Cao free to design. At Chaumont-sur-Loire, under groves of bamboo, Cao spread a sparkling mulch of his glass marbles. The paths are made of cobalt-blue glass pebbles. There is an island of white glass, punctuated with little pockets planted with round cacti. Sandblasted glass spheres, also planted with succulents, sit snugly in tall coils of shaggy rope. More rope makes a fence that encircles the garden, and the fence too is planted with succulents, this time in neat stitch-like vertical rows. "It's real surreal," said the soft-spoken Cao, understating the obvious.

"But it is a garden," he quickly added. Cao compares it to a contemplative Zen garden, meant to be looked at, not gardened in. The arrangement of the glass spheres inside the rectangular pool was inspired by the arrangement of rocks in the rectangular courtyard at Ryoan-ji in Kyoto, one of the most famous Zen gardens. The spheres, each a little too big to get your arms around, were blown by a friend, Chris Lyndon. He and Cao met while studying glass at Pilchuck Glass School north of Seattle. They made eight spheres, hoping five would survive. Holes were drilled for the succulents, and two were lost in the process. A third simply rolled away when no one was looking, and Cao can still hear the resulting crash.

It cost Cao $6,000 to make the spheres or "bubbles" as he calls them and $3,500 just to ship them to Chaumont. The whole installation cost about $25,000, with the festival organizers picking up $10,000 of the tab.

The organizers of the festival told Cao he "could do anything," and the resulting landscape is "a fusion of global culture," of Japanese design and American cacti such as Mammillaria and Astophytum , with tribal African and Vietnamese influences. But how did he come up with it? "I just got this image in my head," he said. "I like things that float."

The coiled rope reminded him of African neck ornaments, and when combined with the spheres, they resembled traditional Vietnamese water puppets (puppets that are held just above water by underwater performers). He calls the installation "Desert Sea," the cobalt glass being the sea and the many succulent plants being the desert.

He's working on his next project, a garden for the first U.S. residence designed by British minimalist architect John Pawson. The house in Sherman Oaks stands on hefty legs above a hillside, and Cao is planting a forest of bamboo under it, which the house will seem to float on, much like the combatants in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." A hill-holding ground cover will grow under the bamboo, but glass will undoubtedly find some place in this garden too.

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