ARTiculture. The 2014 Philly Flower Show

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The Philadelphia Flower Show isn’t necessarily focused on the hard-core of horticulture. Not that virtuoso design isn’t there. But it will wow you, rather than over-whelm you. No, the eye candy at the Flower Show is accessible garden adventure and excitement for just about anyone and everyone. This is a flower show, after all. Less a trade show of new garden theories and trends than a refuge for the cold and winter-weary with a welcome glimpse forward to warmer, more floral days. This year, with its seemingly endless snows and polar vortices, I found that glimpse ahead even more welcome than usual.

The show’s annual themes usually comprise an eye-catching Grand Entrance, with amusing smatterings of the theme worked into the many displays covering the ten acres beyond. Unlike the recent trend to travel fantasies of Hawaii, Paris or London, this year’s theme concatenates art and horticulture. Last year was “Brilliant!” and British and the displays were packed with the prerequisite thrones and crowns and Union Jacks. This year’s “ARTiculture” works in the anticipated easels and painters’ palettes. Many displays are also linked to a museum. Artist’s names abound. Thankfully, I noticed only one blue-green bridge. Outside of an actual visit to Giverny, that’s one art and garden theme I’ve seen quite enough of for a while. But the combination has added up to one of the best designed shows of recent years.

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The grand entrance to “ARTiculture” is an homage to Pennsylvania’s own artist and native son, Alexander "Sandy" Calder (1898-1976). Calder was born in Lawnton, near Harrisburg, and was actually the third in a line of well-known Pennsylvania sculptors. His father, Alexander Stirling Calder (1870-1845), created many well-known works on public display in Philadelphia and throughout the country. “Washington at Peace”, on the triumphal arch in Washington Square Park here in New York, is one that might immediately pop to the mind of New Yorkers. His grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder (1846-1923), a Scottish immigrant to Philadelphia in 1868, was responsible for the colossus of William Penn that watches over the city from the top of its City Hall.

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This stunning set piece was conceived by Sam Lemheney, the Philly Flower Show’s director (along with GMR Design, Barb King and Valley Forge Flowers). Lemheney’s design incorporates Calder’s kinetic shapes—whose surfaces are covered in bright dried flowers, grass, stone, glass and fabric—into three gigantic picture frames and a sculpted garden of topiary trees and boxwoods rising from beds of colorful celosias, daisies, hyacinths, marigolds, violas and many other plants. While none of the Calder-esque shapes actually float on their own, Lemheney does an effective job of suggesting movement and the effect is enhanced by being able to walk around and between the elements. Here you do the floating. At the inside, the design subtly incorporates a stage. Performances by the acrobatic troupe Bandoloop, suspended overhead like living elements from one of Calder’s mobiles, entertain several times a day.

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If there’s a fault in Lemheny’s focal piece—and it’s a nice one, don’t get me wrong—it’s that the whole ensemble is positioned just too closely to the entrance to be fully appreciated. To get into the convention hall, you have to pass through three double steel doors set into a low box that did their best to make me feel like I was walking into a drainage pipe, not falling down a rabbit hole. On the other side, with the lack of any real depth of a sky inside this bleak container of a convention center hall, there’s no pull forward, no natural sweep outwards. Just an abrupt end capped by a dead, dull ceiling overhead.

Last year, the main gate of “Brilliant! was positioned just as closely to the entrance. But it was more open and backed by a long sweeping allée that led to an illuminated, animated mini Big Ben in the center of the space. I know, I know. The allée was more Haussmann than Capability Brown but it was effective. That long sweep compensated for the compression of the space. Much like you might approach any painting, this design needs to be first taken in from a distance. Then you can sidle on over to get to know it better bit by bit. Had Lemheny pushed his display just a bit back, to the other side of a small plaza, he would have set up the first encounter to this year’s show as brilliantly as he did last year’s.

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I’ll continue my coverage of “ARTiculture” all week. Next up, the many displays, then the Hamilton Horticourt, and finally the Fuchsia Ribbon will be awarded to my own personal best in show. Hold your breath. But not too long. The flower show ends Sunday in week so you have both enough time to breathe again and get yourself here. If you’d like to revisit “Brilliant! The 2013 Philadelphia Flower Show” you can click on the 2013 link to the right to get to the Urban Fuchsia+ Blog posts from last year.

Organized by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, “ARTiculture, the 2014 Philadelphia Flower Show”, opened this week and runs from Saturday, March 1 to Sunday, March 9 in the Philadelphia Convention Center. An extra initial week-end day was added again this year to accommodate the huge crowds that are flocking to this must-see show. I’d suggest arriving early to avoid the press that crowds most of the exhibits at peak times!

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