Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Beer Scholar's Garden

On a recent trip to Texas, a couple of my friends took me to see Houston's Beer Can House. This unusual house was the home of John and Mary Milkovisch until Mary passed away 2001. The house has since been bought and restored by the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art.

During the 18 years John Milkovisch worked on the house, he covered the house with over 50,000 beer cans. Curtains of can tops and pull tabs hang from the eaves, creating shimmering chimes and cooling the house (this guy was way ahead of his time on sustainability).
The house is the main thing you notice when you first arrive, but it was actually the garden that came first. The garden is an amazing assemblage of concrete, rocks, bottles,
and marbles, Milkovisch used these materials to make fencing, artwork and planters.Though Milkovisch said it all started because he was tired of mowing the lawn, I'm a little skeptical. The yard is pretty small. It seems more likely that it was the natural outgrowth of his job as an upholster for the Southern Pacific Railroad. This guy just seemed to like to do detailed work with his hands. No doubt, his six-pack a day habit lubricated his imagination.

I've always enjoyed outsider art like this for its skewed point of view, but wandering around the yard I started to think that it wasn't completely without precedent. And since this is a work of folk art, I'll take a stab at folk-theorizing. Seeing the rock sculptures and mosaic surfaces, I began to see some striking parallels with Chinese Scholar's Gardens, like the ones in Suzhou, China. Maybe it was the Chinese food I had eaten an hour earlier, but I think there's something to this theory. Check out the photo on the left (by Pingxel), from a garden in Suzhou, and the photo on the right, from the Beer Can Garden.

Or take a look at the mosaic paving below. Is it from the Beer Can House or a old Chinese garden? Not so sure are you? Click on the picture to find out.
Now, I'm not an expert on Chinese Gardens; my landscape history courses focused mostly on western landscapes. As with most of my research, my first stop was Wikipedia. Looking up Scholar's Gardens, I came across the following description (I've highlighted a few things I found particularly pertinent):
The Chinese (Scholar's) Garden is a place for solitary or social contemplation of nature… The design of Chinese gardens was to provide a spiritual utopia for one to connect with nature, to come back to one's inner heart, to come back to ancient idealism (Christianity, in this case). Chinese gardens are a spiritual shelter for people, a place they could be far away from their real social lives, and close to the ancient way of life, their true selves, and nature. This was an escape from the frustration and disappointment of the political problems in China (or Texas).
To be considered authentic (my least favorite word), a Chinese garden must exhibit an exhausting 17 characteristics:

1) proximity to the home: definitely.
2) small: it is.
3) walled: partly, yes.

4) small individual sections: yep. Front and back.
5) asymmetrical: the house is set to the side of property and the garden is definitely not symmetrical.

6) various types of spatial connections: this is a little vague, but sure.
7) architecture: duh...the house.
8) rocks: uh-huh.

9) water: Hmm...I don't remember seeing any.
10) trees: does an artificial lemon tree count? Here's Mrs. Milkovisch's contribution to the yard.

11) plants: there are a few exotics sprinkled here and there as focal points.

12) sculpture: lots.
13) jie jing (borrowed scenery): hard to say...the surrounding neighborhood has changed a lot over the years.
14) chimes: oh, yeah. Lots.

15) incense burners: didn't smell any.
16) inscriptions: a couple.

17) use of feng shui for choosing site; probably not.

Not 100%, but I think the Beer Can Garden does pretty well on this list. Enough for me to declare the Beer Can House and Garden an American variant on a Chinese Scholar's Garden. I can't wait to publish my revolutionary new theory in book form! Self-published, most likely.


Janet said...

An interesting take on a spiritual retreat within one's garden. I am just glad they don't live next door to me.

How It Grows said...


danger garden said...

I was thinking along the same lines as Janet. Looking at the pictures I was thinking "how beautiful" but then I wondered how I would feel if my neighbors started doing this. Uhm. Well I guess it would be a huge improvement over their "kitty lover" banner...

Great post, thank you!

Les said...

I would love to see this house and garden as I am fond of outsider art also.

It reminds me of several things, but primarily about a man who lived in a planned community somewhere on the Peninsula that had very specific rules for Christmas decorations. He put up scads of colored lights and plastic light-up figures, just like he did at his previous home. A few days later he was told to take them down as they did not comply with the community association's guidelines - or face a lawsuit. Apparently wreaths were allowed so next year he made a huge wreath from beer cans with a big flashy bow and hung it from the side of his house.

How It Grows said...

I'm sure his neighbors loved that!

Jennifer G. Horn said...

Great post! I can see a link between the gardens, and having a soft spot for vernacular design, I have added this site to my must-see list.