Shangri La Botanical Gardens

I received my first camera, a Minolta X-700, for my birthday at age 15. At that time I was most interested in surf photography, as any 15 year old whose spent their entire life along the Pacific Ocean. I was always enamored by the photographs in Surfing and Surfer magazines, that was the dream. As I began a photography class a few months later, I was introduced to Ansel Adams, not personally as he had already passed on, although I did have the honor to meet the late Virginia Adams, true story, one for another post. From that moment, I decided I wanted to be Ansel Adams, along with a few others photographers, young and old. I continued my photography studies at Brooks Institute of Photography and was exposed to Architectural Photography, all the while escaping into the Santa Ynez Valley whenever possible to fuel my passion for black and white landscape photography. As I began my professional career, I chose to focus on Architectural and Interior photography, which I equally enjoy and find professionally and creatively rewarding. On the occasion that I am commissioned to work on a Landscape Architecture project, well, that provides an opportunity to explore the love I have for Architecture as well as the landscape. The Shangri La Botanical Garden project brought together the talents of landscape archicture firms; Jeffrey Carbo Landscape Architecture and Mesa Design Group, and the architectural firm of Lake Flato Architects as well as the featured cover story in Landscape Architecture Magazine, September 2009.

The story in Landscape Architecture magazine written by Daniel Jost is fascinating and insightful, providing the history of the location, the creative partnership that forged this jewel and the natural hardships the gardens have faced just to be enjoyed today. I first heard of the project from my client of many years, Jeff Carbo. I've had the privilege to photography Jeff's work for over a decade and enjoyed the publications and awards, regionally and nationally, that his firm has so richly deserved. The excitement was infectious when Jeff first discussed the project with me, this was going to be a very special project, it was going to be Shangri La. I'll never forget our next conversation, shortly after the back to back horrific hurricanes, Katrina and Rita. Katrina received and continues to receive vastly more media attention because of the human aspect and levee failures of New Orleans, but Rita was every bit as damaging a storm, it just happened to move through a sparsely populated area relative to Katrina. After reviewing the impact of Rita on the property that would be come Shangri La, Jeff shared with me the startling reality, over 50,000 trees destroyed, fallen, gone; all in a matter of hours in a 250 acre area. That was just the first natural climatic occurrence that attempted to derail Shangri La, months before completion, the rains of Hurricane Ike nearly turned Shangri La into the lost city of Atlantis, dumping inches of rain upon the area and leaving the entire gardens under water. As a garden, one might think, water is good, right? But the brackish, salty water from the Gulf of Mexico's surge decimated the gardens. Once again the garden opening was postponed as another natural force unleashed its brut force. Once again the design team and Shangri La staff lead by Director Michael Hoke persevered and eventually this jeweled gift was introduced and welcomed the public to connect with nature.

My first encounter with Shangri La came in June 2009. An evening flight into Houston, Texas, followed by a two hour drive along the tiresome stretch of I-10 east of Houston delivered me to Orange, Texas at a late hour, worn from a day of flying and driving. Sleep came quickly as did the scheduled 6AM call time. I greeted Paul Freeland, now of Studio Outside, Jeff Carbo and Michael Hoke and we began our initial tour and on site discussion of the project. The garden experience begins with the visitor center and museum area, which represent the majority of actual built structure on site.

As the sounds of birds, water and gently flowing breezes engulfed me, the slumber of a few hours of sleep captured the night before, quickly transformed to energy, and the greatest of energy, not caffeine induced, but creative energy. The sky was transforming from darkness to subtle tones of purples, pinks and blues, Shangri La was coming to life. There was a silence to our conversations, a respect to the natural sanctuary that was drawing us further into its midsts.

The buildings gave way to the openness of perfectly manicured glowing green grass greeting the first rays of sunlight. The natural sounds were joined by the footsteps of staff beginning their daily responsibilities of maintaining such an extensive garden. But even they seemed to work in a revered silence of the beauty in which they work, also enjoying the coolness of the morning ahead of the expected warmth and humidity of a June day near the Gulf of Mexico. During this initial scouting I struggled to keep my creative excitement corralled, as I needed to focus on all of the details, light, time of day, camera positioning and discussion with the principals to ensure the imagery captured over the ensuing two days would fully encompass the vision of place. We approached the Pond of the Blue Moon just as the early morning light scrapped its way across the water, bringing an amazing glory to one of the highlights of Shangri La.

Arriving at this centerpiece of the gardens we quickly realized our first challenge to capturing the complete vision of this project, elevation. I've scaled walls, rooftops and mountains in search of the perfect vantage point, all the while dreaming of the power of levitation, maybe one day. A complete side note, jet pack technology seems to be making strides, here are a couple of my favorites, Martin Jetpack and Jetlev, the concept could revolutionize the way I work, eliminating the constraints that come with helicopters or lifts. On all the sample videos on their website, I can't help but sense that the operator is quite uncertain about the reliability of the systems, I mean, let's not get too high off the ground, because that means you have further to fall right? I suppose I watched one too many episodes of the Jetsons as a kid. So back to our challenge of elevation, it was determined that a lift would be our best tool to capture the image portraying the full scale of the pond, a critical image.

The scouting, discussion and tour was completed by 8AM and I set my focus on becoming "lost" within the confines of the gardens and my camera. These are moments where time really no longer exists from a clock perspective, time becomes all about the light and moving sun. Rather than setting a time, such as at 8:30AM the light should be ideal in this area, its more of a feel and visual approach for me. Once the sun clears that tree line, a stance of trees may begin to feel the morning light, but in a few moments, it will cast along this grassy area perfectly with long drawn shadows. Feeling and becoming in tune with the movement of the sun is a dance, thank goodness this type of dance doesn't require much rhythm, because those closest to me who have been witness know I'm a tad bit rhythm deficient. But to the rhythm of the light I'm in tune.

One of the aspects of my client, Jeff Carbo, that I've admired from the first project together is the textures, colors and depth that he creates in his design. I suppose all landscape design includes a variety of plantings and colors, but in Jeff's work, it the attention to the linear patterns, the subtle differences in leaf texture, its all very subtle, meticulously planned and executed. When the full palette is complete, the work of art completed, it is pure artistry. An amazing talent. There have been opportunities where we have revisited a project after a few years and the living, maturing gardens have evolved, but the complexity and depth of textures and colors age just as magnificently. If Jeff ever becomes a vintner, I would buy a case of his finest wine and know that with each year his creation would become even finer.

As the day progressed, my focus shifted to capture the goal of the Shangri La Botanical Gardens, to connect individuals of all ages with nature. The buses arrived, school children from Lake Charles, Louisiana, a tour group from a Senior Citizen Center in Natchitoches, Louisiana, all arriving to connect and admire. Shangri La took their mission a step further, they are living it. They challenged the design team to create a sustainable, Green site. The results, the first LEED Platinum Certified project in Texas and the 50th such project in the world at the time of completion. As Michael Hoke and his staff of Shangri La educate all guests about living in a sustainable manner, they do so from a position of true honesty and merit. Planet Earth could use a lot more Shangri La's.

The Shangri La Botanical Gardens have garnered national attention, and deservedly so. In addition to the feature cover story in Landscape Architecture Magazine, the AIA presented the project with the distinguished COTE Top Ten Green Project award. Recognizing it as one of the top ten Green projects in the world.

Although the mystical, harmonious valley described as Shangri-La in the novel, Lost Horizon by James Hilton is purely fiction. However, the metaphor of Shangri La exists today, in a small town along the I-10 in Southeastern Texas, the city of Orange, an unexpected location, the Shangri La Botanical Gardens.

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