An Orchid Show Story
by Mary Jasch
The headiness of Havana surrounds the visitor who steps into the Palm House of the New York Botanical Garden’s Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. A vignette of the City’s historic statue, La Giraldilla, atop the Castillo de la Real Fuerza – all embellished with orchids on water’s edge under palms blends the sensibilities. Here, façade and reality meld into oneness with the deft design, experience and direction of Cuban-born landscape architect, Jorge Sanchez, partner, Sanchez & Maddux, Palm Beach, Florida.
This is the Orchid Show: Cuba in Flower, where the experience is Sun. Heat. Scent. Color. Smooth limbs of rising tropicals. Lush, lavish vision. Hop on board; the tour starts here.
The story begins in the 1500s when pirates stormed the little towns of Cuba around Havana. The King of Spain ordered the Castillo de la Real Fuerza (Castle of the Royal Force) to be built. The castle was important in the defense of Havana which was already becoming the center of the Americas, says Sanchez. “With time La Giraldilla, the little windvain on top, became a symbol for the City of Havana. It’s a very different looking statue of a woman because most statues at that time were very simple. That was very early 16th century by then but this one had a face with expression and a body with a body.” A few years ago, officials moved the original statue to a museum and replaced it with a copy.
The orchids surrounding the castle at the Orchid Show present more of an illusion of a Cuban experience. “When we were asked to develop something along the lines of Cuba for the Orchid Show, which for me was very exciting knowing that we had those three pavilions, we were looking for something that would be a little bit of a story that would unify the three pavilions. At the same time, something that would not be political because of the situation of Cuba being so touchy everywhere.”
They planned the visitor experience to begin in Havana with an icon of the City, and so chose the castle. “Being that the Palm House has that circular flat body of water, it was just a godsend because it was absolutely perfect to put the castle coming out of the water because that’s the way that it is in Cuba. It’s the same look,” says Sanchez.
To the right, peach-colored orchids with strong, straight stems and strappy leaves surround pots of tall palms, leading the way to the sugar mill ruin. Here, a Cuban Petticoat palm swirls above its own dried remains and layers of dainty orchid blossoms and deep green leaves. Then, like Alice, through a tunnel of sabal palms with zillions of phalaenopsis and frilly flowers of other orchids stuck into their boots (dried leaf bases), just as they would grow in the wild.
“The thought was to walk the visitors through ‘the country,’ and that’s where the sabal palms came in with the ruins of the sugar mill, something one would see if one were to go to the country in Cuba. All of the orchids are an exaggerated view, which is what makes it fun. Then at the end, it’s getting to the mountains where the Soroa Orchidarium is.”
The sugar mill is depicted with a display in the middle of the sabal tunnel/allee. Small sugar mills in Cuba have disappeared, Sanchez says. “In some cases nature just moved in and some cases the land just got bigger sugar mills. This one I saw on my way to Soroa on my trip to Cuba, was just the ruins of the mill and a couple houses and was inside a canopy of trees so very much in the jungle, the jungle had taken it over. And that includes orchids and ferns taking it over.”
Stepping into the Exhibition hall, the visitor gets a view of a field of orchids in front of a primitive orchid-covered veranda. It is the Soroa Orchidarium, a botanical garden that conserves orchids in Cuba’s mountains.
The Orchidarium was once a private house with a veranda on three sides, always covered with orchids in the old days, Sanchez says. Here, a little portion of a veranda alludes to a house behind it. The central area depicts fields of orchids growing in the Soroa Orchidarium. “You can see fields of ground orchids and fields of tropical begonias, which we didn’t have in the show because it is an orchid show. But you do see big clumps of ground orchids, begonias and grass so there’s that type of look.”
Because the Orchidarium conserves orchids, one might wonder if exotic plants are moving in and pushing out native plants including orchids, just like anywhere else. “In Cuba, definitely not,” Sanchez says. The orchids displayed in the show are mostly non-Cuban simply because Cuban species are not available. “Being that we don’t have any relations with Cuba, it’s very hard to find things like that. And in Cuba there are no nurseries to buy some anyway, even if you could. So it’s not the type of thing that we could do with real Cuban orchids. It was a symbolic depiction.”
Visitors to the Soroa Orchidarium nowadays would be shocked to find it falling apart, he says. It has very few orchids.
“The concern of the Cuban public is where are they going to get their breakfast, lunch and dinner because they’re hungry,” he says. “So orchids and plants and things that we admire here are considered a luxury for the rich. Period. But they don’t have them either so they are really non-existent. What’s growing there is mostly wild, but beautiful. It’s Nature pretty much left alone and doing really well. When they go through periods of drought they lose a lot. When they’re doing well, they’re doing great. It’s pretty much in the hands of God.”
Jorge Sanchez, landscape architect, left Cuba at age 11. “I was always had an interest in the outside and in plants. Like many kids at a very young age I planted my first radishes and flowers and to my surprise they actually grew and people liked them. I’ve always had that interest as a child and growing up.” Good with his own garden, Sanchez helped friends who were interior decorators with their jobs. “They turned out pretty well and I quickly decided to leave banking and a family business to do something I enjoyed more. That’s how I moved from careers. There’s always a field for everybody out there. It’s a matter of finding it. It took me a long time to find it but when I did, I clung to it. I’ve enjoyed it tremendously ever since.”
Sanchez & Maddux recently won the 2010 Arthur Ross Award, Landscape Architect Division, given by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America.
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published March 25, 2010