Biblical landscaping both pragmatic, thematic at new campus

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The proposed landscaping of the Taube-Koret Campus for Jewish Life gives a new meaning to the term “hallowed ground.” Instead of your average shrubs and flowers, biblical trees will adorn the new campus.

“I’ve never seen a project like this,” says landscape architect Willet Moss of his work for the Taube-Koret Campus. What he finds fascinating about the new design is its combination of different uses on one site. The campus will include housing for seniors, the Palo Alto Jewish Community Center, programming for children and facilities for other Jewish organizations.

Moss, a principle at CMG Landscape Architecture in San Francisco, is responsible for the design of everything but the building — or, as he says, “how people pass through space and how they encounter it.”

His job is to help create the identity of the environment. His plan: biblical landscaping.

CMG is not unfamiliar with Jewish-themed landscape projects — the firm designed the courtyard of the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, in San Francisco, where the quad is paved with Jerusalem limestone.

The biblical landscaping for the Taube-Koret Campus comes on the heels of that project’s success.

The ambitious plan is not an easy assignment: The eight-acre site sits 12 feet above the ground, elevated above a parking lot.

Moss solved this potential landscaping problem by planting two different types of trees for each level. The landscaping around the perimeter of the ground-level has a “Palo Alto palette,” he says, with plants that thrive in Palo Alto, such as sycamore and palm trees.

But, “when you go up the stairs, you’re in a different environment,” he continues. “All of the plants have a meaning associated with them.”

The trees are intended to create a sense of familiarity and comfort with the campus, he adds. “The biblical aspect resonates with you, one hopes, and makes the experience more meaningful.”

But there is a chance the subtle meaning behind the landscape could be lost. Moss acknowledges that the biblical trees — including olive, fig, pistachio and pomegranate — are more of a subtle touch that may only be appreciated if you have been to Israel or are familiar with biblical trees.

The potential for meaning, though, is most important.

“We wanted to capitalize on the rich tradition and culture as well as the pragmatic aspects of these plants growing here. If you have the opportunity to imbue something with meaning, it’s like a bonus,” he says.

There will also be acacias, date palms, almond, lemon and orange tree. Some of the more unusual ones include the retama (also known as the Jerusalem thorn), honey locust (named for its sweet, edible pulp), and eshel (tamarisk).

Some of the trees will be clustered in pods, such as the “town square,” courtyards, and early childhood education center. Some 45 birch will make up a grove along the main entry drive, for instance, while more than 50 magnolia will grace the senior entry.

Moss replaces San Francisco landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, 90, on the project. He said he is gratified by the positive reception to his firm’s plan. “It’s just been very pleasant, because everyone’s very supportive and appreciative of our work.”

Construction of the campus is expected to begin in spring 2007, with a projected completion in 2009.

Let the holy sprouting begin.