A method for designing architecture, Topiary Tango responds to ever-changing contexts and grants people the agency to instigate that change.

What is Topiary?
It is the horticultural practice of training perennial plants into shapes. This forgiving art opens up opportunities for gardening newcomers and veterans alike to influence architecture-scaled mass without extensive tools or planning. Whether it’s straightening edges or fashioning peacocks, all a project needs are a set of shears and a vision.

Topiary breathes life into inanimate objects, letting them talk, mock, and giggle. Their playful forms flaunt personalities and relationships—a globby bush may become a goofball among other whimsical creatures, or a mess beside a row of arrogant spheres. Their conversations are always in flux; the elastic medium can be endlessly carved and reformed. Tired of a twisted spiral? Trim it into a t-rex. A neighbor getting pointy? Soften it up. Just like that, the topiary are caught in a tango.

Tango is a body language expressed through formal interactions. Architecture tangos are no different; a flamboyant new condo smirks at an old-fashioned brownstone clad in ornament and covered by soot. These relationships are a dialogue articulated through the environment.

While topiary can transform to advance narratives, buildings remain static and exhaust them. The few times buildings change are with costly renovations, degradation, or the inevitable—destruction. Without topiary, architecture offers few opportunities to change its mind.

Topiary sizes range from table-toppers to towering trees; their figuration is scale-less and can be applied to architecture. When wrapped in topiary, a building’s inner architecture can fulfill its functional duties, while the perennial exterior adapts to external stimuli.

Looking for a view? Cut a window. Feeling fancy? Colonnade a court.

Enhanced by topiary, architecture can be influenced by the most rudimentary manner of creation: snipping with scissors.

Topiary Tango began as a research project funded by the Center for Architecture’s 2017 Stewardson Keefe Lebrun Travel Grant. On a hunt for topiary-laden gardens, curator Mark Zlotsky began a four-month journey in Rome, heading down to Sicily, back north through France, Monaco, England, Scotland, and Wales, capping the expedition in Dublin.

He frolicked among the fountains of Villa d’Este, marveled Marqueyssac Garden’s abstract boxwoods, and I-spied Darth Vader’s bust in the classical Levens Hall estate. Zlotsky had the opportunity to stay in 33 cities, visit over 100 villages, wander 61 gardens, and saunter 1,700 miles.

Although dedicated topiary gardens were few and far between, topiary sculptures hid everywhere; we just need to know where to look.

Curator/Designer: Mark Zlotsky

All illustrations by Mark Zlotsky.

Zlotsky received his B.Arch from Syracuse School of Architecture and is the founder of Laboratory for Architectural Research and Design.

Topiary Tango is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.