Friday, July 01, 2011

Casa Glebinias: a green peace

Amid the arid, dusty landscape of Mendoza, Argentina’s premier wine-producing region, our delayed arrival at the lush garden refuge of Casa Glebinias was almost a shock.

We got lost after leaving the airport, and drove through miles of dry, brown, exhausted-looking countryside until I pulled off the road at what appeared to be a gasoline station and restaurant ... the sun bright and harsh, the landscape desolate.

So when we got back on track and finally turned off the highway into the town of Chacras de Coria, the grand sycamores lining the road were a welcome relief. It was clear they only survived because a ready supply of water was available from what looked like crude drainage ditches on either side of the road. (We were to learn that these are small canals, part of an enormous system of canals that have brought water from the nearby Andes to this arid landscape for centuries.)

The locked entrance gate emphasizes a sense of privacy and refuge.
That imported water makes Casa Glebinias possible. The owners, Alberto (who speaks Spanish, Italian, English and French) and Maria Gracia (who speaks Spanish, Italian and French), have created a place where landscape, garden, and built structures achieve a graceful unity. As you reach Casa Glebinias, you stop your car, unlock a shining wooden gate, and drive in, where you're immediately engulfed in vegetation, the low tree limbs brushing across your windshield as you move slowly forward.

On entry, no buildings are visible and the drive is obscured by low-hanging tree limbs, creating a sense of mystery and heightened awareness.
Only after driving 30 or 40 feet does space open up enough to reveal glimpses of buildings in the distance, but it's hard to tell where the buildings end and the gardened landscape begins.

An old wagon wheel, a sign of the intentional creation of a place that evokes a sense of history and age.

Our cottage, just off the drive, hidden in layers of vegetation.
Reaching the main house, the residence of the owners, is a little disorienting. The steps up to the house rise from a sudden curve in the driveway. The house itself is invisible at this point, and the parking area is hidden off to the left. The uncertainty about where to go, which way to turn, could be could be disconcerting, even annoying. But it isn't. Instead, it heightens awareness and anticipation, a feeling that something unexpected is about to happen. So when the car is safely parked, and you get out and look around at this garden setting, there's a strong sense of arrival, of calm refuge. If you're at all like me, you'll also feel excitement, anticipation. You'll be itching to explore the garden.

The main residence? Yes, but you can't yet see it.
Note above how little space is allowed for automobiles to turn left for parking. It's clear that cars are an afterthought here; something else is much more important than mode of transport. In the US, local codes would probably force the owners to provide a spacious, paved, traffic-worthy parking area that would do much to destroy the pastoral ambiance of Casa Glebinias.

The owner's residence (below), at least in summer, is always open; windows, doorways frame views to the outside, and bring outside inside. Going into the house doesn't feel like going inside. There's an airy lightness of space that subtly calms the autonomic nervous system. It just feels good, like standing in open shade looking out to the sun.

Before the history of Casa Glebinias was told to us, we assumed the guest cottages were perhaps 100 to 150 years old. Large trees come within inches of the exterior walls, and the architectural elements--windows, doorways, wooden beams, lock sets, doorknobs--clearly have great age. Imagine our surprise when Alberto explained that these had been built only five or six years ago.

It's difficult to conceive how our cottage (below) was constructed without damaging the surrounding trees, and not just ours, but all the cottages are situated adjacent to large trees ... their construction is an amazing demonstration of care, intention, and focus. Working with their close friend, architect Octavio Vitali, Alberto and Maria Gracia achieved an amazing feat of design and construction within their 30-year-old garden.

On first impression, you might think such a project couldn't possibly follow sustainable principles. But the cottages were built of salvaged materials. Even wood for support beams was taken from old structures and reused, as were doors, windows, and ornament. For cooling, the windows are screened with lace curtains inside (to keep out hot sunlight but let through air) and outside heavy grass mats--which  have a Tolkeinesque "Hobbit" charm--can be rolled down in the height of the day.

The entrance to our house, from the inside, showing the care taken to reuse an old doorframe and doors, and old wooden beams in the ceiling structure ... 

... and from the outside. I watched the old musical Brigadoon last night. That extraordinary and magical place appears only once every 100 years. But should you choose to visit Casa Glebinias on any day in any year, it will be there. The patina of age and sense of place the owners have created recalls just such magical stories.

Shady sitting areas are hidden away throughout the garden, providing relief from the heat during the day, and a pleasant place to read or talk away the twilight hours.

Ornamental conifers, a cosmopolitan selection of deciduous ornamental trees, fruit trees, grasses and some perennials are the principal elements of the landscape. This is definitely not a native plant garden. It's a garden that uses plants that are suitable to the place, considering the climate and almost universal availability of water from the Andes.

Here is Pinus patula, the Weeping Mexican pine ...

... Robinia pseudoacacia 'Freesia', which I thought was unusual to see in Argentina, but well informed sources there tell me it's widely planted. There are several at Casa Glebinias.

A pretty contrast of colors and textures. Sorry, don't know the names. Not up to speed on conifers. Or acacias (silver leaves).

View across the lawn to the pool, nestled into a hedgerow of shrubs, roses, and conifers, with another Robinia to provide dramatic highlight to the scene.

The theme of purple and gold is repeated throughout the garden ...

The Pinus patula again, at the entrance to a cottage, showing how ingeniously the buildings were built within the existing plantings. I wish I had asked Alberto how he managed to accomplish this amazing feat. I've never seen anything like it before.

A fruit of a North American tree, the Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), on the pavement in the parking area suggests the foliage "reliefs" Alberto and Maria Gracia used in some of the paving stones shown  below ...

I was curious what the word "glebinias" meant. When I asked Alberto, he explained that he and Maria Gracia chose a name that reflected their love of trees. Sort of a private pact only those who ask will understand. They combined the names for two trees they use throughout the garden--Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) and Robinia pseudoacacia 'Freesia'--to make Gle-binia-s.

Even if you don't go for the garden, this is a quite and peaceful place to stay when visiting Argentina's wine country.


  1. I would love to see some more about the water channel. It seems in many way this is a similar area to here in New Zealand. Many of the plants used are the same too.

    And this about the the weather in the area

  2. Very nice it reminds me 'hill' country gardens in AU

  3. Wow! That's some refuge, James. As you suggest, not knowing what's around the next bend of the road builds anticipation. I guess you took alot more images, wandering around, mesmerised. Very tranquil, it would appear. The unknown acacia may well be Acacia baileyana ( Purple-leaf acacia or Cootamundra wattle ) - they're not uncommon in Melbourne. Good to see property owners building structures within the treed framework - keeping the landscape intact instead of re-constituting it. A lovely journey.

  4. Hi, Tynes. Hope you're doing well in the rainforests of the Northwest.

  5. I think the technology of the water channels (source in the mountains, gravity flow) is similar, but I believe the history is entirely different. My impression is that the native people built the canals for agricultural purposes centuries ago, and they the practice has continued to the present. This is something I'd like to learn more about myself. I don't know if the state of Mendoza is in the rain shadow of the Andes. While we were there, there was a long, drenching downpour, with monstrous thunderheads and lightening. But I also think this is a rather rare occurrence.

  6. "Hill country gardens in AU," something else I know nothing about. Lots to learn.

  7. Faisal, thanks for the name of the Acacia. The ones in the photos did have a lot of purple, especially toward the tips of the stems. They were quite colorful and, to me, exotic.

  8. Isn't there a Unesco World Heritage site - with these canals still used for agriculture?

  9. Absolutely beautiful and proof that you do not necessarily need sweeping beds of annuals or perennials to have a beautiful garden. I love how they came up with the name.

  10. Interesting idea about a Unesco World Heritage site. I haven't been able to find much information on these canals, other than passing references to their ancient origin. I'm sure many are modern extensions.

  11. How true. There are relatively few flowers, but lots of color and loads of atmosphere.

  12. Mendoza is in a rain shadow. And is very dry with only 200mm rain a year. (is that 8 inches ?) See
    But our New Zealand site is mentioned there as well as Mendoza. The similarity is also that the rain is blocked by mountains only a few kilometers away. So we have huge rivers bursting across what is almost desert. And lots of available water. Unusual.
    The history is quite different. There is was the spanish digging irrigation from the 16th Century. And learning it perhaps from the Inca's. Here it was all gold rush and the middle 19th century. I understand California is the same in parts. And many of our gold miners were Californian.


  14. Looks like a picture of tranquility.

    Must have been pleasantly cool weather over there being winter and at some altitude. I gues it felt like Spring?

    They do good things with Malbec in the rain shadow of the Andes.

  15. Just to let you know that the architect in charge of the project was Octacio Vitali, with a large experience in environment-friendly architecture, who in this project worked as a team in close cooperation with his friends Alberto and Maria Gracia.

  16. Field of Gold, much of the US west coast seems to have a similar rain shadow effect. Washington and Oregon, for example, are rain forest ecology on the coast, and very dry inland, on the other side of the mountains.

  17. Rob, actually nights were quite cool in Uruguay, though in February it was the end of summer there (south of equator). Strange that I, a non-drinker, went to wine country, but my friends do drink wine, and had lots of Malbec.

  18. Fernando Gatti, thank you for providing the name of the architect. I wish I had gotten more information while at Casa Glebinias.

  19. Mr. Martin, thank you. Now I get the idea.

  20. Thanks for this - a place of great atmosphere and no little charm. It did seem an inward looking, refuge garden though and I found myself wondering about context, water use and claustrophobia. But it is difficult, if you haven't visited, to know. You have definitely tho highlighted Argentina as an interesting place to visit.
    Thanks again
    Best Wishes

  21. I have trouble with feelings of claustrophobia, but didn't experience that feeling at all. Context may be a little troubling. The lush garden of Casa Glebinias is almost opposite to the arid landscape outside, except that trees grow in profusion along the irrigation canals, which seem to be everywhere, even in the driest areas. The naturally arid landscape has been modified by human culture for several centuries. I also thought a lot about the Islamic garden while I was there. The form and style of this garden is, of course, entirely different from an Islamic garden, but they seem to be similar in their abundant use of that precious resource.

  22. Dear James Golden,
    It is now more than 30 years when we decide to materialize our love for nature and plants in time to create the family environment. We designed our home and garden, and we have since enjoyed working on it every day with dedication and passion.
    Shortly before our recent retirement, we thought to use that environment to provide a service that could also, although minimally, transmit and suggest a way of life. At that time, accompanied by our friend, the architect Octavio Vitali, was born Casa Glebinias.
    Currently we are very happy to share the emotions caused by what was done with so much love and effort, and whose intention you have noticed even in the smallest details. For us this is an extraordinary stimulus. Thank you very much.
    With our warmest regards, María Gracia y Alberto

  23. Dear Maria Gracia and Alberto,
    Thank you for the informative comment. I've taken the liberty of adding additional detail and Senor Vitali's name to the post. I hope we can visit again sometime in the future.

  24. I am the Architect Octavio and I wish to thank the beautiful publicaión this work I have done with Maria Gracia and Alberto This work is the culmination of a process which involved the passion, theory and experience accumulated over many years. And the great pleasure of doing something that might well call concrete poetry, and in this sense, especially thanks to associate with the atmosphere of Tolikien Glebinias House. My passionate love for the landscape has led me to find great pleasure in the hobby of watercolor. They would like to see?

  25. Octavio, thank you for adding to the story of the creation of Casa Glebinias, and for the link to your beautiful water colors.



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