Dazzling in the sun, its golden roof tiles shining, Olbrich Botanical Gardens' new Thai Pavilion is an exquisite example of Thai craftsmanship. Constructed without nails or screws, the Thai Pavilion is a special gift to the University of Wisconsin-Madison from the government of Thailand and the Thai Chapter of the Wisconsin Alumni Association. It opened to the public on June 15 in Madison.
Olbrich's beautiful public gardens, where the pavilion is surrounded by reflecting pools and a serene Thai-style garden, provide an ideal setting for this cultural treasure. The Thai Pavilion at Olbrich is the only one in the continental United States and the only one outside of Thailand in a garden setting.
The Thai Pavilion is truly a work of art. The teakwood structure boasts a red lacquer finish with intricate decorative details and gold leaf accents. Grand in size, it measures 40 feet long, 22 feet wide and 30 feet high. It was constructed in Thailand, disassembled and shipped to Madison, and rebuilt by Thai artisans in the fall of 2001.
The public has received the pavilion with enthusiasm since its opening. Says Olbrich's public relations coordinator, Sharon Cybart, "It's very beautiful and unique, and very different for Wisconsin. People are aware that it's here, and it's something they want to see when they come to Olbrich. They're amazed at its beauty and artistic quality."
The Thai word for this type of open-air structure is "sala" (pronounced sa-LA). Salas are commonly used as shelters from heat and rain. In their native country, where access to water is associated with good health and prosperity, salas are often located near water; this is also the case at Olbrich. Here, the sala and Thai garden are separated from the other gardens by Starkweather Creek. An ornamental bridge leads to the pavilion, symbolically bridging cultures and linking the gardens. Olbrich's sala is of such fine quality that "it's like what you would see on palace grounds in Thailand," says Cybart. "Some Thai visitors have never seen a pavilion like this and they're amazed."
The planting design for the Thai garden emphasizes texture and form. Plants similar to tropical plants, but hardy in Wisconsin's cold winters, are used to suggest a tropical paradise. For example, ornamental grasses such as giant miscanthus-which can reach12 feet in height-give the same feel as bamboo. Big-leaf shrubs and trees can be pruned to give them the look of large-leaf plants typical of a tropical Thai garden.
The garden design also includes glazed water jars and clipped tree art, called "mai dat," both common elements of Thai gardens. Mai dat has been practiced since the 13th century. At Olbrich, a large Scots pine is used as a clipped art specimen. Potted conifers on the brick-paved terraces mimic exotic forms. Fragrant plants with gold-colored and patterned foliage also grace the garden, as they do in Thailand.
The pavilion gift demonstrates the fondness of Thai alumni and the people of Thailand for the University of Wisconsin and the city of Madison. UW-Madison has the largest number of Thai alumni of any U.S. college or university, with nearly 700 graduates since the first Thai students attended in 1917. A shining jewel on the shores of Lake Monona, Olbrich's Thai Pavilion and Garden provide a unique educational, cultural and horticultural partnership between Thailand, Madison, the University of Wisconsin and Olbrich Botanical Gardens.
For more information about Olbrich Botanical Gardens, call 608-246-4550 or visit Olbrich's Web site.