An Avant Garden

Tierny Gearon

Iranian American Angella Nazarian makes a garden design in the architectural style of her ancestors a reality.

The smell of jasmine hits you before you see the garden of Angella Nazarian, an accomplished Jewish Iranian American author, lecturer and champion of women’s rights who has called Los Angeles home for the past 30 years. Hidden behind her hillside Mediterranean-style villa, just beyond the tropical David Hockney vista of the palm-shaded swimming pool, is a gate—a portal, really—to a time and culture far removed from the modern city below.

Over the past five years, Nazarian and her husband, David, a successful technology entrepreneur, along with the assistance of Richard Weinstein, a former dean of UCLA’s Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, and his wife, Edina, an accomplished landscape designer, have transformed the nearly one-acre overgrown canyon behind their estate into a magical, rambling classical Persian paradise garden inspired by ancient spaces in Shiraz and Isfahan; the deep blue-, white- and yellow-tiled façades of the royal pavilions at Chehel Sotoun; and the pure turquoise waterways and cypress allées of the Fin Garden in Kashan.

“As far as I know, it’s the first of its kind and stature in the United States,” the 45-year-old, preternaturally youthful Nazarian says, lounging in a cream-colored cashmere sweater with Roxy, her Maltese, in the garden’s lower court. “This is about sharing our culture and highlighting the best of it.”

The idea to build the garden was actually born four decades ago, when, as a child, Nazarian took a trip to the Iranian countryside with her mother and grandmother. “I remember holding my mom’s hand walking through the Shiraz gardens, where the revered national poet Hafez is buried,” she says, “and marveling at the cascading pools of water and intricately mosaicked octagonal dome of the mausoleum.” Nazarian, like many other Persian émigrés, has not returned to Iran because of the country’s ongoing political situation. “I ache to see those kinds of sceneries again,” she adds. “Who doesn’t want to return to where they spent their most cherished moments of childhood?”

The basic design of a Persian garden, with its symmetrical quadrants separated by waterways and lined with cypress trees, reflecting pools and intricately tiled and carved pavilions, hasn’t changed much for two millennia. But unlike, say, a formal French garden, which is meant to be looked at, or an English garden, with its rolling hills and Impressionist-inspired landscapes, Persian gardens are more architectural—they’re meant to be lived in.

Nazarian’s version, which comprises four distinct spaces, is no exception, though its plantings, including a vegetable-and-herb garden boasting eggplants, tomatoes, rosemary, mint and lavender, are heavily influenced by contemporary California living.

“Every season we make sure something is blooming,” Nazarian says. In the winter, camellias cover the walls of the aforementioned lower court, a kind of intimate open-air living room, in hot pinks and deep reds. In the summer and fall, the air is fragranced by the sweet perfume of espalier magnolias. An orchard of typical Iranian fruits—fig, apple, lime, lemon and pomegranate trees, which also happen to grow well in the mild California climate—has been planted around the tennis court. All told, the garden features 15 varieties of roses, which Nazarian likes to display for fresh flowers around the house. A full-sized pizza oven, perfect for alfresco dining, rounds out the domestic offerings. “This way we use the garden,” Nazarian says, “it becomes a way of life, a lifestyle.”

But it is the central courtyard, bordered on one end by a 27-foot-tall curved metal pergola laced with lavender trumpet lilies and on the other by a massive “tea pavilion” with an indoor-outdoor seating area, that tells the real story.

“The garden’s not a replica,” Nazarian is quick to point out, standing in front of the 50-foot-long turquoise-tiled waterway and central fountain surrounded by cypress and palm trees and lavender. “We simplified the form and made it modern.” She’s not kidding. At 19 feet high and sporting a rounded contemporary roof with stained-glass windows, the tea pavilion, which also houses a bar and serving area and a bathroom, subtly references the futurist architecture of Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid (coincidentally, one of the subjects of Nazarian’s second book, Pioneers of the Possible).

Recently, Nazarian and her family hosted a 200-person dinner around the central fountain and turned the tea pavilion into a dance floor. “Persians pride themselves on being great hosts,” she explains. “We are continuing the tradition in a new way.”

Spending the day wandering the grounds, though, it is clear that the garden is much more than just a space to throw a good party. Rather, it is something holier: a place to reflect, to write, to experience nature. “It’s about 2,500 years of heritage,” Nazarian says, looking out through the pergola to the smoggy L.A. skyline below, “and taking an approach as lovers of the arts and wanting to do something that is deserving of the gardens I used to see as a child.”

A cultural proxy of sorts, then—perhaps not unheard of in a city often referred to as “Tehrangeles” and that possesses the largest community of Iranian expatriates in America, but rarely if ever seen in this authentic and sophisticated a way. But then again, for Nazarian, connecting the two cultures comes naturally. “We are much more the same than different,” she says.

With the evening light beginning to softly wash over the suspended tea pavilion, the stained-glass windows lit from within like the jewel tones of an ancient carpet, the gently swaying cypress trees and Century City a hazy mirage of cement buildings in the distance that could almost be Tehran, that bridge has never seemed closer.