Gardening – a performance over time
An interview with Piet Oudolf
“My work is a 365 day-a-year project”, the Dutch landscape architect Piet Oudolf explains to me during our conversation. We are discussing the fact that it almost seems to be a universal thought that spending time outside, in a garden is implicit to spring or summertime. But Piet Oudolf has, nevertheless, in the past years influenced not only myself but also a big part of the world to reconsider this practical view on gardening. By bringing an exceptional attentiveness to the garden’s performance throughout all seasons, he shows that this is not a type of architecture that is beautiful in just one specific season. With Oudolf’s design of public gardens like High Line Garden in New York, the Lurie Garden in Chicago or the Serpentine Gallery in London, he has started an entirely new movement within the creation of gardens.
Piet Oudolf is in the middle of a busy time – just like always, he points out. Oudolf explains that he constantly has 6-8 different ongoing projects simultaneously. If it isn’t the process of designing, it is following up on projects, building or another type of work.
Piet Oudolf has a very particular view on the art of designing gardens. “I don’t see the seasons as limitations; the gardens that I design are done so as to be engaging all year around. Not that they will always be in bloom, but that the structure and design provides a constant level of engagement. When not in bloom, during the winter, the more architectural parts of the space should become more important and interesting. There are different stages when different parts of the garden become more or less interesting, but there is always something compelling, not only during summertime.”
He works with a big team of landscape architects and designers. With himself and his wife leading the organization as well as a hardworking team, Piet is able focus on doing what he calls the ‘master planning’: “When I get a new client I firstly find the right team for that garden, and then I visualize the design in my head before it is put down on paper,” he explains.
Emotional flowers and trees
Planting: A New Perspective, Landscapes in Landscapes and Designing with Plants are examples of some of the books in which Piet Oudolf has written about his design approach. With the ability to put the process of designing gardens into words, along with his years and years of experience, one can almost think that such processes would become a routine. But the process of planning and designing the gardens that Piet Oudolf undertakes is never the same: “Every time I get a new project it is a new experience, I can’t tell before I start how I will proceed this particular time. If it is a private garden I usually do a lot of the tasks myself, but in a public garden there are many more aspects that need to be considered. After all the safety, traffic and so on is analyzed I can get down to the business of design.”
A garden can never be static, so the importance of understanding the movement in the garden, to fully see it’s potential, is truly essential. For Oudolf, there is almost a whole ideology behind it. “I could never label my work to be, for example, summer gardens or winter gardens. Gardens are always contemporary because they are set in the time we live in. To me, it is a narrative that I bring to life. If the client wants something, I make the garden dance around that specific request that they have.”
There are a lot of layers in Oudolf’s planting, and he has a strong believe that energy and emotions are important in the design, which is constantly changing. He continues to explain his philosophy behind the design of the gardens in words: “The interesting part of a garden is not just the flowers or the trees, it is how they work together to express a special mood or feeling. Emotions changes throughout the year, as with, for example, the trees. A tree can take 100 years before it is fully grown – until then it is the transformation and the structure and the tree trunk that express the emotion.”
A garden, constantly moving
Oudolf believes that a garden always needs to rely on nature more or less, and there is therefore never a “finishing step” in a garden, it is constantly changing and moving. “Because of the constant movement in a garden, the natural process is a part of my work. It is my job to always understand and make my design work with, what would happen when, for example, one flower wouldn’t blooming during the winter.
Clearly, there are many aspects that you need to consider while creating and designing a garden. With the nature playing a so big part of the work I wonder if Piet Oudolf ever feels that he loses control over his work? “No I always have control, but time is the dimension that people often forget when imagining or planning a garden. You must let the process steer the work. You control the work by designing a good structure. When that is established, you need to have good people that are working with the garden, all the time, all year around. Take action and at the same time let it go and let time do the job from there on.” Compared to other types of architecture, landscape architecture is more dependent on the season, but Oudolf believes that as an architect he still can stay in control of the garden. He sees it is as his job to gain control while designing the structure, so it will maintain a consistent feeling all year around.
Gardening as a performance across seasons
Oudolf compares his process with a pallet. It is like having a pallet in every project where every specific form needs to work together. All the wilderness, flowers and colours need to have a structure that is created together in one united pallet.
“I sense which flowers I would like to use in a particular area, I don’t need to look at a list of plants. With all my experience I know how a plant will perform or how a tree will grow. And from that sense, I create my own list of plants I want to use, in the knowledge that they will create something together – a garden.”
Instead of thinking in seasons Oudolf has a big vision for the experience of the whole year that he wants the visitor to experience: “I want it to be an experience in itself to enter the gardens, I don’t want people just to watch the garden, I want them to feel it, to experience it in every sense. When people enter the Lurie Garden in Chicago they can have all sort of different purposes, depending on their time. Are they there just on their way to work or on a long visit? Either way, I want the garden to do something to them, it should effuse something to its visitors so that they feel an urge to come back. I want people to have a feeling that they want to see the changes and experience the seasonality. The garden should be so dynamic that people come back just to feel or witness its changes.” The concept of time comes back over and over again when Oudolf talks about his gardens but he’s still able to explain it in just a single sentence: “It is a performance in time.”
And maybe it is like Piet Oudolf says, that we are all longing for the wild and green. If so, the gardens of Piet Oudolf are one way to go and satisfy our inner desire.