The renowned Chilean landscape architect on responding to topography, his passion for evergreens, and why herbaceous perennials are overrated
The Chilean landscape architect Juan Grimm on his love of evergreens and why he favours composition over colour
Great designers tend to have a crystal-clear rationale about what it is they do. Juan Grimm is no exception. The most celebrated landscape designer in South America is in London to speak at a conference, and we meet at the Kensington Hotel where he has been put up; one of those ‘wedding-cake’ white-stucco buildings with clipped topiary and evergreens in window boxes. It’s a rather stuffy place, which seems a world away from the wide open spaces of Juan’s home environment in Chile – that long, narrow country, which boasts multiple climates and habitats.
“My landscapes look natural, but they are composed,” Juan begins. Having been to Chile and seen a number of his designs, I can certainly concur. But this summary seems a little too simple. A typical Juan Grimm garden (most of his work is in the private sphere) consists of native shrub plantings that subtly direct the visitor through a variety of spaces that respond delicately to the surrounding topography. As well as this underlying poise there is a dynamism about the plantings that imbues his work with great expressive power – and I want to know how he does it.
“The size of the plants is very important,” he explains. “First, to conform the space, I use evergreen shrubs; I do that in all my gardens. Then I put in medium-sized shrubs, such as hebes or myrtles, which I use just so that I can feel the way. Then there are the smaller plants, and finally the ground covers. It is only when I have made the room that I think about painting it, using flowering shrubs, such as Spiraea or Viburnum.” Then he restates: “The difference between my work and that of nature is composition.”
Of course, it sounds simple, but Juan’s mastery of the form is such that all of his work feels as if it has a beginning, a middle and an end, despite its naturalistic tone. “When I am designing I always think about the space first and how it can be integrated with the surrounding landscape,” he continues. “For example, at the moment I am designing a garden in Patagonia where the mountain is covered in small, native Nothofagus (southern beech), which turns bright red in autumn. So I have used only Spiraea thunbergii in the garden because it links with that colour.” He has made a similar decision for the landscape surrounding a new temple for the Bahá’í faith in Santiago (Juan’s biggest public commission), where the golden colour of the Andean mountains at dusk has inspired the use of massed Hypericum.
In this context I mention William Robinson, the 19th-century author of The Wild Garden who advised planting ‘exotic’ plants alongside natives – as long as they look happy together. “Yes, it’s exactly the same for me,” Juan says. “That’s why I use cork oaks so much: they are not native but they look Chilean.”
Juan was brought up “in a very small house with a very small garden” in Santiago, with five brothers. “They would play with their cars and I would make landscapes for them,” he recalls. Otherwise he had little exposure to landscape and gardens, barring the garden of an uncle and the public parks of Santiago. A number of these parks were designed in the 1940s and 1950s by the expatriate Austrian designer Óscar Prager and Juan says that these became a major influence when he was studying architecture at Santiago University. “Prager was my real ‘professor’,” he says. “I really learned from his work – especially the way he used orthogonal or geometric path systems and then planted trees as a counterpoint. I have created gardens using just three kinds of oak – deciduous, evergreen and cork oak. Prager gave me the confidence to do that. And it’s because of him that I use evergreens all the time.”
Roberto Burle Marx is generally regarded as the greatest landscape designer South America has produced and Juan duly pays his respects, especially with regard to the Brazilian master’s celebration of native flora. But Juan says that in fact he had never heard of Burle Marx until he entered a design competition that Burle Marx was judging (a competition Juan won). The Chilean’s work is more restrained and composed, and generally less colourful, than that of the Brazilian master.
The traditional suspicion of colour exhibited by most modernist designers is indeed borne out in Juan’s case by his clothing – black jeans, black shirt, black pumps. He appears rather nonplussed by the emphasis on herbaceous perennials – and associated colour – at the conference in London where he is speaking. “I love to see the gardens of Piet Oudolf and I think the High Line is magnificent,” he says. “But there is no consistency to the design. After the autumn these borders fall down because there is no structure. This kind of work can be a little like decoration. Where is the design? The depth?”
Perhaps this perspective from South America is a prompt for us to re-examine current planting obsessions here in northern Europe.
USEFUL INFORMATION For more information on Juan’s recent project for the Bahá’í temple in Santiago see: templo.bahai.cl/en/
NEXT MONTH American landscape architect Lisa Delplace.