Who’s who

The renowned Chilean land­scape ar­chi­tect on re­spond­ing to to­pog­ra­phy, his pas­sion for ev­er­greens, and why herba­ceous peren­ni­als are over­rated

Gardens Illustrated Magazine - - Contents - WORDS TIM RICHARD­SON POR­TRAIT CHAR­LIE HOPKINSON

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.

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