The cultivated landscape
In the green and pleasantly flat surrounds of the Dutch countryside sits the tiny village of Hummelo. It is from here that the towering designer Piet Oudolf has revolutionised that most domesticated of landscapes – the garden. Piet’s lush, naturalistic drifts caused a storm when he began his practice in the 1980s and have since become a hallmark for a new wave of garden design. Now, his colourful perennials and painterly grasses can be found the world over, from the dreamy English meadow of Hauser & Wirth Somerset to the meandering trails of New York’s High Line. Despite an ever-growing list of global projects, Piet still feels at home in the Low Countries and makes time to tend the plot in which his horticultural empire first began.
Interview by Mark Smith, photography by Gillieam Trapenberg
MARK SMITH: I got worried when I checked your Instagram that I might not find you at home here in Hummelo. Your most recent pictures were posted from New York City just a day or two ago.
PIET OUDOLF: I just got back from there, yes, but I’ve taken some melatonin for the jetlag.
MS: We’re quite close to the German border here, aren’t we?
PO: We’re close, yes, but not close enough to walk it.
MS: Does the Netherlands’ famous flatness just stop abruptly at the border?
PO: No, the landscape is quite similar here to the landscape around Emmerich, to our south, which is the last German town on the Rhine. There’s no real change in terms of landscape, but the distinction is clearer in terms of the architecture and the style of the houses.
MS: What else is there to know about the Dutch landscape, apart from the famous flatness?
PO: Well, there’s the fact that a significant portion of the country is reclaimed from the sea. So even what we call “nature” here is man-tamed to a certain degree.
MS: To what extent does that taming inform the Dutch character, do you think?
PO: There’s always been a sense that, if we want something, we have to make it. And I think that because we’re such a small country we’ve always felt the need to prove ourselves outside the confines of our borders, we have this desire to be innovative and to stand out.
MS: Who’s your nearest neighbour out here?
PO: There’s a farmer who lives just a few fields away.
MS: You must speak to each other mainly on the phone, then.
PO: Oh no, people who live in the countryside never ring each other unless someone’s died. We usually have a coffee with each other on New Year’s Day to catch up.
MS: On the entire previous year?
PO: We’re busy people. But we sort of know what’s going on just by standing back and observing each other. The social life in a village like this depends entirely on seasonal fairs, harvest festivals and so on.
MS: Is there a particular season you’re fondest of?
PO: As a gardener, I get excited about spring; it’s about more than just flowers for me, it’s the energy that you feel as life returns to the land. Sound is a very important aspect of that – when you hear the birdsong and the insects.
MS: Do you remember being excited about such things as a child?
PO: I loved the dunes and the woodlands of the Dutch landscape in a very general sense, although I wasn’t necessarily conscious of that. You could say I loved it all without knowing it. My family owned a bar and restaurant in the countryside near Haarlem, and we would play in the woods there. But when you’re a child I think you’re capable of finding adventure wherever you happen to be, whether that’s in the countryside or in the city.
MS: Did your parents assume that you would take over the restaurant one day?
PO: I worked there in my early twenties, but I believe there comes a point in your life when you start looking for escape routes.
MS: How did you find your route?
PO: I went to work in a garden centre, and it turned my entire life around. From that point onwards, everything I did was in service of what I’m doing now.
MS: Did you like the people at the garden centre?
PO: People are people – some of them are nice, some of them aren’t. No, what I liked was the plants. From the very first moment I came into contact with plants, I recognised them as my medium.
MS: Do you think of plants as having personalities?
PO: They can’t be compared to human personalities, no, but they certainly have character. For example, some are more impatient than others. And their character can change throughout the year; they can go from being very pretty and delicate at first to more robust later on. For me they’re often most beautiful just before they disappear, to come back again next year.
MS: Given how strongly you feel about plants, I wonder whether it’s hard for you to let go of the gardens you make for other people – to hand them over to a client or to the public.
PO: It depends on the project, but I’m generally quite relaxed about it. And I’m too busy now to keep an eye on all the gardens I’ve ever made. I can’t be the only person responsible for the future quality of the garden. It’s like a building in that regard.
MS: I imagine gardens are less predictable than buildings.
PO: That’s why they’re so interesting to me. It’s not just the complexity of the plants; it’s the climate, the weather and the human being who’s in control of the garden. I try to operate on the borderline between a landscape that’s under control and one that’s breaking free, but at the end of the day it’s still a garden and it needs work.
MS: What do you have on your desk at the moment?
PO: I’m in the middle of creating the garden for the Maggie’s Centre for cancer care in south London. The building itself is an Ab Rogers design. And they want me to redo my borders at the Royal Horticultural Society garden in Wisley. I’m also involved in Goldman Sachs’ rooftop garden at their head office in London, together with Eelco Hooftman from the landscape architecture firm GROSS. MAX., in Edinburgh. Then there’s a new development in Stockholm with the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron and the Dutch landscape architects LOLA. And I’m getting quite busy with the roof garden at Singer Laren, which is a museum and concert hall here in the Netherlands. That’s a big project, too...
MS: Wow! Can you show me the plan for just one project?
PO: Let’s see. Ah yes, here’s the plaza that I’m planning between 10th Avenue and West 18th Street in New York. It’s a little corner in front of a new hotel, but it’s going to be open to the public and I’ll do the planting for it. It’s for the same organisation that runs the High Line. Look, here are the stairways leading up to the High Line itself.
MS: Your planting plans are beautiful creations in themselves, with all these bright patches of colour, drawn so neatly by hand. Do you only visualise landscapes from a bird’s eye view like this, or are there other perspectives too?
PO: This is the most useful elevation because you get the best sense of the rhythm in terms of where different plants are placed, but a disadvantage is that you can’t see whether one plant is much taller than another, or that what you see when you walk up a hill is completely different to when you walk down the same hill because the planting looks flatter from above than from underneath. I can’t possibly make drawings for all of that, though – these are the things I must keep in my head instead.
MS: Do you need to have had your feet on the ground in order to work with a landscape?
PO: Yes, at the beginning of a project I need to visit at least twice to get a feel for it. And later on, when a garden is coming together, I can solve a problem much more effectively when on site. With Skype and FaceTime, distance can seem unimportant these days, but technology can’t convey depth or atmosphere, which are such important elements of a landscape. I like to see how people are using the existing space: how and where they choose to enter and leave a park, for example. I need to understand those things.
MS: How does a popular garden like the High Line cope with having seven million humans walk through it every year?
PO: It’s a challenge, of course, especially when you consider that when the High Line was first proposed, it was estimated there would be a maximum of 250,000 visitors per year. There are particular places where people like to stop and take selfies, and that leads to a concentration of damage in certain spots. Plus, when I walk the High Line myself, I sometimes see small kids ripping off leaves all over the place because they think it’s a game. But you shouldn’t blame the children, of course.
MS: How do you react to that?
PO: I ask them to please stop. Don’t get me wrong: I love children, but I love to see them playing in a playground. Dogs I don’t mind in my gardens so much. They don’t disrupt anything; they just pick their way through.
MS: Is that your dog I saw scurry past the window earlier?
PO: The little Manchester terrier? That’s Duffy. She’s nine years old and she sniffs around all day. When I see her go by that French window over there, that’s when I know that my wife, Anja, is coming.
MS: Anja runs the garden here, doesn’t she?
PO: Yes. This garden brings a social aspect to our lives because we like to show what we do to the public. In doing so, we have an obligation to keep the garden in top condition. It’s quite a commitment.
MS: There are so many different grasses here – in fact, you’ve been credited for making them fashionable again. What is it you particularly like about grasses?
PO: Grasses have an architectural quality that people had been ignoring. They move in the wind in an interesting way, and then there’s the huge but subtle variety of colours. All in all, they have a very naturalistic quality that gives the impression of wildness.
MS: Do you think of some landscapes as being inherently more hostile than others?
PO: There are some environments where all I can hope to do is restore what’s there, sowing native plants without adding anything new. There are some places where I can’t make a garden at all. There’s a project in Switzerland, for example, where the land was so overgrown with brambles that I was quite limited in my options. Is that a hostile landscape? I tend to think it’s my responsibility to respond to the landscape, not the other way around.
MS: Your gardens are often described as dreamlike. Do you literally dream about them?
PO: Not literally, no, but the environment is very evocative and I think my gardens represent something we’d love to see in nature but that couldn’t really exist in nature. They’re quite dreamlike because you would never encounter them in a real landscape, and yet they’re evocative of a real landscape. There’s the sort of layering that you’d see in the wild, but layering in the wild isn’t usually very pretty, as a rule. The gardens trigger a pleasant kind of déjà vu.
MS: They’re hyperreal?
PO: Yes, hyperreal. That’s a good word for them.
MS: Maybe that’s why your gardens look so great on Instagram as well as in real life. Yours is one of the few accounts that leaves me feeling better about the state of the world after I visit it. Do you manage it yourself, Piet?
PO: Insofar as there’s anything to manage, yes. I just post something and see what happens. Instagram is a bit of fun and of course it’s nice that I have something like 47,000 followers, but in the context of other people who are known for their jobs that’s not a lot.
MS: Do you think there’s such a thing as a branded landscape? I’m sure people desire a Piet Oudolf garden in the same way they crave a David Adjaye-designed house.
PO: In a very real sense, some people advertise the fact that they have a garden made by me. There’s a house in downtown New York that’s on the market right now, and the first line of the particulars reads “garden by Piet Oudolf”.
MS: Does that make you feel a bit uncomfortable?
PO: Not especially. But I want my work to reach as many people as possible, which is why I prefer public commissions to private ones. I’m not personally interested in being visible, though. It is better that they know your name than your face.
MS: Is that a Dutch proverb?
PO: No, it’s just something that came to me.