miércoles, 31 de enero de 2018


(Si prefirieres leer esta entrada en español, la puedes encontrar aquí: Oudolf)

In the mid-1980s my summers were exhausting. My father, who had never handled a heavier tool than a Rotring, decided to buy a stony plot in the middle of a moor. Then he started planting fruit trees, gardening and building a house with his own hands.  No more beach holidays and hello concrete, chickens and piles of compost. I would say that there was a lot of romanticism in that, a lot of desire to do something for oneself, to leave the city, to be self-sufficient. But I can't figure out how my parents didn't end up getting divorced, because it was really hard. My parents worked from dawn to dusk, and since in those days children weren’t over-pampered, my brothers and I had to participate in that endless work. As far as I'm concerned, at the age of twelve, I was comfortable with a pick and shovel. I spent my mornings helping an amateur bricklayer (how my father managed to learn to do everything without the Internet will always be a mystery to me) and the afternoons and most of the night to fooling around with a gang of friends. I was usually ill during the summer; I'd say from exhaustion. But it was fun. 
At that very time, 1,700 kilometres north, a Dutch couple and their two children were going through a similar process. In their case, they were involved in converting an old farm in the east of the Netherlands. From what I have read, I assume that the father also worked unearthly hours, the children helped as much as they could and the mother was key to ensuring that it wasn't a disaster. One of the sons says it happened at an age when it still seemed fun. I completely understand him. Their story reminds me of what was going on in my house, although they did it with a much clearer objective and definitely more spectacular results. In their case, the conversion of the farmhouse responded to a search for a space to grow, test and sell new varieties of plants.  We can already affirm that all this work was the seed of something that had a decisive influence on the recent history of gardening. The father of the family was Piet Oudolf, the master soul of what some call the Dutch Wave and others the New Perennial Movement. Something intangible that I’m not sure whether to describe as a movement or a current, but that permeates, to the horror of some traditionalists, much of the interesting gardening of this day and age.
I've mentioned Oudolf in this blog countless times, but I haven't written any posts about him. The truth is that I don't know why, but I’ll try to make up for this deficit by writing two. I hope the first will serve as an introduction to the author's importance. In the second I’ll tackle an impossible objective: to analyze the keys of his plantations. So much has been written about this author that, to be completely honest, I don't think I’ll reveal any secrets. If you want more detailed and documented information, you can go to Noel Kingsbury's books. But as I would like to contribute my vision of the subject and writing is free, here it goes. 
When the Oudolf family bought that farm in Hummelo, Piet was a young professional trying to develop a gardening style strongly influenced by the reference of his fellow countrywoman Mien Ruys. A few years ago I wrote an entry about this designer. Without going into detail her work was characterized by a strong geometric and modernist organization of space through formal hedges that were softened by exuberant plantations of perennials. These perennials, so important in Ruys' work, obsessed Oudolf, and it was this search that led him to buy a farm. At that time Holland had the same problem that I ecounter here in Spain, it was almost impossible to find interesting perennials in nurseries. For this reason Piet and Anja Oudolf decided to create a nursery where they could grow the plants they needed for the gardens they wanted to make. The origin of their success lay in the nursery and garden of Hummelo. A nursery of this style attracted, like pollen attracts bees, a series of figures such as Henk Gerritsen, Rob Leopold or Ton Tert Linden, who influenced Piet's evolution towards an increasingly naturalistic style. In addition, their specialization in perennials and the originality of the species they cultivated helped them to attract the attention of other professionals who helped to showcase their work. But above all, Hummelo gave him a test field that allowed him to acquire a deep knowledge of these plants. Piet represents the artist par excellence: a person who knows a raw material perfectly and is able to create beauty with it thanks to an innate artistic ability. Piet's raw material are plants, especially perennials. His artistic ability to combine them is what marvels his admirers and annoys those who want to imitate him.
There are many ways to approach to naturalist-style gardening, but all of them focus on creating a stylized version of nature and are concerned about sustainability and biodiversity.  Landscapers, gardeners and nursery staff have worked within these basic principles long before and after Piet Oudolf became famous. In Germany Karl Foerster and his pupil Ernst Pagel had promoted the use of grasses and perennials in public spaces since the beginning of the 20th century. In the United States James van Sweden and Wolfgang Oehme had popularized prairie-inspired gardens long before anyone thought of building a garden on an abandoned railroad track. In Holland itself, the previously mentioned Mien Ruys had been a successful predecessor of the style. And even in the mighty England, somewhat anchored in her Arts and Crafts style, authors like Keith Wile with his Wildside Garden or Beth Chatto with her Gravel Garden, anticipated Oudolf with their naturalistic plantations. And these days you only have to take a look at the monthly edition of Gardens Illustrated to realize that in the four cardinal points of the globe there are authors who continue to give us wonderful gardens of naturalist style. And among them Piet Oudolf, who at the age of 73 is still working, especially in the United States and Europe and continues to be the undisputed leader of the movement. What is the reason for this success? Well, success, and particularly artistic success, needn’t meet objective criteria, although in this case there are some factors that I think justify it:
  • Artistic ability: We said before that naturalistic gardens are concerned about sustainability and biodiversity. But Piet has never intended be an ecologist and for him the aesthetic component has always been above other considerations. His gardens respond to the search for a stylized version of nature that evolves and brings beauty throughout the seasons. A naturalist garden will be successful if it manages to evoke nature without being nature, that is, maintaining a complex balance between naturalness and intentionality. Just as important is the balance between complexity and coherence. For a naturalist garden to be believable it must be complex, contain an adequate variety of plants. But at the same time it must be coherent, offer harmony or visual impact at a given time. Oudolf achieves these balances like no other. If you analyze any of its gardens it is absurd to think that they are natural and wild. It is obvious that they respond to a very complex human design. But if you leave aside analysis and limit yourself to wandering around the garden, you may find yourself caught up in a beauty that awakens deeper elements of the human psyche.  
  • Originality: Piet has his own distinctive signature. You can always have doubts about the authorship of a garden, but it is very difficult not to distinguish a plantation by Oudolf. His designs with plant blocks are a style in itself that few have tried to imitate. To make a plantation with blocks of plants you must be very sure of what you are doing, because the slightest mistake can ruin the overall effect of the entire garden. On the other hand, it is a style that he doesn’t hesitate to abandon when he think fit. Many successful authors in different artistic disciplines end up becoming an imitation of themselves. Oudolf has never become a cliché because it has never stopped evolving.
  • Durability: its gardens are more long-lasting than those of other authors in two ways. In the short term they deliver beauty throughout many months within the same year. Last summer I had the opportunity to visit different gardens in England. It had been a particularly dry summer and some gardens appeared a bit withered and out of season. Hauser & Wirth looked spectacular in contrast. In the medium term, his plantations are reliable. Authors such as Tom Stuart-Smith highlight the Oudolf’s gardens ability to maintain their appearance for many years without major interventions. His expertise in plant selection is spectacular.
  • Beauty of decay: With Oudolf we have learned to enjoy another kind of beauty, the beauty of dead plants. I would say that it is a universal beauty, but that particularly authors like Oudolf have opened our eyes to. His gardens, with a greater focus on plant structure and texture than on color, are authentic meteor hunters. Oudolf’s perennials always leave behind a beautiful dead body. The skeletons of its plants capture light, ice, snow and dew, and give us a spectacle of elements that would not be perceived without them.
  • Honesty: Unlike most successful authors, Oudolf has not created a studio. His fame would allow him to have a wide team of professionals, but on the other hand he continues to make his designs manually in the solitude of his studio. This could be understood as a lack of ambition, but I think it is rather honesty and loyalty to his principles of success. Oudolf is not a landscape architect, he is a plantation designer and he puts all his focus on this. Many of his projects are carried out in collaboration with architects who provide him with a blank canvas that he fills with his spectacular plantations. This collaborative model has also been followed when publishing books. I guess Piet doesn't feel comfortable as a writer. But he feels the urge to pass on his knowledge, so he has looked for the collaboration of people like Henk Gerritsen, Michael King or Noel Kingsbury blessed by the gift of writing.
  • Generosity: I don't know any other author who publishes the plans of his plantations with such untroubledness. When he has been asked if he is not afraid of being copied, his answer defines him perfectly: no, I always have new ideas. For the execution of their projects he usually relies on the collaboration of local professionals, often young people who consider it to be a true gift to collaborate with their master. Many who excel greatly in a discipline come across as being detached. Piet contrasts that image with overwhelming humility and modesty. 
  • Public spaces: Oudolf has built public and private gardens, but the proportion of public spaces he has developed is much higher than other designers. This brings you to the paradox that on a trip to England it may be easier to visit gardens designed by Oudolf than gardens of local authors such as Dan Pearson, Tom Stuart-Smith or Jinny Blom. The Netherlands, Sweden, England and the United States have a few examples of plantations in public spaces designed by Oudolf. If, in addition, one of these public spaces is a huge success story namely New York's High Line, it's hardly surprising he’s considered number one in his field.

To be continued...

4 comentarios:

  1. So much to try and explain, it's great to read your take on it.

    For me, the cornerstone of Piet's vision is a fundamentally different concept of beauty in planting design that informs every aspect of his thinking – both philosophically, artistically, and as a plantsman.

    I think that as students of this approach, the first and most important lesson is to learn to "see". For example, to see the beauty in death and decay (inspired by Henk Gerritsen). It is about plants, but also metaphorical.

    You're correct that he started out with a focus on aesthetics but that definitely changed as he evolved towards a balance of aesthetics and ecology. He created his plant palette with over 30 years of trial and error to select those that would best perform together in the public space. And he sees plants in terms of four dimensions, including time.

    He also explored far and wide to create that plant palette, especially at a formative stage traveling to nurseries in England and bringing plants back to Hummelo.

    His artistry in terms of planting design is drawn in part from close observation of how plants coexist as communities in the natural world. He has said as much. But it's also drawn from observations of art, culture, music and much more, that is essentially intangible.

    He views plants as tools of personal expression, with his plantings designed to evolve in time and space and participate in the life-flow and mysteries of nature.

    That's my take on it. My thinking refined by conversations with Piet himself.

    1. Thank you very much, Tony. I totally agree with you. It is difficult to summarize in a single post all the thoughts I have about Piet's work. Your comments clarify aspects that I have not been able to explain.

  2. Miguel - I absolutely love your perspective here. You yourself write with great honesty. I think you have so clearly articulated some of the essences that make Piet who he is. I just enjoyed reading this so much, and look forward to Part II. All the best, Barbara

    1. Thank you very much Barbara. Your comment is very kind. Greetings from Spain



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