In conversation with the Dutch landscape designer in the garden he created at the Vitra Campus in Weil Am Rhein: “those who create with passion let the others see afar”

It is Summer time and the garden that Piet Oudolf designed and built at the Vitra Campus, inaugurated last September and immediately closed due to Covid, is an explosion of colors, fragrances and buzzing of bees. Like a meadow, where it is a great pleasure to get lost.

The best way to grasp its meaning, however, is to imagine it in winter. The colors will be different, muted, warm, stems will be more slender. Leaves, flowers, perfumes, insects will disappear. But it will be equally beautiful because Oudolf, 77, Dutch, the most famous landscape architect in the world (author, among others, of the High Line in New York), has always designed his gardens starting “from the shape, presence and personality of plants and their evolution in all seasons”. Winter included.

It is this centrality of the single plant, proposed as a presence worthy of respect, transformed into a protagonist of a space (rather than a mere decorative and seasonal touch), the real revolution that Piet Oudolf has brought to the world of landscape design, since the 1980s. And things were never the same again.

Piet Oudolf, what is the purpose of a garden?

A garden is a means to enjoy open spaces, to get closer to beauty. For me, however, it is above all a way of expressing myself, of putting something into the world that is part of me.

What does Piet Oudolf want to bring to the world with his gardens?

Happiness. I design gardens to feel happy and help others to be happy. When I create a green space and I feel good in it, many others also feel the same thing: so there is that good feeling of sharing an emotion that comes from something I have given to others.

Perhaps it is for the passion that you put into it, which people perceive...

I think so. Those who create with passion offer a glimpse of what is beyond the obvious. And people feel it, each in their own way. I love plants intensely: I discovered them while working in a garden center as a boy and it was a true, almost obsessive, falling in love. I wanted to know everything about them: to understand them, to grasp their character. Then I realized that they could be a means of expressing myself, like colors for a painter.

How do you know the character of a plant?

By spending a lot of time observing it: how it grows, how it reacts to different situations, how it changes with the seasons. As a young man I spent an enormous number of hours and days surrounded by plants: in the nursery that I built together with my wife Anja we had 1000 varieties. We collected them, we exchanged them with other enthusiasts, we bought them. We knew them all one by one. So today, if I sell a variety, I know very well what it will do when it gets cold, what rituals it performs throughout the year, what makes it feel good and what species it wants to surround itself with. Some plants are aggressive, others placid, still others welcoming. Like people...

This is why its gardens are enjoyable all year round...

Exactly. Nothing is wasted, not even in aesthetic terms.

It is an opposite approach to that of traditional garden design. What do you dislike about the classic way of creating and maintaining a garden?

Traditional gardening is a dogmatic practice. It is necessary to cut, eliminate dead flowers, have a calendar of activities, place the bulbs in a certain period. The purpose is always purely decorative and water consumption is often very high. When I started, I discovered a different world by associating with people who dedicated their lives to protecting wildlife. I understood the meaning of biodiversity. I saw plants that came from the other side of the world but that would have lived very well next to ours. I discovered that, by surrounding them with herbs, plants suddenly changed personality: they became more real, spontaneous, authentic. Although, of course, they weren't. All this is design, not nature.

Do most people who visit your gardens understand how important design is in creating this “authenticity”?

Some do. Most obviously do not. And that's okay. We do not design for people to talk about design but for them to be happy in our gardens. Design does not exist to be analyzed but experienced.