The dream of living wild

Oudolf Garten

Can nature be art? A visit with the legendary landscape architect Piet Oudolf, who has planned gardens for many museums and recently created one for Vitra in Weil am Rhein.

A society is reflected in its gardens. This is a typical statement by Piet Oudolf, uttered quite matter-of-factly, as if it were a truth obvious to everyone – to DIY store visitors, for example, when they are looking for a digitally controlled irrigation system or an assortment of colourful flowers for the balcony. In recent years, such garden centres have also sold raised planting beds in the form of large wooden crates, in which vegetables supposedly grow even faster and with less effort. Is that society, too, the crating of the green, the coffering of plants and soil?

Oudolf is neither a sociologist nor a philosopher. He is an artist, some say. For some time now, he has been a frequent presence on the art world circuit: he has designed exuberant gardens, especially for American museums; for the gallery Hauser & Wirth in England, he orchestrated a command performance of perennials and grasses. And now, in Weil am Rhein, right next to the Design Museum of the furniture manufacturer Vitra, something has taken root that invites visitors to partake in an aesthetic experience all its own. Nature becomes art, art becomes nature. Is society reflected herein as well?

He is proud and a little surprised that someone like himself, a garden architect who for decades was only a big name in horticultural circles, now suddenly finds himself inundated with enquiries and praised as an avant-gardist by art and design magazines. Out here in Hummelo, a spot not far from the German-Dutch border where he has renovated a farmstead with his wife Anja, a herd of Black Pied cattle rests comfortably in the meadow outside his studio window, chewing their cud. Here in the isolation of this sparse natural landscape, shaped by precepts of industrial efficiency, the eternally buzzing art world seems very far away.
If Oudolf is an artist at all, then he is one who dwells in the realm of ideas, a conceptual artist. He sits at his desk, which is covered with colourful pens, sheets of transparent paper in front of him. A few squiggles in purple here, little dots of blue there, the pages are filled with enigmatic patterns, playfully inscribed and utterly abstract – for the layperson, at least. For Oudolf they are meaningful signs and symbols. Each line stands for an image in three – no, four dimensions, defined by colours and shapes, moods, scents, even rustling noises. Whereby image is the wrong term, because what Oudolf designs is a multi-layered, constantly changing experience. When you plan a garden, you plan in time.

Before falling asleep, he says, he often mentally immerses himself in this world of sensation, envisioning his drawings and appraising them in his mind’s eye. What will it be like when the creamy pink-petalled allium balls push their way into the whirring prairie dropseed grass? Is the contrast of textures strong enough? How will the colour relate to the gently swaying sage two or three steps away, and how will their interaction change when August or October comes around? What will happen when the hemp agrimony rises up in the background? Will it dominate the scene? Can the flickering grasses still hold their own?

Hundreds of these questions run through Oudolf’s head as he ponders the different combinations. He imagines the plants budding, sees them wither and decay, envisions the perennials and grasses interwoven like a carpet, assessing if the weak ones are too weak or whether the dazzling ones are dazzling enough. And as he lies there with half-closed eyes, he calls out to himself again and again – don’t forget that, Piet, don’t forget it. What others call a dream garden is insomnia for him.
Many extol the naturalness of his plantings, the fact that an intrinsic order seems to spring forth from within, unintentional and wonderfully untamed. Unlike the schematically designed ornamental flowerbeds of the English, Oudolf avoids anything forced, and any claim to perfection is alien to him. But naturalness? Wilderness? Everything is control and calculation, says Oudolf. What looks like freedom, like gentle coexistence, owes its presence to strict programming.

It is this illusion that pervades Oudolf’s gardens and brings them close to art. Deception comes into play, and at the same time the illusory is quite real, tangible, abuzz with eager and enthusiastic bees. A peculiar dual character draws us in. For a moment, we would like to believe it shows the antithesis of a world in which species go extinct, poles melt and continental devastation looms. In Oudolf’s work, the environment becomes a shared world. His gardens tell of balance, a newly won equilibrium.

Flowery kitsch? False harmony? At first glance, perhaps. In Weil, however, it is clearly evident that Oudolf has a decided penchant for dialectical contrasts. For all his romanticism, he is not inclined to cloyingness. In fact, just the opposite.
Even with his best-known design, the High Line Park in New York City, he succeeded in turning the ruin of an abandoned elevated railway viaduct into a botanical adventure without concealing the rudiments of the industrial era. Opposites converse in captivating fashion: in the old track bed, rough and barren, Oudolf makes it bloom. Under his vision, the gravel ballast becomes fertile ground. And it is precisely this, the transformative power of this garden, Oudolf’s promise that something can still flourish amidst the parched legacies of the fossil fuel age, which has made the High Line so immensely popular.

Oudolf likes to talk about confidence. How he rejoices in the first shoots, the buds, and how he sees no need for seas of blossoms in the springtime gardens, because everything is pushing up and sprouting anyway, an assertion in lush green of the powerful energies of renewal, no matter how dull and dry everything looked just before.

The Vitra garden in Weil does not close itself off from the industrial present either, although it is easy for visitors to lose themselves on its winding pretzel-shaped paths, marvelling at the tall-stemmed burnet, whose pink stamens catch the light even on an overcast day, exhilarated by the yarrow, which appeals to the eye with its lemon-acid yellow, moved by the autumn moor grasses as they rush and flow amidst the islands of blue cranesbill. Oudolf’s scenery exists in an ever-shifting state of transformation, rhythmicised by recurring groups, made dynamic by the metallic shimmer of thistles, calmed by an ancient cherry tree that towers over the undulating interplay of over 30,000 plants. But no matter how much you allow yourself to be captivated by this display of distinctive characters, whether studying them in detail or preferring to let the gaze wander far and wide, a second reality always forces itself into your consciousness. The noise of the nearby motorways and wide railway tracks are a relentless reminder that here in the garden, the tranquillity of nature is far away and a growth-obsessed society is close at hand.
Surrounding the garden are industrial yards and factory buildings where Vitra manufactures its chairs and tables, and the company’s flagship store lies within view, created by the architects Herzog & de Meuron. Vitra has engaged many other big names to design the factory site’s buildings: Tadao Andō, Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry or Kazuyo Sejima, with some mockingly calling it the most beautiful architectural zoo in Europe. Just behind Oudolf’s garden, a domed building asserts its presence, similar to the one Richard Buckminster Fuller developed for his utopian dreams to avert the ‘cosmic bankruptcy’ of humanity, as he put it. Even back then, more than 50 years ago.
Is Oudolf merely the latest addition to the zoo of exceptionalisms? What distinguishes his garden is permeability: the architects’ buildings proudly display their imaginative and bold character, resolute individualists with an attitude of indifference towards their counterparts. Oudolf, on the other hand, creates neighbourhoods and relies on diversity in community, where the proud soloists have their place as well as the fragile and unassuming – and those so inclined could also regard this as an aspiration for all of society.

The real difference, however, is the freedom from utilitarian purpose. The Vitra garden does not have to enclose or seal off anything. It has no function. It should simply grow and blossom. And open up a space for reflection. In any case, we can all see it as an invitation to indulge in purposelessness, perhaps reclining on one of the small grass-covered knolls in the midst of Oudolf’s flowerbeds. They are places to take a few moments to pause and gaze around, ideally suited for contemplating the questions that, rather than imposing themselves here in the garden, grow into one’s consciousness.

In contrast to the commercial operations surrounding his Vitra garden, which are dedicated to a kind of growth that focuses on expansion and increase, Oudolf thinks in terms of cyclical processes. For him, growth and decay cannot be separated – his favourite months are September and October. That is when the garden gains depth, he says. Its vitality segues into melancholy, and Oudolf stages this process too. He leaves the dried blossoms of the perennials in the flower beds, takes pleasure in watching them slowly disintegrate and crumple, in observing the hoarfrost creep over the last seed capsules, and in witnessing how the greenery turns into a grey, brown, dead garden. It is not cleaned out until early spring, when new life once again pushes forth and buds begin to form.
Thus the yearning for equilibrium that emanates from Oudolf’s garden can never reach fulfilment. The balance he is searching for must be attempted over and over again. And anyone who wants to learn how that happens has no choice but to repeatedly visit Oudolf’s great social metaphor in Weil am Rhein – because the life of a garden depends on transformation, on change, on the constantly renegotiated relationship between culture and nature. A garden is where the unexpected flourishes.

Publication Date: 3.5.2022
Author: Hanno Rauterberg, first published in DIE ZEIT no. 26/2021, 14 June 2021
Images: Vitra, Piet Oudolf;

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