Piet Oudolf

The Carpentry of Piet Oudolf – Hauser & Wirth

In the previous post we saw that Piet Oudolf, using perennials as tools to show his exceptional artistic capacity, has created gardens that do not imitate, but evoke the atmosphere of a natural environment. History of art teaches us that the different artistic disciplines have evolved thanks to those masters who have been able to redefine the concept of beauty and, more importantly, have succeeded in making the viewer perceive that beauty. Oudolf is one of those masters. Both Modernism and gardening solely based on combinations of plants chosen according to habitats, suffer from the aridity of a lack of beauty, and consequently, in my opinion, neither will ever succeed. The aesthetic component provided by Oudolf has been the breath of fresh air that has renewed these and other currents and laid the foundations for the work of a whole generation of landscape architects. End of the summary of the previous entry.

Oudolf’s garden design is based on an enormous knowledge of plants, especially perennials, and their associations in nature. But that knowledge, which with effort and experience can be acquired by anyone after years of study, is not sufficient. In order to touch the sensitive fibre of millions of people it is necessary to contribute something much more instinctive and personal: artistic ability.  Artistic ability, a kind of essence or soul of an artist’s work, comes from so many intimate sources that it seems impossible to capture it. But all those flavours, memories, inspirations, ideas and a thousand other things that come to light through artistic creation will always be based on a specific technique that will shape the work. In the words of Gabriel García Márquez:

“Writing is a hypnotic act. One tries to hypnotise the reader so that he only thinks about the story you are telling him, which requires an enormous number of nails, screws and hinges so that he does not wake up. That’s what I call carpentry, that is, the story-telling technique, the writing technique or the technique of making a film. Inspiration is one thing, the plot is another, but how to tell that plot and turn it into a literary truth that really captivates the reader, without carpentry it’s not possible.”

Don’t you think Oudolf does the same? Oudolf’s gardens are a hypnotic act, an art of deception that convinces the viewer that he is living nature in its purest form. However behind the spectator’s enchantment lies very skillful garden design technique and “carpentry”. Hauser & Wirth Somerset is an art gallery located in an old farmhouse restored by architect Luis Laplace. The farm is located in the midst of bucolic Somerset, and although it’s worth seeing the complex I don’t know if I’d go there just to visit the restaurant, the shops or the exhibitions. But if you’re as lucky as I was to get to the back of the buildings just as the sun manages to shine through the miserable English sky for a moment, the journey will have been worthwhile and you’ll understand that I’m not exaggerating as much as some people can think. There you will find Oudolf Field, a meadow made up of 17 borders containing 26,000 perennials of 115 different species. In the gallery shop I bought a small brochure that includes the plan made by Oudolf for the plantation and the list of species included. The brochure’s starting to look a little disgusting because of how much I’ve touched it. Let’s see if it was worth looking at so much and we are able to decode some of the nails, screws and hinges used by Piet Oudolf.

In gardening there are many ways to approach the grouping and mixing of plants. Almost any combination is possible, from the plantation of large blocks of a unique species (total absence of mixing) so common in public parks, and the total randomness and almost infinite combinations of the seed mixtures of Nigel Dunnet and James Hitchmough.  If we want naturalistic gardens, we might wonder why we don’t do the same as nature: let plants mix as they please. Well, here we come to the hypocrisy of the matter: beautiful naturalistic gardens are very unnatural. Even though many people say they want to see Nature in their gardens, don’t believe them. Maybe they are not aware of it, but what they really want is an orderly and humanized view of nature. We like it wild but not too wild. We need order, intentionality, which paradoxically will give the spectator a much more intense sensation of nature than free nature. A wasteland (the Third Landscape of Gilles Clement) is nature, a total absence of human intervention. But it is not a naturalistic garden because it will hardly suggest anything to the viewer. With rare exceptions, no one will notice beauty in it. On the other hand, a garden by Oudolf will rarely leave the spectator indifferent and may have more diversity than wasteland. To achieve this, Piet has experimented with different approaches, but we can summarize that its plantations usually respond to two basic models: block plantings and matrix plantings.

Block Plantings

A block is a group of plants of the same species that are planted together. These blocks are distributed throughout the plantation so that the mixture of plants is actually the mixture of these blocks. Some of the main characteristics of plantation in blocks are:

  • Rhythm: a block of a given species must be repeated throughout the plantation to generate a sense of rhythm and unity. Without this rhythm the space would lack a sense of design.
  • Combination: The combination of blocks should ensure that different species of adjacent blocks generate the difficult balance between complexity and coherence. This is where it gets complicated and the designer’s expertise comes in. The play of shapes, textures and colors need to be appropriate. I can only give you one indication: look at lots of photos, experiment and good luck.
  • Size and shape: the blocks usually respond to very variable organic shapes. And the size usually corresponds to groups of between 5 and 11 plants. A particular case is blocks with elongated and winding shapes (drifts) that allow you to combine different species and intensify the degree of variety, creating a strong sense of movement.
  • Structure: the species used in the blocks must provide good structure over a long period of time. It makes no sense to plant a block of plants that will disappear for much of the year or that are not visually attractive after flowering. The repetition of a failed block leads to an unsuccessful plantation. 
  • Complexity: a block can be composed of more than one species of plants. In this case the species must combine well or have sequential flowering times. Oudolf uses blocks with two plants in different percentages. For example, in Hauser & Wirth, Oudolf uses groups of 60% Echinacea purpurea Fatal Attraction and 40% Pycnanthemum muticum. Or 80% Monarda bradburiana and 20% Nepeta govaniana, Origanum hopleys + Knautia macedonica, Thalictrum delavayi + Gentiana asclepiadea, etc. 
  • Singular species: smaller blocks or individual plants with a strong visual impact can be interspersed between the main blocks.
  • Odd: the number of plants in each block and the number of blocks of a given species should be odd.   Why? I have no idea, ask a psychologist. But the sense of balance and rhythm of an odd group is greater than that of an even group. Oudolf usually uses groups of 5 to 11 plants, I suppose there’s a reason for that.

Piet is constantly evolving. Each new garden is a new chapter in the history of its designs. Over the years, his designs have moved from block plantations to a more complex mix of plants that comes closer to the spontaneity we find in nature.  But Oudolf does not leave behind previous compositional approaches, his design is cumulative. He combines new and old styles creating increasingly complex multilayer designs. That is why it is not surprising that in his garden at Hauser & Wirth we find block plantations combined with matrix plantings.

Matrix Planting

To understand what a matrix plantation is, first you need to know what a matrix is. For those of us who have suffered the maths of engineering, a matrix is a table of numbers that has a multitude of uses in computing. But maybe we’d better move on to a less algebraic definition. A matrix would be the substance that contains and unites other singular elements. An example that is easy to understand is the one given by Noel Kingsbury: a sponge cake with nuts or fruit. The matrix would be the cake mixture.  In terms of plantations, a matrix would be a homogeneous background of plants that are not very eye-catching (matrix plants) and that contain other plants that, due to their structure, size or color, provide the plantation with the greatest visual impact (primary plants). When it comes to perennials, this combination of primary plants distributed among other less striking ones, clearly evokes meadows, prairies and steppes. That is, it evokes ecosystems in which a relatively small number of species form the majority of the biomass (the matrix) but are dotted with many other species that are smaller in number but much more important in variety and appearance (primary and scattered plants). The final effect of a matrix plantation is much more naturalistic and less obvious than a block plantation.  To create one you need three kind of plants:  

  • Matrix Plants: appropriate plants for the background of the matrix (the cake mixture) are species capable of providing a dense and homogeneous covering, with a neutral appearance and soft colors and shapes. They should not be excessively competitive so that primary plants can grow among them.  But their most remarkable feature should be their durability. It is essential that their structure looks good for many months of the year, and that they don’t degrade after blooming. The obvious answer for these matrices is grasses. Piet Oudolf has good examples with Deschampsia and Molinia, but lately he is opting for Sporobulus heterolepis, which has a diffused appearance perfect for these plantations and has the advantage of living for decades.
  • Primary Plants: they are the divas of the show. The matrix plants are only the backdrop that emphasize the special attributes of these primary species which rise from a homogeneous backdrop. Their structure, texture, size or flowering make them the visually dominant elements of the plantation. Oudolf uses a long list of perennials as primary plants: Echinacea, Eryngium, Helenium, Rudbeckia, etc, etc, etc.  Again, it is essential that the species used provide a clear and powerful structure over many months, and of course, once again the rhythm is very important. These primary plants should be repeated throughout the plantation to be more effective.
  • Scattered Plants: as we saw in block plantations, a third layer of plants can be added to increase the effect of naturalness and spontaneity. If in a fruit cake the matrix plants are the cake mixture and the primary plants the fruits, this new category could be chocolate sprinkles. They will appear randomly throughout the plantation, breaking the regularity of the matrix and primary plant pattern, and increasing the sense of rhythm and visual unity. But unlike the previous types, in this case we can afford to use ephemeral species. These plants can be added to provide a seasonal explosion of blooming (this is the case with many bulbs or Papaver orientale). But they can also be incorporated because they have a very unusual and durable structure (e.g. Veronicastrum virginicum or Calamagrostis x acutiflora). In any case, the key is for these to be a clear difference from the rest. By using them we can seek to link one area of the plantation with another area. Or, on the other hand, we can seek to clearly differentiate a certain area. They can also help us to achieve an unexpected focal point that directs our attention within the homogeneity of the matrix. The possibilities are endless, so I recommend Oudolf’s approach: imagination to power.

Finally, some of the features of Oudolf’s plantations apply to both block and matrix plantations. 

  • Mixed styles: as you can see in Hauser & Wirth, we don’t necessarily have to opt for block or matrix plantations. In fact, combining both styles provides a contrast that significantly enriches a plantation of perennials. It combines the old and conventional with the new and naturalistic. The combination of the two styles can also have practical purposes. A matrix may have too few species to attract attention for too long. On the other hand, matrix plantations are a risky bet because if the chosen matrix plant fails, the entire plantation fails. So designers tend to opt for the same plants every time. Inserting blocks allows the introduction of less known species while isolating plants that require specific care, such as seasonal pruning after the blooming season.
  • Color: It’s often been said that Piet doesn’t pay much attention to color, but I’d say that’s only partially true. He won’t reach Gertrude Jekyll’s levels and the color won’t be core in his design, but it’s clear from his plantations that he takes it into account. Perhaps the difference is that for him color is a part of the whole, a layer at the top of the structure, an element of emotion, but not something separate and preeminent. Nor can we forget that Piet has stood out for highlighting the possibilities of browns, greys and blacks in autumn and winter. To waste the capacities of a perennial plantation during these seasons is to lose the best of its potential.
  • Richness: in Piet’s gardens the number of potential juxtapositions and combinations is very high. Mainly because he uses a very high number of species, many more than the usual 15 or 20 in many approaches. In Hauser and Wirth, for example, we´re talking about 150 different species.
  • Structure and visual texture: if there is one thing Oudolf will be remembered for, it is his ability to make us see beauty where we didn’t see it before. In his own words: “I discover beauty in things that on first sight are not beautiful. It is a journey in life to find out what real beauty is – and to notice that it is everywhere”.  In his gardens the structure and texture of the plants is more important than the colour and extends into the autumn and winter. In this aspect it is important to be guided by the flora of the area where we are. This flora will have some characteristics in terms of texture and structure that can serve as a guide for what will work in our garden. That’s why grasses are so important in the naturalistic style, because they dominate most of the open spaces of temperate climates. 
  • Order vs. disorder: Oudolf’s gardens are naturalistic but never seem chaotic. For this reason, they will always be contained in a clear structure formed by hedges and paths. In fact, I think block plantations are an attempt to achieve that balance between order and disorder which lends the plantation intentionality and meaning. Perhaps Oudolf’s most untidy plantation was his temporary plantation in the Serpentine Gallery, and this was suitable precisely owing to the strong structure of the building that contained it.
  • Intimacy: the layout of Oudolf plantations, full of organic shapes and winding paths, embraces the visitor and invites you to walk in the garden. His gardens are self-contained, intimate places that beckon you to sit down and read a good book. Or some boring blog post like this one.

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