‘Gardening is a way to be a human being’
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Spaniard Fernando Caruncho is acclaimed for his vast minimalist landscapes but much prefers to be called a gardener, one who believes his profession is about more than planting and prettifying: it is “a way to be a human being”. Inspired by their role in ancient civilisations, he sees gardens as central in enabling us to feel at one with nature – to feel whole. So it is no surprise to learn that he began adult life studying philosophy at university in Madrid, where he explored the seminal role that gardens played in the lives of the ancient Greek philosophers. Plato taught his students in the garden of Akademos while Aristotle’s Lyceum was a verdant plot with a shaded grove (from where it got its name) and a botanical garden. These were the places where the physical and spiritual came together. “The garden is the place of knowledge. It is a fundamentally spiritual point of view,” he says.
On leaving university, Caruncho turned to garden design and got his first break at 20 when an uncle – the owner of a Richard Neutra-envisaged modernist house – asked him to work on the garden. He looked to Japan for inspiration and to Prince Toshihito’s garden at Katsura (“The proportions corresponded exactly to those of my uncle’s garden”), a masterclass in the power of geometry and the perfect balance in the layering of rocks and water (“Geometry is a sacred code,” he adds, reflecting on the lessons that he took from the imperial villa). His own rather austere, reductivist garden design was something of a sensation and, after it was featured in Vogue magazine, his career took off.
Over 40 years later Caruncho’s work is the subject of a Rizzoli book entitled Reflections of Paradise: The Gardens of Fernando Caruncho. It charts the early success of Mas de les Voltes, an agricultural estate in Spain where large wheat fields were a vital part of the overall scheme, used almost like parterres of gold capturing natural light, alongside long lines of cypress and olive trees. In New Zealand, he created a garden with vast curving shrub waves inspired by the sea, mirrored in the plot’s crescent-shaped pool, a reflection on the moon. The same physical expression of the poetic can be seen in Puglia, Italy, where on a bare hillside, he planted a vineyard – the vines arranged like the lines of a musical score that seem to be in constant motion. They possess, he says, “that hint of mystery and sublimation that like every beauty, hurts from afar”. His garden in the Peloponnese is also significant, and here he built the undulating stone walls of a disintegrating hillside building (“For three years we built, wall after wall, a colossal task,” he says), which are planted with cypress trees and mastic. The design reveals his love of rocks and waterfalls and the interplay of light on water.
But Caruncho’s gardens are not always colossal. He reminds us that Spanish patios and courtyards are often places of great beauty, some sporting fountains, others filled with jasmine or flowering lemon or orange trees. “The Far East is also full of incredible examples of how a small space can become a whole world. Five small rocks, some raked gravel, moss growing on rocks... that exquisite detail over the back wall enclosing a patio in Japan becomes almost a prayer connecting man to nature,” he explains. “It is not a question of dimension. It is the light that matters. Whilst nature helps you more in big gardens, it is harder to solve the enigma of the small garden.”
It is a challenge Caruncho enjoys solving. One only has to look to Madrid, where he lives and works, and the garden he has created in what was once a garage. “We put in a skylight, which gives the space an otherworldly light, it’s almost religious, as if it were a church,” he says of the project. He is currently working on two small plots in Manhattan, one just 700 sq m, “where we are putting in some incredible mosaics,” and the other an even smaller 400 sq m terrace “where the sky will be more important than ever”.
Regardless of size, Caruncho’s approach to design is to grasp the inner poetic sense of a place. “For me, plotting gardens is an ancestral rite that man repeats over and over,” he tells landscape architect Gordon Taylor in the introduction to the book. “It’s an intimate and secret desire to give meaning to his own life. By transforming ‘place’ he seeks to understand that he is part of the cosmos and not alone before either history or the mystery of creation.” Caruncho believes deeply in the restorative, redemptive power of nature. “A garden is where man recovers his whole being,” he says.
Caruncho’s objective is to create a transformative space. He often uses a minimal palette, referencing the natural colours of the surrounding landscape. Critics have accused him of disliking flowers, which are used sparingly, but he insists that he loves them. “There is nothing more delicate, wonderful, surprising and beautiful than a jasmine, a rose, an orange blossom or a camellia,” he says, revealing that he plants flowers with restraint to underline or enhance an overall scheme. He is known to use mass plantings of a single plant – cosmos or camellias, oleanders, figs, cypress or olive trees – in praise of them. “One flower is all flowers,” he says. “In the Mediterranean [where most of his gardens can be found] the blossom time is very short, mostly from May to June, which is why I use the flower as a counterpoint between the trees and the rocks.”
Caruncho also uses empty space, a necessity for what he calls “void” against the “full”, believing it as essential in a landscape as silence is in music. He points to his project in New Zealand where an elliptical meadow lies between a pavilion housing a spa and his crescent-shaped moon pool, which functions as a receptacle of light.
Not everyone, he admits, either understands or likes his way of working, “which is why I turn down quite a lot of projects,” he says, explaining that he perceives the creation of a garden as an art form. Every space is a living artwork that dies and is reborn, and each is individual, requiring a response that summons up the spirit of the place. It is the living, changing environment that makes each project so unique. The three elements he sees as critical are geometry, water and light, and his starting point, even when designing a small urban garden, is the sky.
Curiously Caruncho has only ever designed one English garden, belonging to the Iranian fund manager Kaveh and jewellery designer Cora Sheibani. “They are a very cultivated family who had bought an 18th-century rectory where the garden was completely overgrown but with a magical two-and-a-half acres,” Caruncho recalls. “The first thing we did was to create an empty space between the beds and the house, and we devised three huge parterres while opening up the view.” For Sheibani, who studied a vast collection of gardening books when purchasing the house, Caruncho’s aesthetic stood out. “I wanted somebody with a 70-year vision as you’re not just building for yourself but for the next generation. Caruncho had that,” she says. “Also he is a landscapist, the opposite of the Gertrude Jekyll-style of gardening, which requires an army of gardeners to keep it up. I’m drawn to minimalist sculpture and wanted structure so that it would look good all year round.” Hence, instead of a traditional herbaceous border there is some rather Zen-like greenery with boxwood and lavender predominating. The parterres are planted with a lawn with narrow edges filled with lavender in the spring and cosmos in the summer. Though the Sheibanis have since sold the house they like to think of the garden they have left behind as timeless – a place to reconnect with nature.
Reflections of Paradise: The Gardens of Fernando Caruncho is published by Rizzoli at $85