At the opening of Hauser & Wirth Somerset last week, I spent some time with Piet Oudolf.
He has created a perennial meadow for the gallery, which is still in its preparatory stages.
It will open officially to the public this September.
Piet is an absolute hero of mine.
He is the landscape designer responsible for the planting on the High Line in New York.
I interviewed him a couple of years ago for Fantastic Man issue 15, travelling to his home in Hummelo, The Netherlands.
It was lovely to see him again.
Piet believes in the beauty and worth of the whole cycle of a plants life.
Some gardeners chop a plant down as soon as it’s finished flowering.
Piet engages in decay as much as growth, leaving seedheads standing through the winter until they are just sticks.
It means that for the garden to be in anyway ready, it needs to have some sense of decay within it.
Hence the garden opening in September, when some of the plants now in vivid colour will have turned.
Seeing a garden in it preparatory state is something of great excitement to me, because I’m always trying to work out the nitty gritty of his work – how far apart does he put his plants to get such grand sweeping effects?
In this state, before the plants have taken over the spaces, it is a chance to understand his work fully.
Among Piet’s words, I’ll post some images of plants close-up. But I won’t post images of it as a whole until it’s ready in September.
But anyway, Piet’s hand-drawn plans are things of great beauty in themselves, and at Hauser & Wirth Somerset they have an exhibition of his drawings.
Here’s the plan for the garden in Somerset.
(all photos of plans are @Piet Oudolf, courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth, photo by Alex Delfanne)
A detailed sketch of the lower section.
Each area of different colour or code stands for a different plant.
In his designs there are also matrix layers, so that different plants which grow at different times of the year can overlap, meaning the garden is in constant flux.
A detailed shot of the upper area.
I sit down with Piet in the courtyard, and before I turn on my recorder, he says the project came about after he created a garden inside the 2011 Serpentine Pavilion designed by Peter Zumthor.
Hans Ulrich Obrist of the Serpentine introduced him to Iwan and Manuela Wirth, and so it all began.
All involved in the project seem to have got from it immense pleasure.
I turn on my machine just as we stand to go see the garden, which is out the back of the gallery.
PIET OUDOLF: Yeah so ah, shall we go?
ME: Yeah let’s go.
You’ve seen it?
I’ve not yet, I wanted to see it with you.
[We walk out onto a colonnade that overlooks the garden, which stretches out in front of us up a slight incline] In a way the whole garden, the idea was that we wanted to create surprise for people visiting the gallery, they come to this window, should see something spectacular. And that spectacular thing was the garden, the garden with flowers and whatever. That was the brief. The rest of the landscape was simple. It should just remind you of the farmhouse and what was there before. And that is how this whole happened. [We step over a rope fence and walk towards the garden] This area will be lawn, although as you see there’s a lot of irregularity. The trees will provide shade. From the windows out you look underneath the trees into this landscape which is a little bit tilted. Being tilted makes that you look, instead of looking through it you look half upon it. Makes interesting going up and looking from the top.
And it was tilted already or you’ve put land in to make it
Oh the landscape is how it was, we work always with the existing landscape and try to make the best out of it. You see also that because it’s an art gallery you want to do more than just planting. So we designed it in a way so that if after the winter we cut back the plants it looks really designed. There’s a sort of sculpture, a framework on the landscape, patterhing the landscape. That’s why we’ve really designed the area that it, after the planting in spring it looks interesting too. [At the bottom of the garden, by a small pond, is a sculpture of a clock by Anri Sala, titled Clocked Perspective]. This clock is perfect here.
Did you know the clock would be here?
No that came afterwards but it’s the right place so I was happy to have it here. [We start to walk up into the space] So in a way the garden is very sculptured, two dimensional, and then three dimensional or four dimensional you get the garden with the plants in it. [He points to a man at the side of the garden]. There’s Tom Piper, who’s making a documentary about my work, he’s followed me for a year or more.
How are you finding it?
Very acceptable. Very easy going. [We continue walking through the garden] But you see, the garden is still young, fresh and sometimes fresh is not always the way I like it.
It’s fascinating for me to see though. I think I asked you before though about how many plants you plant per square feet, because whenever I go to one of your gardens I’m always looking to see how many plants there are.
I mean there are 27000 all together.
But in terms of the distance you put between then before they take over themselves.
Yah I think you need to, lets say if you take in mind that it takes a year to grow together, more or less, you need if you want planted it tight you could plant three times more, but you need to be reasonable and say OK how many do we need per square metre to make it work in one year’s time. Feeling mature and feeling grown together. These are the sort of rules for yourself to calculate and make things work for yourself. So if I don’t have a number per species or per plant per square metre, I couldn’t calculate, and at the same time it works in a [We stop in the centre of the garden, where the path through the centre widens, with a couple of grass mounds] these mounds are just artificial just for the pattern in the main part, and this area’s rather big but it feels good because I think it creates space. There’s already a lot of plants and you don’t need more.
And so when you were planting it, were you thinking the garden opens to the public in September so you want things to have grown and died back.
Oh this already is out of flower and in September I think that I have no idea, some plants will be just in flower, other plants will be just in decay, other plants are high and tall, the first year is all out of balance, even if it looks in balance, in my opinion it’ll never be good until next year. But in September maybe the plants are bigger. And it probably will feel like September and there’s more decay at that time.
So the Echinacea will be down
[Here are some echinacea among other planting - if you look, you can see them repeating in the space. I wish I was better at naming everything, but there you go]
Yeah or just in seedhead, and the dianthus or the sedums maybe in full flower still, but that’s different, but I wouldn’t say the garden is mature in September, it’s maybe the right moment to open the garden because it’s a little bit more dense, but nothing more.
[An area of sedum]
And this is all green rather than just half-green. But I think that’s why we said before it was when shall we open the garden, lets do it in the autumn, that’s why there are separate, the two openings. The gallery needed to be open for all the people that will come this summer, and then the garden is just an extra, a nice thing to do in September.
Was there anything that you planted that’s specific to here, or did you
No I think in the overall, it’s the concept and ideas and that makes it different from any other garden. It doesn’t matter if you use the same plants. It’s like writing a book, you use the same words but you put them differently. Or music or whatever you call it, it’s another arrangement. Because the plants have to be strong and to live long and yeah so it is… It’s hard to explain what I do, when I’ve done it.
Before you came did you have an idea, or was it connected to visiting?
Let’s say the ideas that you have are… There’s a brief, the idea that people entering the gallery would see the garden and realise it’s something they didn’t expect. So a surprise. But also very strongly present. The other thing, we have 6000 square metres, and you have to do something that is, it’s good we have some time…[He means it's good we have some time to talk]. I think the whole thing is that, I’ll explain it when we look at the drawings. It’s easier to explain what I’ve done. But there’s something that’s very dynamic, changing every week or every month, Every time you come it’s different, that’s why you probably want to come back. If you’re hear without telling you, you could feel that it’ll be different the next time you come. That’s also a reason to come back. So it’s not, I’ve seen it, this is it. And what plantings do is they create expectations, and also a longing to come back. If you feel what a garden is.
[There's someone from the gallery with us, and she says to Piet that actually there's someone else waiting to talk with him]. Is there someone else? Oh I didn’t know. I thought we could relax. [We've reached the top of the garden. Over at the side is someone doing some work on the garden] Hey Mark! What are you doing?
MARK: Tidying up.
PIET: [to me] Can we walk back slowly?
Yeah sure. So these are achillea, right?
I love them. I’ve never seen them so strong.
It’s a credo, which is a taller variety. [Click here to see the variety on the Beth Chatto website]
I don’t know it at all. Is that a eupatoria?
Filipendula. It’s meadow sweet, they call it in America. It’s a native. [Filipendula is the fluffy headed stuff at the back]
The thing that I’ve started growing most since visiting you is eupatorium.
We have that too. [We stop in the middle section, which is lower and calmer than the rest of the garden. He speaks to the person from the gallery]. Is someone waiting for me? [They reply, "In a few minutes yeah"] I think they can wait. Lets say, it’s not that they can wait but they can join us. You see this is another concept here, this middle part, if you look at the other part, this is an in-between section that is more wild, has more matrix of one grass, sporobolus, so it’s completely different in outlook from that.
[Here you can really see the spaces in the planting. Come next year, the grasses will have grown so much that the soil will be completely covered over]
Is that to separate out the busy feeling at the top and bottom?
Sort of calming yeah, more an easy feeling, but still a complexity you can feel.
And this is an achillea again.
Yeah you can do it with the same plants but different. [As we walk back to the bottom of the garden, Piet's told someone is waiting]. Yeah tell them we are coming. Maybe go show them into the gallery. [To me] It feels good, huh?
Yeah it really does.
And the water is also nice. It feels from here the water is the end of then garden and then behind it is another…
[He sees Mark again, who is about level with us at the side. Piet shouts over to him]. Mark, are you going to mow the lawn at the front for tomorrow?
MARK: Yeah, and I’ll remow all this? [Where Mark is stood at the sides, the grass is overgrown]
PIET: No keep it calm.
MARK: You don’t mind it?
PIET: I want to find you a life tomorrow instead of death.
MARK: You don’t mind this being longer?
PIET: I think tomorrow we will walk in the middle part.
MARK: You think no one will? You don’t think anyone will walk at the sides?
PIET: Yeah just see how far you get [We set off back towards the gallery, but still in the lower part of the garden]
So things like that, those thalictrum, will they get higher or will they stay at that height?
This is a lower variety, but maybe it grows taller, I don’t know. I always wait the first year and don’t comment on myself and then if things are really not good, we change it, but it’s really not so much in the whole concept so… Design work, it’s starting with an idea, going into a flow, then it taken over by something else, then I look I think, maybe I shouldn’t have put this in the front. Maybe in the middle. But then I can let it go. Because these will get bigger. Everything will get bigger. Also the echinops will be that tall, and then when they are that tall, the plant next to it will look less tall. I always say wait one year and then we see what we have done wrong.
It’s interesting you say “what we’ve done wrong” rather than “what we’ve done right”.
Yeah, it’s not really wrong. I don’t want to defend myself. If I think it is wrong, then it is wrong. Even if other people don’t see it.
[Someone else from the PR company comes over and says, "I’m going to have to split you up I’m afraid. You’ve got another commitment"]
Really? [To me] Do you want to come back in 10 minutes?
Sure yeah yeah.
Then we’ll to the gallery.
I’ll see you later
[And so Piet goes off to be interviewed by someone else.]
I’m afraid we didn’t get to talk again. We’d travelled down to Somerset on a coach, and it was soon time to leave. I’d also not yet seen around The Farmhouse, where artists can stay when in residence or installing projects. I was shown round it by the architect, Luis Laplace.
In one of the rooms is a chandelier and projection by Pipilotti Rist, made from glass she scavenged in the local area.
We went upstairs to look in the bedrooms.
Two were locked, but one had the key in its door.
We went in.
There was a suitcase and clothes on the rail, the bed slept in.
It was decorated with Paul McCarthy butt plug wallpaper.
The coach was about to leave, and so we went outside again.
Piet was in the courtyard. There was no time to go back into the gallery to talk through his drawings.
But Piet will be back in Somerset for the garden’s official opening in September.
We plan to talk more then, and see the garden in a more complete state.
I said to him we’d been in the farmhouse.
He said that’s where he was staying, in a room with butt plug wallpaper.
“I call it the BP room”, he said.
An amazing man.
Click here for more info on Hauser & Wirth Somerset – the gallery officially opens tomorrow, and the exhibition of Piet’s work is on until 5 October.