As a leading figure in the “new perennial” movement, pioneering Dutch landscape and garden designer Piet Oudolf needs no introduction. He has realized living landscapes for high-profile projects around the world—including New York’s High Line, the Venice Biennale, and Hauser and Wirth’s new Balearic outpost on Isla del Rey.
Commissioned by Vitra chairman emeritus Rolf Fehlbaum, Oudolf’s composition will develop over the decades to come, keeping step with the next phase of the company’s sustainability commitments under the guidance of CEO Nora Fehlbaum.
“Nature now—more than ever—has become like a balm for the soul,” notes Robert Wolf, Head of Marketing for Vitra in North America. “The Oudolf garden seems to tap into the pulse of what’s going on right now, where people want to recharge and restore in a green, nature-filled environment.”
With the garden in full bloom, Dwell caught up with Oudolf to learn more about his inspiration, process, and hopes for the garden’s evolution throughout the seasons.
Your garden for Vitra extends an invitation for people to ‘get lost’ in it—a wonderful sentiment, especially after a year of staying in one place. Could you expand on your thinking behind this invitation?
It has to do with the informality of the garden’s layout. As a masterplan, it’s not a sort of strict geometrical or architectural garden with formed lines; it’s more informal, and the alignment keeps you in the garden, more or less, because it circulates throughout and comes back. So there isn’t a real end. It keeps you in the garden, and keeps you involved with the planting.
How does your choice of plants respond to the specific characteristics of the landscape and environment at the Vitra Campus, located at the point where Germany, Switzerland, and France meet?
I’m used to making gardens with buildings—it’s never the same, but we work in places where we know all about the plants and what they do together, and how they perform. That’s the first thing. The climate is not an issue for me—because it’s a little bit different from here in Holland, but it’s still a European climate.
The other thing is that the context of architecture makes the garden different—my gardens speak to the context where they are made. At Vitra, it’s a beautiful context, with a flat landscape, and an infrastructure of ways that lead from one building to another. So my garden—especially in front of the VitraHaus [by Herzog & de Meuron]—becomes a center point between all the campus’s buildings, and I think it lifts up the whole area.
How did this collaboration come to be? And how did it unfold?
I was approached by Rolf Fehlbaum, chairman emeritus of Vitra, who showed me around the area, and asked me where I wanted to do the garden. I said, “OK, we can just do it somewhere in the back, or near the Frank Gehry Design Museum, but I think it would be nicer to do it at the entrance.” So it became the center point I mentioned.
My profession is more like a promise. Clients know my work, so normally I present a few projects, and then they will say, “OK, what do you think we could do here?” And then I propose a master plan, and a layout, and some planting ideas from gardens I’ve made. There isn’t a long procedure before I start. People believe in me, and that gives me a sort of freedom.
The garden is intended as a permanent fixture. How can we expect it to evolve—throughout the seasons, and over the years?
I think it will develop in a nicer way; softer, maybe, and more mature. Today, you can still see that the garden was just laid out recently, and I think that it should all grow together. The good thing is that if it’s well-maintained, it will still be there in 20 years’ time. It’ll be different—we’ll allow the garden to change, and we’ll make changes over time—but with good stewardship, the garden will last over a long period.
The garden is filled with perennials and wild grasses—as is typical of your work. Could you share some details on the specific plant varieties that you chose?
We used over 150 different species, so it’s hard to say, “OK, this plant has a special place,” because it’s like community of people. You all work together, and you put on a sort of performance of plants. Every plant has its own role, and sometimes it’s a role of high importance—or unimportance.
It also depends on the seasonality. Plants that are very silent can burst out in September and become important at that time. So it’s hard to speak about an individual plant, because then you’re talking just about a particular character—whereas all the plants are important, and play their own roles over the seasons.
What do you hope visitors to the Vitra Campus will gain from their experience in the garden?
I think the garden should have an ambience and an atmosphere that draws you in, especially when it is growing in the summer and into the fall. Next to that, there’s a lot of sand, and lots of creatures in the garden that take your attention. I think a garden should have everything a building doesn’t have—wildlife, creatures, butterflies, bees, tastes, smells, seasonality. A garden is constantly growing into another stage over the seasons. And I think that makes people come back, because it’ll be different.