My obsession is to simplify,’ Fernando Caruncho said, as we walked around his studio in Madrid looking at large-scale models of his works in progress. Formal, minimalist, contemporary and powerful, the gardens and landscapes he has been making over the past 30 years have an instantly recognisable stamp. It is the stamp of one of the world’s master designers.
But Caruncho does not term himself a designer, still less a landscape architect. 'I am a gardener. That is the name that has been handed down from the past. Even “Capability” Brown called himself a gardener. If you change a name, you lose the connection with history, and forget you are thinking timeless thoughts and simply expressing them in a new way for a different historical period. To be original you have to know your origins.’
Caruncho’s gardens are as considered and precise as his words. 'I need absolute calm when I look at a garden,’ he said. 'When the idea comes, I sketch quickly, but before that comes days of observation and gently mulling things over in my head. Understanding a garden or a landscape is like getting to know a person. It is slow, you need time to draw out the personality.’
Caruncho, 52, was born and brought up in Madrid, and his main office, where most of his 10 assistants are based, is near the Prado museum in the centre of the city, but his personal studio, where he can work in quieter surroundings, is a short walk from his house on Madrid’s northern edge. Both house and studio, designed by Caruncho, are modern, bold and spare, with large windowless expanses of wall protecting the interiors from the relentless summer sun and the cold winter winds off the distant, often snow-capped, mountains. Inside, a series of open courtyards become what he calls 'boxes of light’ framed by the dark shadows.
Light is a principal element for Caruncho, from its effects on leaf colour and texture to its play across walls and water. His starting point, even when designing a small urban garden, he says, is the sky, and how vertical features might lift you up to it as if on 'a magic carpet ride’. The ochre tints of the iron oxide wash on the walls of his house themselves create a handsome patina, warmly contrasting with the shadowy evergreen planting all around, and as we walked through the copper-clad front door, an iron grille gave a glimpse of the main courtyard’s centrepiece: a large, reflective expanse of water in the form of a natural swimming-pool.
Pouring a glass of verdejo, he introduced his wife, Maria, an artist who when they began married life was his assistant, making his scale models. Now, in addition to looking after their two young sons, Pedro and Fernando, and their elderly fox terrier, she paints ceramics and runs a lighting and design shop for gardeners next to Madrid’s Royal Botanical Gardens, a section of which Caruncho redesigned five years ago.
'The Spanish are very private at home. There is no tradition of opening gardens to the public,’ Caruncho explained. 'The style is usually very austere, because the flowering season is so short, and flowers are mainly grown in cutting gardens. But the Spanish love their gardens, and it is my childhood memories of visiting my grandparents’ gardens in Galicia in the mild, moist north, and in Ronda in the heat of Andalusia, that remain a powerful influence on me.’
Studying philosophy at university in Madrid before switching to landscape architecture at the Castillo de Batres school, Caruncho was fascinated to discover that the ancient Greeks used gardens as their meeting places and academies, and with the idea of the garden as a place where physical and spiritual worlds conjoin, and where contact with nature can feed soul as well as body.
Aged 21, he got off to a flying start as a gardener, when his first garden, made for his uncle, was featured in French Vogue. Japanese-inspired, it accompanied a house designed by the modernist architect Richard Neutra. The controlled, abstract formality of Japanese gardens echoes through some of his later projects, including his own garden, where clipped cushions of escallonia create sensuous ripples down to the water’s edge.
But even when employing such abstract and softening features, his gardens have a strict underlying geometry. 'Geometry is man’s first language. The oldest piece of signing in history is a deer bone engraved with straight lines.’ And it is through geometry and straight lines, he says, that man has always ordered and engaged with the landscape, notably in Spain in the great Arabic gardens of Granada and Córdoba, with their decorative patios quartered by water rills.
Likewise, Caruncho begins his gardens with a grid pattern. 'I remember in the second garden I ever made putting a cross of cypress trees in the middle of the garden. Making a grid is like throwing a net into a space to help understand it. But grids and geometry are not the object, the object is the harmony they help you to arrive at.’
Sometimes his grid is overlaid with curvaceous contours, as in a vineyard he has planted in Puglia in Italy, where the vines makes wavelike patterns around repeated islands of olive trees. On a steep bank in Madrid’s Botanical Gardens, an apparently linear design comprising tiers of laurel hedges springs the surprise of a hidden teardrop pattern of water and paving. But in other projects, such as his parterre of square waterlily pools and clipped escallonia shrubs in a garden in Menorca, the grid remains undisguised.
The paring-down of ingredients helps to foster a calm and contemplative mood. The palette of plants is limited and carefully selected. 'I like to utilise mainly the basic plants of the region, such as olives, vines and cypress – plants that connect the garden to the landscape and the culture.’ Such plants are marshalled for sculptural impact and arranged in 'strong musical rhythm’. Unusually, even agricultural crops, notably wheat, are subsumed into the grid and given a design role.
Flowers are an undercurrent in his gardens, and he likes to mass them for fleeting theatre. In one project in Galicia, he has a hillside vista of cypresses and kiwi fruit 'vineyard’ framed by a pergola of rich purple wisteria. In his own garden, climbing roses and scented white trachelospermum are joined in summer by pots of lemon trees. And in a private garden he is embarking on in the Cotswolds, the more temperate climate will allow him to plant an entire 'orchard’ of white Magnolia kobus.
'I am excited to be working in Britain for the first time,’ he says. Until the late 1990s he was making gardens exclusively in Spain, but recently his practice has become more international, with projects as far afield as Greece and Florida. He is cautious about embarking on all new work, and declines many commissions. 'Most projects take between three and five years to complete, and that means a long, close relationship with clients. So it is most important to feel empathy and trust.’
Caruncho is a great admirer of the English landscape garden, and he wants his Cotswolds garden to be in that tradition. Formal planting will be partnered with a more abstract geometrical layout of trees and empty lawn; hawthorn and box will replace his usual olives and cypresses; there will be contemporary pools and fountains; and flowers will be grown in the walled kitchen garden.
The light in Britain, he acknowledges, is subtler than in Spain, but he feels that wherever they are, gardens should be geared up for the sun and 'those moments of splendour it creates’.
Original article and pictures take http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/gardenstovisit/7692561/Fernando-Carunchos-geometric-gardens.html site