Meet the men
and the gardener

 

True to the spirit of John Burroughs, or of Jeffries or Thoreau, Gabriel is a creator of an innovative type of nature literature,
that is manifested not in writing, but in creating tangible, three dimensional works of horticultural art, that live, breathe and transform in an ever-evolving feast of the senses.

 
 
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Interview with
Gabriel Rochard

How did your family and upbringing affect your passion for design?

My parents were not keen gardeners nor interested in architecture. They were always terrified when they saw me cutting a branch or pruning a tree! The gardening culture came from my aunt and my grand-mother. Our family country house near Paris had an amazing kitchen garden with dozens of different flowers. I could see the crops, the seasons, the first cuttings in spring, the bulbs planting in early Fall… My grandfather would also bring me to the Musée du Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay. He taught me so much about the different painting movements, inparticular the Greek sculptures. I think it really gave me a strong curiosity about colours, shapes and art history in general. Design came later, after I got my gardening skills. Now I could not do one without the other.

What was your first experience of designing a garden?

After school at Versailles, one of my school friends teamed up with me to design a garden for a small chateau near Chantilly, north of Paris. The experience was really interesting because not only did we design with 2 minds and 4 hands, but I was also assigned to oversea the build-up of what we had designed. The house had a very interesting past, it had been built in the 17th Century and the garden was a total blank canvas. We wanted to twist this history (a classic medieval kitchen garden, symmetry and different chambers) with ultimate modernism (straight lines, colour combinations, contemporary mixed borders). I then spent the whole winter there digging holes with a little team, planting 1200 grasses, installing a vast irrigation system, bringing and planting so many trees, shrubs and perennials. My friend was very good at the lines, my added value was more on the gardening side. I then realised the constant combination between the two: thinking as a gardener when you design, and as an architect when you plant.

What inspires you the most?

Two main inspiration sources:

Clearly my passion for seeing the plants in their natural habitats leads me to travel all year long. Discovering foreign countries not only gives me the opportunity to see how plants we usually use in our Western-European countries grow there, but it also gives me an amazing local knowledge from botanists, forest engineers and scientists from every country I visit. I also get inspiration from architecture and art in general. I not only spend a lot of time abroad in the maquis or the forests, but also dedicate a lot of time studying the vernacular architecture, the traditions, the food: in another words the way the people link to their biotope is key to understanding the world better. Because after all designing gardens is always about integration in a specific environment.

How did Planthunter come about?

While studying landscape architecture at Versailles I spent most of my time-off in Greece. Not only was the country fascinating for its stunning flora, but I also found a book in the house where I was staying which inspired a lot of decisions I made later in life. This book “Making a garden on a Greek hillside” had been written in the 80s by a South-African urban planner who spent most of her life in Peloponnese. She had dedicated her life planning cities and decided to design and plant a garden on her own in Attika, near Athens, based solely on endemic plants. I then decided to visit this garden, which happened to be the headquarters of the Mediterranean Garden Society (MGS). I became a member of the MGS. This led me, as a new member, to travel the world with botanists and plant experts in the Algarve, Japan, Northern Greece… After a few trips with passionate people, I decided to go plant hunting on my own. I went back to New Caledonia twice, where I had grown up as a child. I went to the Peruvian Amazon last December. The general idea is to follow your heart and pick up countries where the flora is rare, different, endangered, inspiring or where architecture blends rightfully with its environment. My next trip is to NYC (the work of Piet Oudolf with perennials on the High Line) and LA (architecture of Eames and Frank Lloyd Wright).

You are a passionate traveller and a keen photographer. How does that complement your garden landscaping?

It sharpens the eye. Framing, finding the right light, reading between the lines. It really helps a lot when you get the client brief. Blending what you have seen abroad, in your own garden, and what you discover while listening and observing the clients site before transforming this inspiration into a new project. And it gives you a strong sense of humility. What you have seen or done may already have been visited or done by others before you.

What has been your most exciting find during your travels?

Scents and noises, definitely. Unknown birds. Unknown languages, unknown colour combinations (so much red and orange flowers in Peru, the light blues of the Greek flora, the stunning red soil of New Caledonia, which is full of Nickel & Manganese. Food culture. Traveling on your own keeps you on alert all the time. Off the beaten path!

A few words on your Plants research. How do you incorporate your Plant Research into your landscaping?

Let’s take an example here. You are on a trip in Greece. You take some time visiting the recently designed garden in Athens (the Stavros Niarchos Foundation garden), to see how a contemporary garden made by New Yorkers for Greeks can be done today. You not only admire the way the garden blends beautifully with the Renzo Piano building. But you also see how they have combined endemic plants together, why some work, and some don’t. You then spend a lot of time in the maquis, discovering native plants and how they grow together, how they’ve been shaped by the drought and the wind. You start taking some notes, some photos. Then back to the studio you decide to create a Mediterranean border with all that in mind because you are so in love with this landscape. You start by dedicating some place in the studio’s garden, and you need to recreate the same culture conditions (high drained soil, stones and earth, south-facing…). You then order plants at the same nursery (the best specialist for Mediterranean plants is based in South of France), the ones that you have seen and liked in their local habitat. Then you plant them, you grow, clip, carefully water them. Then 2 years later, if the plants grow well, have not died of frost, have flowered well, the experience can be reproduced on a client’s project, if they have shown some interest for the Mediterranean. That’s pretty much how rare and hardy plants can enrich a project near Paris, not only with a strong gardening legitimacy, but with a knowledge of how they grow and behave locally.

In which way is landscaping a science and in which way an art?

It’s clearly not a science because the same formula or equation never leads to the same experience. Planting the same plant twice or trying to reproduce the same design on two different sites never leads to the same result. And I think I much prefer starting over each time, of course with the past in mind, but each story calls for a new page! In this way it is an art, a way to combine ideas and materials in an aesthetic object that will evolve. That is the main difference with architecture. Architects can produce an amazing object (e.g. building, a piece of art, museum…), when garden designers have 2 more dynamic forces: season and time. Because season after season the garden will change, get stronger, or weaker. That is something we have to strongly take into consideration when designing a space: do we want a fixed object or how do we want it to be in 10 or 50 years.

What do you love most and what frustrates you the most about being a designer?

What I love is that every new project reflects a new mindset, a new client’s lifestyle or brand identity, a new site, an occasion to combine new plants or use your new favorite colour, an occasion to make some business collaborations with new talented craftsmen. 
Frustration often comes when our clients don’t really understand that we work with living organisms and prefer to adopt their own maintenance ideas, for the garden that we created and built. By ignoring the skills needed and the time needed to keep up with the initial project, I have observed that the garden might loose some of the initial flair and spirit. Consistency and trust is key here.

What would be your ideal garden?

A south-facing garden, facing the sea, with plants coming from all the countries
I have travelled to.

The world would be a better place, if…

The people would care more about their environment. The environment, their neighbours - We spend so much time designing gardens where borders have to be so thick and dense!

What landscapes move you the most?

The diversity within one country is always what moves me a lot. The way they get entangled together is amazing. The Peruvian sierra leading to the “rupa rupa” subtropical landscapes within just one day of driving was one of my best travel experiences. The red soil of New Caledonia, where rare endemic plants grow, is also totally breath-taking.

How do you balance the need for solitude and getting together in an urban landscape?

Even in a noisy city, when you hold a camera and look for the perfect architecture or garden, you can feel isolated and serene. However, the balance comes from the addition between solitary travels and my work at the Atelier, which is like a beehive, with my team and the many craftsmen who work for us.

How does features like fountains, ponds, and water in general can affect city life?

It really depends if it’s needed or not! When you travel in Greece and you see that landscape designers still create immense over-watered lawns around the estates, you start to realise things are not evolving fast enough. We are in a general culture where water still relates to lush and tropics, wealth and domination. We really should think about designing gardens that are related to the environment and the local climate. We tend to have drier springs and summers; gardens should therefore be designed and maintained in a water-wise manner. That being said, fountains or water features can bring a delicate whisper in a noisy environment. Therefore, they can be a project’s key asset. Generally speaking, we are better to plant more than install water features. It is proven that a highly planted city suffers less from the heatwaves we encounter more and more nowadays.

Which of the senses is more fundamental in experiencing a garden?

Smell and sight!

How does the scale of a landscape affect your work?

I am mainly working on limited urban scales (rooftops, headquarters outer spaces). They are micro-landscapes in themselves: this makes projects even more interesting because you can totally focus yourself on the relationship between the on-site architecture and the garden. When you work for cities or on a larger scale, the criteria you have to take into account are so numerous that projects become longer and harder, the botanical palette becomes less strategic, whereas people movements and behaviours, access to information, car impact, or political stakes become drivers of the project.

Which would you advise as the best garden sightseeing holiday?

Japan, for its immense garden culture and diversity. Forests in Kyushu are gardens, where native Acers sparkle at autumn with their stunning red foliage, dotting the mountains with their vivid colours. Manicured gardens in Kyoto are incredible, they are state-of-the-art gardens. Keen and talented gardeners are smiling when they prune the Camellias or clean the alleys. In Japan the horticultural culture is amazing. So many plants we use today in Europe or the US are coming from there, it is fascinating to walk in a wild forest and observe plants we use daily in their natural habitat. Moreover, the Japanese are respectful of the gardens; you really feel this respect everywhere. That is something that drives me when I am back at the studio: I am even more convinced that designing places with harmony leads to respectfulness and peacefulness.