Saturday, December 03, 2011

Juan Grimm: a garden in Uruguay

The four elements:  fire, air, earth, water. Inspiration for many a garden, but especially appropriate for this garden by Juan Grimm, the Chilean garden and landscape designer, on the strikingly beautiful southern coast of Uruguay, a place that is made of fire (as brilliant sun), transparent air, sandy earth, and water everywhere.

The sunny, open site in coastal Uruguay, with wetlands, eucalyptus groves, and sandy meadowland (actually, Monte psamofilo, roughly the Uruguayan version of a sandy meadow near the ocean) sets the expectation for a naturalistic garden in keeping with the nature of the place, and this is such a garden, but one with a surprise. Near the house, the naturalistic elements are abstracted in a strict, severe geometry. The plant pallet throughout is lean.

We were taken to visit this garden by Amalia Robredo, a Uruguyan landscape designer, on a late summer day in February of this year. The sun was low, but bright and fiery. Amalia, who I knew from blogging and previous internet contact, had encouraged us to visit Uruguay when I told her we planned a trip to South America. She invited us to see her garden and other gardens in the area. With Amalia, we were a group of eight.

The expansive lawn, with many coves edged by naturalized plantings and hedgerows.

The garden has a simple layout of three principal parts -- a "land" side with extensive lawn, curvaceously edged by naturalistic hedgerows (or the South American equivalent) and two large, prominent eucalyptus groves ...

... the house and immediate garden surroundings, which bifurcates the garden into two parts ...

... and the lake side with a broad view of wetlands, stone walls, wooden walkways, terraces and an infinity pool, all offering a view of the wide, flat landscape over which the sun sets.

The back lawn quickly gives way to the lake and the wild landscape.

Grimm's garden is a lean, elegant use of space, mass, and light to reveal the nature of a unique and subtle landscape. Its appeal is more intellectual than sensual or emotional, an Apollonian garden of light not a Dionysian garden, with a seeming hardness that resists an easy sensual appeal. Light, water, wood, stone, plants all are elements manipulated for aesthetic effect, and subservient to a rather focused conceit. I'd call it a conceptual garden, an abstract paean to the sun, the air, and the beautiful coast of Uruguay. Not much for the plantaholic here.

Grimm's gardens are usually about integrating house and landscape, and the courtyard at the entrance to the house is what does that. It gives this garden an aesthetic tension and a meaning. The courtyard is highly geometric; it abstracts elements of the larger landscape into a pattern of lines and grids. A pergola-like feature carries that grid into three dimensions and structures the space immediately around the house.

Light is the magical element of this garden. We are looking through the house, from the shady side to the sunset side with lake and wetlands, here out of view.

This courtyard is like the "hinge" of the garden, physically mediating between the lawn side and the lake side, and accomplishing that mediation through an abstract conceit.

The fountain (left) couldn't be less fussy--a simple stack of rectangles with water gently bubbling into the pool.
Grimm has created a formal abstraction of the site's natural features in this highly geometric design--the concrete pads with miniature grass "lawns" floating on the water, the thin, vertical Juncus, which is massed in the lake behind the house, growing here like a representation or "model" of the real thing in the sharp-edged reflecting pool, the minimalist fountain of stacked rectangles gently bubbling water into the pool. All very understated, literally an abstract of garden concepts. Whereas the rest of the garden is full of curves and wavy lines, this part plays with squares and rectangles, integrating the straight edges and right angles of the house into the landscape, moving from solid boxes to airy pergola, to open walkways.

On first impression, the square concrete "pads" seemed out of place, breaking up the reflections in the pool as they do, almost too self-consciously intruding, demanding to be interpreted. And one can't overlook their humor:  concrete lily pads with miniature lawns. It's clear they reference the lawn to one side of the house, as well as the lake and wetlands on the other side of the house. The concept is that simple. They're playful too. Convention would say you are invited to walk on them, but you can't. They are sized and spaced to make such an exercise very difficult (and you'd certainly damage the thin "lawn" beyond repair).

This abstract, gridded, model of a landscape gives way to informal naturalism on the lake side of the house. In contrast to the concrete lily pads, the pier extending into the lake is easily walkable. Here is our group taking the view back toward the infinity pool and the house.

A few eucalyptus trees relieve the severity of the landscape.
The infinity pool.
The passageways from one side to the other are more sensually appealing, lusher, suggesting more vigorous life, and it is only in these passageways moving around the structure of the house that the garden allows a feeling of profuse growth and seclusion to intrude. Here, a passage lined with a wall of planted ferns ...

And here the walkway out to the pool area.

I found this garden hard to warm to, and I've come to appreciate it more in retrospect than in the actual experience. It's a garden like none I've seen before. Walking it is like visiting a conceptual work of art, one that reveals little at first, like a puzzle asking you to tease out its meaning. It doesn't yield its rewards easily.

This garden is very different, at least in external appearance, from Grimm's more famous gardens on the rocky Pacific coast of Chile, with their precipitous verticals, houses nestled in rocks, dramatic changes in elevation, and distant views. But in both cases, there and here, in a gentle landscape characterized more by flatness than verticality, one can see the mind of a master designer at work, using materials at hand, materials appropriate to the place. And the result is challenging and rewarding.

Is it an enjoyable place to visit? Yes, through I do believe it offers its pleasures more fully to those who can experience it at different times of day, in different seasons, and especially at night under the huge starry dome of sky.


  1. There is good landscape everywhere and this garden is just different. A salt marsh site and view is not the most common decision either.
    But I do think its great.
    The slope between the house and the marsh is beautifully handled. It reflect the reality of site and environment and that you are living there.
    I don't see the point at all of the other side, with the 'pergola' and pool and square pads. That seems to be just decoration for it's own sake.
    Though I do think the main photo towards the light through the house is stunning.

  2. I can see the other side, as the place where people live, what they use, in hot summer months. Perhaps as a holiday home. We ARE in a mediterranean climate in this garden?

    Slightly surprised that you didn't warm to this garden - the textures, the mostly green, the sculpture and architecture - all remind of your own garden. Tho this one seems to be on a HUGE scale. It is more spirit of place than Garden.

  3. I think that photo through the house toward the lowering sun is a key to shat this garden has to offer, a glimpse into the "story" of this landscape. I have to admit I was expecting to be stunned in some way by seeing a garden designed by Juan Grimm, and the actual experience was at first a disappointment. Recognizing that this garden had been through a summer of drought, and that the owners have not yet completely solved the problem of how to maintain such a vast space, the garden begins to reveal its more engaging qualities--it's a beautiful place to live. And I didn't mention that this is a young garden. The pergola structure, for example, will be covered by vines in time.

  4. I'm not sure the southern coast of Uruguay is technically considered a Mediterranean climate, but certainly a similar climate with a dry, hot summer, and a wetter winter, and mild temperatures. Interesting that you see it as similar to my by comparison very small garden, but my garden is much more about the qualities of the plants in it--not nearly so minimal in use of plant material. As you say, it really is a huge garden. I'm not sure those acres of grass lawn are appropriate in this climate, and to my mind this is the least appealing part of the garden. The space it creates is wonderful, but I wonder if it couldn't be planted in a different way.

  5. Just stumbled across your very impressive site and consider myself very lucky that I did. It is rare to discover a gardening blog where the comment section is as vibrant and engaging as the posts themselves. That is a reflection of the talent of the writer and the quality of the material posted.
    However I must report that I am reading your blog with eyes that are well beyond age 65 and it is challenging to make out the details printed in red on a green ground in the right hand side of the blog.
    Now that the gardening season is over, I plan to make it my business to read through all of your posts, over the winter months, to make sure that I have missed nothing.

  6. Great to hear from you, Allan. I've been a reader of your blog for a while now (it's in my google reader). My goal, it if were possible with a blog, is to promote some useful discussion about gardens and gardening--even disagreement and controversy--something more than "pretty picture" but, unfortunately, Blogger, unlike Wordpress, doesn't provide a way to follow comments and encourage feedback. And, yes, you are not the first person to ask me to change my background color. Having 66-year-old eyes myself, I do find the links in the right-hand column hard to read, so I plan to change the background to improve readability. Thanks for making that point and thanks for the positive feedback. I guess I needed a little kick in the ass.

  7. I'm still quite struck by the restraint and elegance of this Juan Grimm garden..seeing these images for the second time. The craftsmanship, again, feels so much more soulful than what you might see in something comparable in North America. It's polished but feels more handmade than manufactured. But - this time - I feel like there's something missing. Perhaps I was too distracted by the structural elements and thoughtful, integrating layout to notice this when you showed them to me awhile back. Perhaps this is a garden IN NEED of a plantaholic? Hmm. This makes me wonder who might take care of such a place... and how much freedom they have to garden in such a seemingly controlled environment. There should always be room to improvise, yes, or things will become stale.

    This is a very skilled photoset, by the way. One of your best. Well done, Golden James.

  8. Peter, one name comes to mind. Amalia Robredo is very active in trialing and working with academics and local nurseries to identify good native plants and make them available for use in gardens. Her own garden, La Pasionaria, which I linked to in the post above, has many examples of beautiful plants native to this part of Uruguay. Unfortunately, most people are not aware (to my knowledge) of the richness of the Uruguayan native flora. It's too bad she couldn't, as one example, help enrich the borders surrounding that huge lawn. But, of course, one doesn't lightly tinker with a Juan Grimm garden. Thanks much for your comments on the post and photos. It was your rather exuberant reaction to the photos I sent you that prompted me to do this post.

  9. Change your background?! Yes please! And wish it was WordPress so easier to follow - but that's a lot to ask!

    I feel unable to comment on this garden - I find it hard to really 'get' a garden from photographs and suspect the experience of it is very different from my imaginings.

    But an interesting issue is raised here, rather obliquely. How much do people see even a garden like this as something to support the gardening process as opposed to appreciating it for its own sake, with it's wonderfully restricted palette?

  10. Looking for some more readable template and colors after several requests. I wish I could change to Wordpress, but keep hoping Blogger will introduce some of the helpful tools Wordpress offers.

    Hard to "get" a garden from photos, I know, but that really locks people who can't afford international travel out of the discussion. Like not looking at all. I do think selection can be guided by a view toward revealing a garden, and can communicate some important points. But one has to avoid sacrifacing "truth" for the misleading "beauty" or aesthetic quality of a good photo. We need reporting, not pretty pictures.

    Your last comment, I think, comes out of the British gardening culture. In South America, there is no tradition of open gardens, little of the "gardening culture" you're so much a part of. A vast cultural difference, it seems, though I have limited knowledge of that difference.

  11. I love, love, love the porch/deck/pergola thing.

  12. Incredible. This is what I want, but maybe a bit wilder--bring the wild and geometric / mod forms in closer together until they nearly collide, even meld. Of course, that pool is stunning in and of itself, but also for it's echo of the pond.

  13. There are some beautiful elements to this garden, or should that be park? It certainly is large. But there are also some elements which have an almost golf club feel to them.

    I particularly like the view past the lawn to the lake and the wild landscape.

  14. Susan, I think you may be in the minority. I think it's one of the most interesting parts of the garden, and will be more so after the plants have grown in.

  15. Benjamin, lots of echoing going on here. I didn't mention the guest house almost hidden out at the edge of the huge lawn. It has an infinity lap pool.

  16. Rob, yes, the lawn does suggest a giant putting green. But the vast space above it, wrapped in the arms of the two eucalyptus groves is quite a grand gesture.

  17. I am not a big fan of the floating lawns, especially since they can't be walked on. However, I do appreciate the rest of the garden as portrayed by your post, and I am glad a light hand was used in the plantings. I think when presented with a unique natural landscape, a garden should not compete with it for attention.

    Les @

  18. The "floating lawns" seem to get both yeas and nays. You make an important point by reserving judgment with "as portrayed by your post." True, a few pictures and words are not at all a substitute for visiting a garden, nor is one visit enough, necessarily, to render a valid judgment. But what else can we do without all becoming world travelers? We communicate what we can recognizing the limitations of the medium. And I agree with you that a light hand is best in such a landscape.

  19. I'm coming to like sparely-planted gardens more and more, James, not only from an aesthetic viewpoint, but because they are - theoretically - much less work. Thankyou for the insightful tour.

  20. Oh I suspect this garden needs a large workforce for manicuring. The floating lawns in the pond - would be fun for a show garden at Chelsea. But to maintain?! I feel the edges should be precisely geometrical not a little wayward, as they are.

    When the vines have grown over the pergola, that deck will be heaven in summer.

    Because you, James, grow plants I don't know - I probably see superficial similarities between two palettes of unknown native/indigenous plants.

    Not a lawn fan, but with that huge area to cover, wouldn't want to go overboard on stone paving. Perhaps allowing fingers of local vegetation to reach in from the natural? pond below.

  21. Faisal, it may be sparely planted, but in no way is it low maintenance. Hey, that's MY goal.

  22. Diana, I think it does need a large workforce (not sure how large). The area bordering the large lawn was in need of some attention. There were some odd things planted there that I don't think Juan Grimm would have specified. I think I remember seeing Oleander, which really looked out of place. More like someone else decided to plant some shrubs here and there to boost the color. But that's only a guess. I too noticed the "wayward" edging on the floating lawns in the pool. How to maintain that? Probably put on your swim suit and take a plunge. No other way to get to them.

    You and some others seem to have noticed similarities between the plants in this garden and in mine. They are, in fact, very different. Mine are, of course, mostly native to this continent or at least the northern hemisphere, and my garden isn't sparely planted at all (and it's tiny in comparison). But I'm intrigued that others see a similarity I don't see.

  23. There I was, James, naive as ever! My goal too - to be able to walk out into something that looks like it just came about that way and you never have to do a thing to it...

  24. They are both 'New American' gardens to the rest of the world. That effortless look, is achieved with a team of elves overnight!

    I once read about the work of the gardeners on Prince Charles Scottish estate. Everything is pruned and manipulated for perfection in the MONTH when Charles and Camilla are At Home.

  25. Erm, sorry to be contrary, but I actually like doing work in the garden. It feels good. I may turn the compost heap tomorrow!

    By the way, I feel my likening elements of this garden to a golf club is unfair. I'm growing to like it a lot.

    Bon Weekend James.

  26. Diana, thanks for pointing out that "American" encompasses both South and North (and Central) America. Vast differences, and amazing similarities. May Prince Charles always be able to afford his gardening staff...

  27. Rob,

    Can't say I do (like heavy work in the garden), but whatever floats your boat! I've been intending to get outside and cut back some huge Euonymous alatus smashed by the heavy ice/snow in late October. Have to cut it back by half, but I never seem to find the time. Come to think of it, I did gather rocks to extend the paving by the pond just yesterday. A moment of inspiration!

  28. On our blog you speculated I think about whether you can love what you haven't physically seen yourself. Yes, yes, yes, absolutely loved this, but I love his work anyway. Intellectual? Its shapes, and colours and spaces and textures to me and I could move in tomorrow!
    Thanks for this.
    Best and for the season.

  29. I like that--shapes, colors, spaces, textures. So perhaps we can just call the intellectual courtyard play and let it go at that. (But there is a "conceptual" aspect to this, don't you agree?)



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