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 ...
... 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.
|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.|
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.|
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.
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.