The lauded landscape artist and winner of the SGD Lifetime Achievement Award talks to Stephanie Mahon about his work
Fernando Caruncho’s personal studio, near his home on the edge of Madrid, is a self-designed complex that would make any designer sob with envy. The garden and terrace feature curved clipped hedges framing circles of sand raked precisely into concentric rings, mimicked by gently rippling round pools of water. Inside, outrageously high ceilings and moulded spiral staircases hint at their creator’s originality.
In his 40 years of practice, the gardens and landscapes of this celebrated designer have been described as modern, minimalist and timeless. “People say I am contemporary,” he says. “It is a discussion that is not interesting to me. Obviously I am contemporary, because I live now!” He has been called a landscape architect, a garden designer and an artist, but he is having none of it, seeing himself as “a gardener”, who simply identifies and reveals the latent qualities of spaces. This is more than a career to him – it is his spiritual calling. “To be a gardener is to be a man,” he says. “It is a profession, but it is also a way to be a human being.”
He grew up in Madrid, under Franco, in a family of creative types, and developed a special appreciation for nature during summers in the countryside. The young Fernando was a bookworm – “To read is one of the most beautiful things in life” – and after school he chose to study philosophy. A willing sponge for higher ideas and ideals, he was inspired by the academies of Ancient Greece, where students would discuss deep thoughts as they walked the stoas and gardens.
But in these theories and arguments, he felt, something was missing: it was all talk, no action. Caruncho had almost decided to pack in university completely when he went to a lecture on landscape, and had an epiphany. “I realised that to be a philosopher, you need to be a gardener. This transformed my whole life – I discovered my happiness.”
He enrolled in the landscape studies programme at the Castillo de Batres in 1979, and established his studio. His first project, at the age of 21, was a small garden of about 200 sq m for his uncle. This was not just any ‘give-him-a-start’ family project, however – his uncle was a well-known interior designer, with a house designed by the famous modernist architect Richard Neutra. The pressure was on.
For his design, Caruncho channelled the essence of 17th-century gardens in Kyoto, Japan. He spent two years creating the garden, with an attention to detail that saw him scouring the countryside for months for the right group of rocks. The resulting space was featured in Vogue Decoration in the late 1980s, and catapulted the young designer to prominence, helping him secure a series of projects in Spain and abroad, from Mas Floris to the Ollauri Gardens, and the Spanish Embassy in Tokyo to Flynn in Florida.
At Cotoner, a private garden in Majorca, round-edged rows of clipped greenery evoke the tea plantations of Asia. At Mas de les Voltes, known as The Wheat Garden, crisp blocks of wheat are interrupted by thrusting uprights of cypress. At Amastuola in Italy, old olive trees become eye-catchers amongst rows of espaliered grapevines that snake out in rippling lines to the horizon. Other Caruncho landscapes can be found in Morocco, New Zealand and here in the Cotswolds.
Wherever they may be, all of his schemes have immediate and striking visual impact, yet radiate an ambience of tranquil belonging – a sense that they just feel right, and were ever meant to be this way. His careful compositions usually contain the same key elements: structural planting; strong vertical accents; and water in the form of reflecting pools to bring the sky down into the garden.
Caruncho works from a grid, sometimes keeping to its rigid right angles, or breaking out with circles, curves and waves, but always with an eye to symmetry. From these beginnings, he crafts a canvas for his medium: the light. “To create a garden is to control the light,” he explains. “In our projects, the primary material is the light, but the way we control it is with geometry. Without realising it, we humans need geometry to understand a space, to connect with it. The geometry is the receptacle of the light.”
Beauty in loss
The designer’s own garden at Casa Caruncho was the perfect paragon of his style, until recently, when disease struck its core, leading to the removal of 1,000 sq m of clipped Escallonia. In this loss, as in all else, Caruncho is philosophical. “We have the perception now in modern society that everything should be happy all the time, and death is dramatic and traumatic,” he says. “We need to accept it as a normal thing. To have lost these masses of plants was awful, but I began to understand that even the process of death in the garden has its beauty.”
The following summer, in a very un-Caruncho-like move, he embraced the change and sowed thousands of white cosmos to fill the space – an ephemeral flurry of flowers that brought brief beauty and joy for one season, before vanishing. “It was not easy to let go of 25 years of cultivation, and be left with bare soil and trees, but it gave us an opportunity, the chance to do something I never do: make a space full of flowers!”
On his more typical projects, however, his approach is slow and steady. There is a heavy emphasis placed on genius loci, the spirit of the place. “The process is very intuitive and sensitive,” he says. “To make a place, it is important to understand its personality and character.” He visits the site, usually for two to three days. “The first impression is really important. When you approach a place for the first time, it is like meeting a person. You have to spend some time and get to know them.”
Caruncho may return once or twice to read what he calls “the layers” of the space and how the light penetrates them. “This way, you will understand which layers you need to move or remove to let the light in,” he says. He also spends a lot of time walking in the surroundings, so the relationship between the architecture and the garden, and the garden and the wider landscape can be understood, and synergy created between the three.
Back in Madrid, he and his team translate first impressions into sketches, and these lead to the creation of a scale model, which reproduces the topography and surroundings of the site and is essentially a masterplan for the project. These large maquettes are a testing ground for ideas and for placing various elements to see how they interact with each other and the site, and how the views change as a result. They also offer the ability to create video tours of the proposed design at a real perspective, which are used in the presentation to the client. After this come more detailed plans in CAD, before the building works.
Most Caruncho projects take between one and three years from first visit to completion, but may take longer now that many of his clients want masterplans of the house and garden together. This is a welcome development for the designer. “I don’t distinguish between gardens and architecture – to me it is the same,” he says. “At the moment, we are doing the integral architecture and garden for a project in Lugano, Switzerland, which is really amazing, because the focus is the landscape, not the house or garden.”
He is aided in these efforts by his two sons, Fernando and Pedro, who have both recently completed their training as architects, and joined his practice. He fairly swells with pride at the thought of working with them, of sharing “rich experiences” and watching their skills grow. Now 60, and having created close to 200 projects, Caruncho is motivated to share his ethos and advice. “It is so important to impart this knowledge to the next generation, or it will be lost. It is a delicate, fragile thing, this knowledge, so very subtle, and we have to cultivate it like a garden. If we don’t, it will disappear.”
What, then, does he think the future holds for young garden designers? “This is the best moment in the past century,” he says, “though it may not seem this way. Modern life is uncertain, and if it continues in this way, where we put the unimportant first and the important last, it will be a disaster. We must consider the Earth our paradise, or we are lost. So, now is a moment for a garden mentality. The garden is the space in which to recuperate the lost connection between man and nature, and provide people with the possibility to return to dignity and happiness. That is the big responsibility for future garden designers.”
Sense of place
To face this challenge, he says, these budding designers need not just technical and botanical knowledge, but an understanding of the arts – Caruncho’s own influences range widely, from Dante to Turrell, and Asian artists to Giotto. They should also travel as much as possible, and have a depth of experiences to draw from. “You need to fill your soul with memories – memory is the mother of the muse,” he explains. “The more memories you have, the more you are. Without memory and knowledge, it is impossible to create and transform reality, and that is what we do as designers. When you create a garden, you reveal your interior life,” he continues, “and without this filling, any garden you design will be a banal experience.”
The problem, he suspects, is that “design is too mental now. It needs to be more unconscious”. The key to creating authentic gardens is first “to take the time to be in the place, maybe for days. Have the discipline to hear, see, understand. Don’t project your thoughts and prejudices onto the place – when you do this you violate the place. Let the place be, and take action only when it is absolutely necessary.”
Developing this aptitude takes patience and enduring passion, Caruncho feels, but if you can achieve it, the rewards are transcendent. “When you enter a real garden, you feel that you are in a special place and that time has stopped. It is emotional. The real thing, it transforms you, and in this moment, it accomplishes its destiny.”