Interview: Alex Hanazaki
Designer Alex Hanazaki is known for his strong clean designs
One of Brazil’s foremost landscape designers, Alex Hanazaki is based in São Paulo, where the population of the city and its suburbs is estimated to be around 20 million, making it one of the largest conurbations in the world. It’s also one of the most culturally diverse cities in South America, with the largest Japanese and Italian populations outside their respective countries, among a whole host of other nationalities that have made São Paulo their home.
“It is difficult to define a Brazilian identity, since we have been absorbing such a vast cultural variety for centuries,” says Hanazaki, himself of Japanese ancestry, which has been an important influence on his approach to design. “As a child, I was always very impressed with the simplicity and accuracy of my Japanese grandparents’ habits. Such minimalism taught me how to capture the essence of basic elements, and to appreciate details, as they play a major role in the outcome of everything we do.”
A good garden, he says, is one that “explores native plants, local materials and techniques, responding to each biome, urban reality and cultural context.” His designs are characterised by strong, clean lines with a modernist feel and lush planting. He wants his designs to show a more cosmopolitan and diverse side to Brazilian culture, rather than the more stereotypical themes of Carnival and football.
“I recognise the influence of both European and Brazilian modernist architecture in my work, and I look to incorporate minimalism, the mathematics of rationalism, linearity of axis and pure geometry in my gardens. But my signature isn’t restricted to one specific movement. I always feel touched by nature and excited by cosmopolitan life. Therefore, I am ready to absorb many variations of environments and styles, as long as they impact me with a sense of beauty.”
Hanazaki grew up in a small agricultural town where the countryside had a huge effect on him. “I feel my true calling was to become a landscape architect, working with the land and bringing nature to spaces.” He studied architecture at the University of Marília in São Paulo, and while he was there he worked as an intern at several architecture practices. The last one was a landscape architecture studio, which he says confirmed his passion for the profession.
After graduating, he set up his own studio which is now 20 years old and comprises a team of architects, landscape designers, agronomists and horticulturists. They work on about 60-70 projects a year, a mix of residential and commercial projects, mainly in Brazil but also further afield in the rest of South America, as well as Europe, North America, Africa and the Middle East. In the gardens he designs in his homeland, he is passionate about using and celebrating Brazil’s native flora, not only because it is easier to look after, as it is adapted to the climate, but also because he feels it isn’t appreciated enough. “There’s a sensorial quality to our natural landscapes, with their richness of colours, textures and exuberance of foliage,” says Hanazaki.
The hardwood tree pau brasil (Caesalpinia echinata), after which the country is named and now critically endangered in the wild, is a plant Hanazaki likes to include, along with a native fruit tree the jabuticaba (Plinia cauliflora) and tropical plants that British designers would be more familiar with as houseplants, such as Calathea.
He is also always seeking to innovate, especially if it means making a design more sustainable in its construction and maintenance. His project ‘The Entrance Garden’, a green space in São Paulo that was honoured by the American Society of Landscape Architects in 2017, included the use of porcelain tiles, an alternative to local stone, which is an increasingly rare resource. The tiles were coated with a nanotechnology self-cleaning substance that makes for a low-maintenance floor, and, using a process specially designed for the project, ceramic waste was reused to create black pebbles for a reflective pool.
Hanazaki sees good landscape design as integral in improving the quality of people’s lives. “One of the challenges in Brazil is to develop a culture of public spaces, and to achieve the public policies and investments necessary for them so that urban green areas are available to everyone, especially in big cities such as São Paulo.”
The sheer vastness of Brazil as a country – it’s the fifth largest in the world and 35 times bigger than Britain – poses another challenge for him. “The continental scale of Brazil means, as I work on projects all around the country, my first and foremost task is to understand the diversity of botany and climate and then create balanced landscapes.”
Alex Hanazaki is speaking at the SGD Autumn Conference, ‘Geometry: new angles on gardens and landscape’, on Saturday 17 November 2018 – click here to find out more and book tickets.