Interview: Juan Grimm
The South American landscape designer tells Veronica Peerless about his sustainable gardens
Juan Grimm is one of the best-known landscape designers you have probably never heard of. Over the past 30 years he has designed numerous gardens and public spaces in Chile, Argentina, Peru and Uruguay, and is currently working on a number of large-scale projects in his native Chile. These include public and private parks and gardens, the Bahá’í Temple Gardens in Santiago and a Benedictine monastery.
Juan, who cites Roberto Burle Marx and the Austrian landscaper Oscar Prager as influences, initially trained as an architect. “It gave me a tool – the concept of ‘space’. For my first project, I built spaces with trees and left the trunks like windows. The teacher told me: ‘This is not architecture, it is something else.’ I'm a landscaper thanks to the great love I have for nature. I need to approach it, touch it, have it always present.”
Nature informs everything Juan does. “Creating a garden is always artificial, but it should be more than a collection of plants.” Context is everything. “The first thing I do when I visit a site is to observe its relationship with the surrounding landscape. I incorporate the valuable elements and hide the unwanted ones, and conceal the edges of the property so that the garden has no limits.” This ethos is reflected in his own spectacular and renowned garden, Los Vilos, which teeters on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
While Juan does use non-native plants in his designs, many are native. He pays close attention to how plants grow and propagate in the wild before including them in a garden. “I have observed how shrubs grow in the wild, their natural order in streams and valleys and how they compose a landscape with their volumes, colours, textures, lights and shadows.”
His studies are not only aesthetic, however – he is also concerned with making gardens more sustainable. “Indigenous shrubs, for example, especially those that are drought tolerant, are useful in parks with large areas of poor soil, without irrigation.” This is a trend that he believes is now being reflected in garden design throughout Latin America. “The classical garden is no longer a point of reference. In several countries, there is a strong impulse to rescue values and the native vegetation,” he says. “There is a growing awareness about caring for the environment and the natural landscapes.”
He highlights the work of the nurserywoman Monica Musalem. “She has propagated Chilean species that have not yet been ‘domesticated’, to incorporate them into gardens.” He also credits the research done by Paulina Riedemann and Gustavo Aldunate, who both followed in the footsteps of the botanist Adriana Hoffman in researching native Chilean flora. “They travelled for years along Chile, from the desert in the north to the cold southern archipelagos, photographing, describing and classifying thousands of native species. Their knowledge has created awareness among young Chilean landscapers. They see in our landscapes and native flora a valuable natural heritage that must be respected, considered and included when designing landscaping projects.”
Juan is speaking at the SGD Autumn Conference on 26 November – to buy tickets go to www.sgd.org.uk