“Gardens are really a drop of paradise on earth.”
Among his many public and private projects, the leading contemporary gardener and landscape architect Louis Benech was commissioned to reshape the Tuileries public gardens which are located between the Louvre Museum and the Place de la Concorde in the 1st arrondissement of Paris.
Did you always want to be a gardener and garden designer?
Yes, it is what I am.
But before you became who you are did your father first force you to study law?
I was not forced to do it, but at school I couldn’t do maths and physics, and the only alternative was to study the law. In a practical way, it could have been art history or literature for the pleasure.
Why did you go to England when you graduated?
The day I finished my studies I called a French friend who was really well connected with the Hillier family. Hillier is a very famous English nursery that probably has the widest range of plants in the world. They could not take me before early February, so first I went to work at the gardens of “Kerdalo” in Brittany, Peter Wolkonsky’s place.
They say that you are even more interested in plants than in the garden itself?
I am passionate about plants and could have been happy as a nurseryman, but my father was an architect who loved what he did, so we have also been eating and drinking architecture for years. I have even visited all the buildings of Le Corbusier, without happy feelings, but my father was very interested in what had been built after the war. Architecture is part of the training needed for designing a garden. Being interested in plants could be for their botanical rarity… but what I love mainly in their knowledge is to guess how to place them, of course in good condition but in a proper space, in good company with a true scenic sense, with architectural hints and targets, more than just planting a collection or a scientific arboretum.
What makes a good garden architect?
For me a good garden architect has to be a plants man or at least a good amateur, to play right in a world of plenty. But he has also to be able to reduce his plant vocabulary when the context of the garden needs it. For instance Prunus virginiana (Tuileries) or Populus alba ‘Richardii’ (Versailles) rarely planted in French gardens are exceptions in the tiny range of plants used in those gardens.
When did you feel ready for what would become your job?
When I went to England and worked for Hillier, it was with the target of being accepted to study at Kew or Edinburgh university after this internship. But in the meantime Hillier offered me work with their French partners and that’s what I chose.The Common Market was not totally open at that time, and to export plants to Europe cost them a lot, so they decided to send lorries to France and I worked as a despatcher.
So this took you to Normandy?
Yes, and I settled in Normandy, which was full of British people, and slowly I started to design gardens for them. Then it became more and more commercial, and I got a bit bored. I met Loel Guinness who was looking for a gardener, and I spent five years with him in Normandy. When Russell Page, the foremost landscape architect of his time, worked in Normandy for Guy de Rothschild he stayed in the house where I was a gardener and he gave me advice.
When did you create your own company?
By chance I had met Pierre Bergé, and I worked for Pierre and Yves St Laurent in Normandy. There was very little money involved, but Pierre pushed me to establish a tiny garden design company. Then I worked for Guy and Marie-Hélène de Rothschild and for Sadruddin Aga Khan in Geneva.
How did you win the competition launched by Jack Lang, the Minister of Culture in France, for the renovation of the Tuileries gardens?
At the time I was working with Pascal Cribier, who sadly killed himself on 4th November this year, less than a month ago. I was still living in Normandy while Pascal was living in Paris. Pascal was incredibly talented and ambitious, and wanted to be better known. We had worked together on Anne d’Ornano’s garden in Deauville. Anne is the most divine person and did many interesting things like creating the American Film Festival in Deauville.
How did you win the commission to work at the Tuileries?
The Centre Pompidou decided to do an exhibition on gardens and they invited all the landscape designers of the period. So we submitted our project for a garden, but at the end of the day the exhibition itself didn’t see the light of day as it was too expensive. Nevertheless Jack Lang asked for a list of people to compete for reshaping the Tuileries gardens. They chose fifteen teams, including Pascal and I, and we were lucky enough to be the one they selected.
Then you moved to Paris?
After being chosen for the Tuileries I established myself in Paris. I had no formal studies, no background, nothing. But I had no fear and we produced funny designs, and it seems that they were clever enough to be noticed by François Mitterrand, who was the President at the time.
Have you worked on many other gardens?
When I was quite young I worked for the Pinault family, before the Tuileries story, and I worked for a range of persons after that.
On one side you worked for very wealthy people and on the other for institutions and government?
Yes, but the Tuileries was a huge job for us and for ten years I worked on very few other commissions. I mainly worked on the Tuileries. I was there in the gardens, every day.
What happened to your rich clients?
I kept a few on the side, but from 1990-94 I didn’t work for anyone else. The Tuileries garden was done bit by bit and it never closed during the work. We planted more than 3,000 trees, and a few were cut down for technical reasons like the new placing of lighting posts. I was there every day, behind the wheel of the tractor.
In your line of work what is the difference between a public and a private commission?
For public commissions in France you have a few people deciding if you will be chosen, and then you still fight for the money. The Tuileries was very unusual because President Mitterrand himself was involved. Usually the commande publique is split into different mind-sets and is more diluted, but not in the case of the Tuileries, and this was because of Mitterrand. I couldn’t imagine Sarkozy or Hollande giving directions like he had been giving in such a context.
Whereas with a private commission?
In private commissions there is an evolution, with totally confident people who you can call and ask if they like it or not. You have a wall you can play ping-pong with.
Is a garden a necessity or a luxury?
A luxury is not necessary. A garden is truly a luxury. It costs money to build and every day it costs money to maintain, and you make it for the next 100 years. Yet humanly speaking it is necessary.
What makes a garden so special?
Because today the world is going so fast that a garden that lives to our rhythm and our breath is needed by individuals and socially. It’s not nature, it’s an artificial place where everyone can find himself. I work for hospitals and places where gardens are really a drop of paradise on earth. In this way a garden is a necessity. It is quite ambiguous.
What do you think is the attraction of gardens?
Gardens in peoples’ life are very important. They are a break in the way we are living today. They are also a part of our consciousness. I look at the Versailles gardens and they are designed to say, “I am the King.” Everything is written in that garden with triangles, symbolic for a reason of power.
Has there been a great evolution for gardens throughout history?
Nothing has really changed, apart from little details of fashion. There is a general evolution of style, but it is amazing how stable it is. Some say it is an art, but today art means money, which is not the case in gardens. You can garden with a little or with a lot of money. To my eyes a garden is a place of little power, you are not going to sell it. You need time. I know plenty of people who find balance by doing gardening themselves.
As a person and as a gardener are you concerned about climate change?
In 1990 when we won the Tuileries we decided to make a garden that did not need to be watered, because we already knew thirty years ago that water would become more rare on earth. I read a book which had a great influence on me, by the famous historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, on the history of the climate in France. The way I Iook at today’s problem is with a more global vision, accepting it as a kind of destiny.
But does this long term view really take account of the problems we face today?
We have forgotten the mini ice-age. We forget everything. I know there is global warming, but we could also have warming without pollution. We shouldn’t stress people for that reason. Things are going faster, but I am very confident in Darwin and normal evolution. Maybe I am stupid, and it’s true we have been over-polluting and we have to face it.
What is your ideal garden?
The ideal garden belongs in the place that it is. I am inspired first by what I see around me. It is a working place. It is not just a place to look at, it is a place to live.
Do you think the French, the English, the Americans, the Italians, all think the same about gardens?
Different cultures have different approaches. My ideal garden is more free, but I am so in love with people like Le Nôtre, the landscape architect who designed the park of the Palace of Versailles. They were so clever. My love is not for their huge scale, but that they were able to create illusions for people with purely concrete elements, unlike the virtual life of today.
After so many years are you still in love with your decision to be a gardener?
I love plants and I am very happy in places which are conceptually constructed. My dream of a garden is for it to be as light as possible, but not without work. I am also absolutely enchanted by the beauty of plants. A plant is beautiful when it’s happy. It is happy in its right soil. The changing face you see then really belongs to the place where it is.
Is it in gardens that people can learn to be at peace?
In our gardens we have tons of introduced things around us, the trees you see from your window are not native to the streets of London. People today are afraid of others, but in the plant world human beings have been doing a lot of criss-crossing and the result is incredibly happy.
“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.”
The final words of Voltaire’s Candide, written in 1759.
27th November, 2015.
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