THE GENIUS OF LIGHT. Trained as a philosopher and gardener, the Spanish garden designer Fernando Caruncho began his career 40 years ago and has made private and public projects all over the world. His two sons, Fernando and Pedro, trained as architects and now work with their father, embodying a new generation raised in gardens and brought up in the importance of the connection between landscape, garden, architecture and humankind.
Fernando Caruncho, we are in your studio outside Madrid where you design your garden projects, but are you originally from Andalucía?
My mother was from Seville and my father from La Coruña. That’s why Andalucía has a big influence on me. My father’s family was a business family in the northwest of Spain and in 1840 my great-grandfather went to Cuba to start a gas factory to light the city of Havana. I recently found out that my great-grandfather also made lanterns in Cuba, as we have being doing in the studio for 30 years in bronze and copper. My ancestors in Havana also built a cigar company. On my mother’s side my grandfather was a perfumer and made a famous eau de cologne in Seville with the essence of bergamot. When he discovered the city of Ronda he decided to go and live there. My family memories and origins have had a deep Influence on me.
Why did you study philosophy?
In my house we read books and had discussions all the time. My family life was reading, the countryside and beauty. I studied philosophy at university and became a gardener through the study of the pre-Socratic philosophers. Epicurus said: “It is impossible to know outside of the garden.” A garden is a space and it is very important to have the intuition to understand it. I read Socratic and post-Socratic philosophy, and Plato said: “Nobody who does not understand geometry shall enter into the Garden of Academos.” Geometry is a mental language in the mind of man, and a link between intellectual and spiritual memory, and ultimately the garden is a geometry illuminated by light to put man in contact with nature. This is the main goal of the garden.
Are all your gardens similar?
All people have a gift, a personal gift, and I have the capability to read the space. I arrive, and I begin to understand what the significance of the space is, and then I am able to establish the connection between that place and myself through the language of geometry. Therefore every garden is unique for its connection with the place and its geometry.
“Ultimately the garden is a geometry illuminated by light to put man in contact with nature.”
Cotoner garden II. Palma de Mallorca, 2005.
Fernando Caruncho, have your gardens changed much over the years?
Yes, a lot, because my geometrical language with a place is richer, and now I am very free to read more and more of the complexity of the space I am in contact with. For twenty years I learnt the ABC of the geometrical language through the grid. Little by little I began to include in the grid some new geometrical forms. For years I was working with an orthogonal grid (a grid is called orthogonal if all grid lines intersect at a right angle), and then suddenly, when I was doing a garden project for a house designed by the Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta for a client in Chicago, I began to understand the space in circular geometry and could see the reality in 360 degrees. With this circular perspective, which led me to spherical geometry, I was able to understand the space as a totality.
Why is geometry so important in a garden?
Because geometry with light produces a movement, a vibration of light which is extremely beautiful and important. In this moment the garden begins to be alive. You can perceive this vibration of light in gardens like Boboli in Italy, or in France in Chantilly or in the Alhambra in Spain. You are in this place, but your mind is surrounded by an incredible vibration of light that mixes with nature, and this is the magical moment of a garden.
How many gardens have you made?
Not many. During 40 years of work I have done only 160 gardens in maybe 15 countries, such as Italy, France, England, Spain, Turkey, Morocco, New Zealand, the United States, Japan, Greece and Portugal. We do four or five new projects a year, and each project lasts two or three years (between the beginning of the design until the garden is finished) so we have about 10 on the go at any one time. We like to do them personally from the beginning to the end.
Are all your gardens different?
It is not possible to do the same garden in another space or it will be a false garden. False gardens are “green spaces” but they are not gardens, because the geometry and lighting of each space is absolutely different and repetition is not possible.
What do you try to do in a place?
I believe in “genius loci”, and any place has its beauty because the beauty is not only in the place, it is overall in the light. I think that the “genius loci” in reality is that the genius resides in the light.
What about the vegetation?
That is the “third” part of the garden, but it is possible to have a garden without any plants. Light, geometry and water is enough.
What is a garden?
A garden is a spiritual emotional state. With trees it becomes a paradise, because a tree is the connecting path between the earth and the sky. I always position trees in relation with the empty spaces. The balance between empty and full is fundamental, otherwise the vibration of light does not exist. It’s a question of order with geometry and lighting, this magical perception of the space.
“I think that the “genius loci” in reality is that the genius resides in the light.”
Fernando Caruncho, which are the perfect gardens?
Fundamentally the Alhambra, Ryoanji in Kyoto, Chantilly in France, Boboli, Villa d’Este, Bomarzo in Italy….So many.
Why are these gardens perfect?
Because in them this vibration of light is produced. You can sit there for a long time and be absolutely outside of real time. They stop time and return a person to his or her being, recognizing the origins of their life and recovering their personal dignity.
What is the purpose of a garden?
To connect with yourself and know yourself through nature, and at the same time to be in relation with the cosmos and to have the perception that you are really part of an incredible perfect place that is the cosmos.
In the world of today what is the importance of the garden?
It is really very important, because people need it to recuperate their enthusiasm and dignity. Human dignity is the joy of being in relation with other people, and gardens immediately produce this connection between people, independently of their intellectual ideas or including different religions and cultures. The garden is fundamental to the life of the human, to make one understand that life is the great adventure of discovering the beauty of the world. It never should just be a decoration, nor an ephemeral amusement, otherwise the great adventure of discovering beauty disappears.
What is your ideal project?
My ideal project is when there is affinity between the place and the owner and me, and this is amazing because to do a garden is an incredible human experience, one of the most important. I believe that every man needs to pass through this experience, even if it is only in a very small terrace. An old Spanish proverb said: “Build a very simple garden: first a tree, then a fountain, after that a loggia and then, if there is still place, you can build your own room.” This is the real ancient wisdom that we need to recover confronting this “visual” world that is overly virtual and separates us from nature.
Is it difficult to maintain a garden?
If the structure is good it is very easy. The fundamentals are: well-made drainage, the depth of the topsoil, and the adaptation of the plants to the place. But these are the physical aspects of the body of the garden. Gardens also need the spiritual and invisible parts of them that are in the light, when their illuminated geometry produces a magical moment of movement.
What about the orchard?
It is part of the garden. The garden is a mental, spiritual construction, a space to restore your soul, a world of contemplation in direct relation with the landscape. The orchard is an enclosing physical space where the garden gives you the marvelous fruit of the land. Flowers are part of the orchard and for biological reasons a lot of plants, like lavender for example, are symbiotic with orchard products. In the old days the saying ‘to go to the vineyard’ meant ‘to go to the garden’. The incredible productivity of the soil is a different layer of our comprehension of the garden.
Are you good with orchards?
The preparation of drainage and soil and the irrigation system are the main things. Then, if the seasons are good, it’s not complicated.
Silva garden II. Madrid, 2001
The kiosk. Caruncho studio. Madrid, 2002
The seminar. Caruncho studio. Madrid, 2002
L’Amastuola vineyard. Massafra, Italy, 2003
Flynn garden. Boca Ratón, Florida, 2008
(L to R) Fernando Caruncho now works with his two sons, Fernando and Pedro.
“You are really part of an incredible perfect place that is the cosmos.”
Fernando Caruncho, is landscape design complicated?
Landscape is a pleasure, and it is a challenge that I enjoy.
Do you do the designs and then somebody else actually makes the project?
We make the project in a scale model and then we make plans from that, not the other way around. Then we have a local team to implement it, and go very often to see how the project is developing.
How do you find working with architects?
Some understand very well that the garden is a fundamental part of the general plan of the architecture, that the garden connects the buildings with the land. I enjoy working with Ricardo Legorreta, Renzo Piano, José Antonio Corrales, and Leroy Street Studio in New York. Because of their understanding we always have a really good connection.
Do you work mostly in Spain?
No, in the last 10 years we have worked mostly abroad, but now that the Spanish economy is better, we are starting to work in Spain again and just finished a project in Ibiza. We are working in two places in Madrid, and have a project in Catalonia. One very important project for us is in Puglia, next to Massafra near Taranto. It is a vineyard of a hundred hectares, the largest vineyard I ever did. We have a project in New York, one in Portugal, one in Chianti and one in Normandy.
How many people work with you?
Maximum 15 people, among them architects and the people that make scale models, and also the three artisans that work to create the lamps in the studio that we use to illuminate our own gardens and which are now available for everyone.
How old are your children who work with you?
Fernando is 28 and Pedro is 25, and they are both architects. Fernando, Pedro and I have worked together since they were 15 and were making scale models in the studio. Now I am 62 years old, and for me the transmission of this knowledge of gardening is a fundamental moral question. Young people need to understand that the art of the garden is magnificent, but you need to be disciplined at it and to be very much encouraged.
September 2, 2019.
All images are by kind permission of Fernando Caruncho.
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