It is becoming increasingly reductive to call Piet Oudolf a garden designer. With last month’s unveiling of his recent commission, a 1.5-acre garden installation at Durslade Farmhouse at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, the time has come to say Oudolf is indeed an artist.
The Dutchman formally trained as an architect, but nature lured him into a career devoted to the definition and manipulation of space (and emotion) through planting. Multiple layers of form and texture combine to create Oudolf’s garden tableaux with sensational year-round impact. “I know my clients come to me specifically for my type of garden—good structure and good planting including many grasses,” he says. Grasses create a diaphanous textural contrast that echoes the wildflower meadows and plant communities that Oudolf keeps as a source of inspiration.
Oudolf still works from the home he shares with his wife, Anja, in Hummelo, Netherlands. For decades, Anja ran the nursery, which was like a laboratory for Oudolf, who rigorously observed and crossbred plants in his pursuit of constancy in color, form and longevity. “Home is where I now experiment with the ever-increasing shift toward naturalism in my work,” he says. The meadow that replaced the nursery signals a departure from Oudolf’s more figurative compositions of the 1990s to horticultural abstraction, where the plants get to choose the hierarchy as much as the maestro himself. He sets nature in motion by knowing exactly what to sow.
Oudolf’s style has moved on radically, but he remains quick to give credit to early friends and colleagues such as Ernst Pagels and Henk Gerritsen. He cites Rob Leopold as a great influence: “Our philosophy was to get rid of the dogmas, of the dictatorship of traditional horticulture,” he says. “This ongoing discussion was sort of a repeating circle, going one stage deeper every time… or, one should probably say, higher, until it touched heaven.”
These heavenly intentions have been brought gloriously down to earth in Oudolf’s private and public commissions that can now be seen across the globe, from the Lurie Garden in Chicago to Scampston Hall or Bury Court in England and a raft of exquisite small gardens throughout Europe. “I am not bothered about the size of the project, but I do have to have an instinctive relationship with the client or architect I am working with,” says Oudolf. “That dialogue and understanding trigger my creativity. The process of the work I do revolves around these relationships.” His collaboration with Peter Zumthor for the Serpentine Pavilion in London, his masterful transformation of New York’s High Line and his most recent work for Hauser & Wirth are cases in point. The latter is being celebrated in “Piet Oudolf: Open Field”—a show of Oudolf’s artistic, blueprint drawings on paper, redolent of Matisse cut-outs—currently on view at Hauser & Wirth Somerset.
The High Line is an ongoing artwork that proves Oudolf is not just a perennials man. He has teased sections of woodland out of soil only two feet deep, and his planting evokes an ebb and flow of habitats as diverse as prairie or copse, each one changing with the seasons but continuously ornamental and life-enhancing.
Oudolf has had a profound visual influence on a generation of landscape designers, architects, planners and developers, as his bravura metropolitan projects have brought up the fundamental importance of the power of planting in urban regeneration. “Dream Plants for the Natural Garden” has reached textbook status for any student of landscape design and spawned a generation of copyists. However, nobody achieves the sinuous and multilayered depth of a perennial planting scheme quite like Oudolf.