Fernando Caruncho’s Gardens Bring Socrates Ideals to Life

Linda Lee

A private garden designed by Fernando Caruncho. All images courtesy of designer.

“Spanish people have the spirit of the gardener inside them,” says Fernando Caruncho, Spain’s most famous landscape architect. “Because we are a very old tradition, 1,000 years, Greek and Roman and Moorish. We are really the flower of the ancient world.”

A look at his work, which has spread from Europe to New Zealand, Japan and the United States—Florida, New Jersey and Maine—leads not to thoughts of gardening, but of paintings by Van Gogh or the Spanish master Joaquin Sorolla, who painted these same Mediterranean scenes. Give Caruncho a private estate in Majorca, Spain, and he will combine silvery olive trees with vertical cypress trees, then, in the foreground, wavy rows of escallonia—his signature evergreen that, he says, is “super good for topiary” and, more importantly, “persistent.”

When Caruncho says “topiary” he doesn’t mean the bulbous variety: his gardens are minimalist, geometric, balanced, serene. There is no mistaking his escallonia—pruned flat, or sculpted into voluptuous waves—for a formal French garden.

Fernando Caruncho

A private garden designed by Fernando Caruncho in Majorca, Spain 1991.

Caruncho’s recent projects—in landscape architecture “recent” means the last three years, because it takes at least that long for plants to grow in—include a seaside garden in Santander, Spain. He was chosen for this project by the architect Renzo Piano who designed the Botín Centre for Art and Culture, which sits at one end of the Pereda Gardens.

Caruncho was a city boy, born in General Franco’s Spain in 1957. He studied philosophy at Autónoma University in Madrid, and he drops in the words “paradox” and “dialogue” along with the names Socrates and Aristotle more than the usual guy in a garden. It was the childhood trips with his family to Andalusia that implanted the romance of a Mediterranean landscape in him. “To me it’s very common to create olive trees and cypress and vineyards. This is a very special space,” he says.

Caruncho had studied landscape architecture, but prefers to call himself a gardener. Still the term “gardener’ in no way encompasses the 5,750- square-foot, yin-yang garden he designed for his uncle, the interior designer Paco Muñoz, who owned a house near Madrid designed by Richard Neutra. It took Caruncho two years to arrange artful rocks on white gravel on one side, and to sculpt boxwood and multiple ornamental maples on the other. A writer for French Vogue came to scout the Neutra house and flipped over the garden, which she described in print as “a pure marvel.” Caruncho was only 23.

Mas de les Voltes, a classic garden in Catalonia, echoes the area’s Greek and Roman history with geometry, cypress and olive trees.

That small garden might have seemed like a fluke, but almost immediately after he says, “an incredible man gave me four hectares in the forest.” This would become what he calls the garden of his life, Mas Floris. Four hectares is nearly 10 acres, and those acres were on the Costa Brava. The result became one of the most famous gardens in the world, notable for its ranks of cypress trees and regimented squares.

What the Mas Floris garden did not have was a water feature, but Caruncho has made up for thatin gardens since then. Water is essential to Caruncho, who has included 16 ponds in a private garden in Menorca and, at a Modernist house in Boca Raton, Florida—perhaps Caruncho’s most disciplined geometric and formal garden—a giant pool of water at the center, which is surrounded by formal tiers and a colosseum of concentric circles planted with strictly pruned ilex.

Private garden in the Cotswolds, Hampnett, UK, 2008.

Since Mas Floris, in 1986, Caruncho has designed 150 gardens and pavilions. His atelier in Madrid, where his team of nine assistants work, has an entry yard embraced by curved walls, sand that is delicately raked into circles every morning by a gardener, a water disk at the center and, of course, more escallonia. This entry garden defines how Caruncho materials deal with the Spanish sun: mineral (the walls, the sand) interrupt or scatter the light; plant material absorbs it and the water reflects it. Since the light in Spain is so strong, those cypress trees in his larger landscapes provide more than decoration, they give shade. His smaller gardens include trellises, transitional indoor-outdoor rooms and surprising nooks set into stone.

Inspired by nature, he preaches simplicity: no more than three kinds of trees, three kinds of plants, two vines and only a few flowering plants in surprising places, for a “moment of splendor.”

For Caruncho, a garden is not meant to be “of the moment.” Quite the opposite. It should embody eternal standards of beauty.

“It’s not a matter of what’s in style,” he says. “It’s a matter of happiness.”

You might call that the Platonic Ideal.