He tries to work with nature, not against it. He creates gardens where the plants can move freely and choose their own place. The French gardener Gilles Clément wants to turn the Earth into one grand garden.
Gilles Clément is not easy to label. In many interviews, he states that he considers himself a landscape gardener rather than a landscape architect. He has written numerous books on gardening, but he avoids using the hermetic language of his professional circles. Clément is passionate about entomology, even though his early encounters with insects almost cost him his life. And finally – crucially for our interview – he is an extraordinary designer of gardens and parks in his homeland, even though he does not seek inspiration in the historically traditional French formal gardens.
Clément’s projects are not based on any guaranteed aesthetic solutions. They are more like a manifesto of a certain school of thought that challenges our habits and clichés, introducing new energy, freedom and creativity to our relationship with nature. Clément values the process itself, and prefers experiments to dogmas and certainties. “Work with nature as much as possible, rather than against it,” he says in nearly every interview. His actions are radical, brave and egalitarian. In his works, nature is equal to man, and man is equal to nature. However, unlike many radical ecologists, Clément believes human presence in the world is a necessity – who other than us could appreciate the beauty of nature in its entirety?
In early May, when travelling from Paris to Crozant in the Massif Central to interview Gilles Clément in his private garden, all I could think about was just one image. It was a photograph of a fallen apple tree. In 1986, a windstorm knocked down the tree, but some of its roots remained in the soil. Instead of cutting it up for firewood, Clément propped the fallen trunk up with a large log to save the roots, and then he cut down the tree’s crown. A year had passed, and the fallen trunk started to sprout new sprigs. Clément left the strongest and the straightest one untouched, and decided to wait and see. Today, the tree is giving fruit again. That small branch grew into a massive trunk, coming out of the old one at a 90° angle, as if to show us that nature will always find a way to survive – all we need to do is to help a little every now and again. As long as we are with nature and not against it, it will continue to thrive.
After a few hours’ drive, I got out of my car and saw a small green valley, full of lush greenery despite the season. In the middle of it, there was a traditional house made of irregular stones, endearing in its cloddish form. Gilles Clément came out to greet me, dressed in dungarees and two old jumpers riddled with holes. He smiled at me and said, “I’m so glad you’re already here. The garden is starting to wake up, and I just made some coffee. Come on in.”
Zygmunt Borawski: I heard that you went into a coma when you were little. How did this happen?
Gilles Clément: I wanted to kill a small insect that was climbing up a rose stalk in my parents’ garden. I was supposed to do it with an old mechanical bug poison sprayer. But it didn’t work properly, the lever shot back, hit me in the brow ridge and cut the skin. Some poison dust got into the wound. I felt dizzy, nauseated. I stumbled back to my bed and lay down. When I woke up, I found out two days had passed. That’s when I decided I would never go near any kind of poison again.
Now we know why you dislike toxic substances. And when did you decide to take up gardening?
When I was sixteen or seventeen, sometime in high school. I was hopeless in all subjects except biology. Thanks to my teacher, I learned about a vocation called landscape designer, or paysagiste in French. In order to become one, I had to get into the Versailles National School of Landscaping Architecture and obtain the BSc degree… It seemed intimidating, but I was determined enough to improve at school, as if by magic.
Straight after graduation, I found my first clients; it was a private job. After that, I moved to South America for a few years, where I worked with a social cooperative. It was a way of getting out of army duty. When I came back, I worked for various private clients for five more years, but I decided to quit. Together with some friends, we started a group of landscape gardeners, working exclusively with public spaces.
Why did you decide to leave the private sector?
[laughter] There were two reasons. First, finding a compromise between the clients and the designer is very challenging. The client says, “Oh, I saw such and such solution in this magazine and I liked it. Do you? Lovely, isn’t it? Let’s do it like that!” It’s a nightmare. Everything needs to be discussed with everyone. You need to debate your solutions with the husband, wife, kids. Eventually, you become a therapist for the whole family, the dog included. It’s exhausting.
Second, with private clients, you know who you’re designing for. You know how the space will be used, how it’s going to grow and develop. When working for public clients, you know very little or nothing at all. You can only guess what kind of people will be coming to a garden or a park you’re designing. It means some things are left to the imagination. You have to dream, it becomes obligatory. This part of the process is essential. To me, it was a big chance to offer my clients something new every time – be it a mayor of some city or the local communities. These institutions are the only ones willing to take risks. That was the case with the Parc André Citroën in Paris (1986–1998).
The team I worked with on this project consisted of two architects, one landscape architect and myself. I prefer to call myself a gardener or a garden designer rather than a landscape architect. The public park, situated in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, spans 14 hectares. It was the largest park opened in the capital for the past hundred years. We chose a very organized architectural space for this project, mainly because the architects were the majority of our group. But it was water that made our project really stand out. Paris, unlike other historical European capitals, such as Rome, has no public drinking water spots available. And we brought it to our park. There are plenty of fresh water spots in the Parc Citroën. Today, it would be absolutely impossible to design a garden like this one. No public client would ever agree to something like that. Not only because of the building cost but also because with every year passing, there are less funds available for maintaining an irrigation system like this one.
It was my first public project. I was forty-two years old.
In the André Citroën Park, you suggested parts of it should be designed by the rules of the Garden in Movement. What does this mean, and when did you come up with the idea?
The idea was conceived in 1977 when I bought the land we’re standing on. I used to walk around here a lot as a child. My parents’ house is one kilometre away from here. My plot lies in a small valley and is sheltered from the wind, which makes insect-watching more convenient, and I was always interested in butterflies. There were plenty of them here, so I called this place Butterfly Valley. I loved coming here. When I grew up, I had a fight with my father and had to move out of my parents’ home. I started looking for something nearby. When my friends found out I’d bought land without a house, they thought I was crazy – probably also because they were worried I’d expect them to help me build it.
First, I created a vegetable garden. As for the rest, I watched and waited. My first intervention in the main garden took place three years later. Nothing special – I just removed some weeds from the path when it became impossible to walk on. Then I started adding plants from my private clients; sometimes, we bought too many for the project and had some leftovers. That’s how I created my garden. But that’s not the most important bit. The crucial part is the way I tried to look after it. I wanted to keep as many insects as possible. This meant leaving mainly those plants that could feed the bugs. However, most of those plants are annual or biennial. Their seeds constantly travel with insects, birds and wind. They move and grow in a different place every year. Once I realized that, I understood I had to change my project completely. Actually, I would have to change it each year, at least in the upper layer. That’s when I came up with the idea of the Garden in Movement.
Generally speaking, it means that the gardener respects the energy of animals and plants that live in his or her garden. The first time I used this term was because of the Heracleum mantegazzianum [giant hogweed – author’s note]. It’s an invasive biennial species. I planted it in one place, but two years later it appeared elsewhere, blocking the footways. I decided not to remove it, choosing to reshape the paths to go around them, at least in case of therophytes, that is, annual plants.
The Garden in Movement interprets and encourages the energies found in certain places, trying to work with nature as much as possible, rather than against it. The name refers to the physical movement of land plant species, which the gardener can make sense of in his or her own way. Flowers growing in the middle of a path force us to make choices: do we keep the footway or the plant? The Garden in Movement prompts us to respect the species that grow there autonomously. Those rules disrupt the formal concept of a garden, which, in this case, relies entirely on the gardener. The project of an ever-changing garden is a result of the work done by the person looking after it, and not an outcome of an idea designed at a drawing table.
The Garden in Movement is not the only theory you came up with. Could you explain what the Third Landscape is?
It’s a place where you do nothing [laughter]. Such landscapes are often abandoned areas where, paradoxically, biodiversity finds a refuge. In every other space, wherever humans are present, biodiversity is either scarce, or it’s not there at all, one of the reasons being our use of chemicals and heavy machinery.
I realized it here, a few kilometres west from my land. I was looking for examples of biodiversity, and I could not find it anywhere – neither in the forests, which we mainly plant ourselves now, nor in the fields. In the areas I visited, I couldn’t find more than ten plant species. A lot of plants I knew from my childhood were missing.
After a while, it dawned on me where I should look for them. I knew I should go to steep slopes, where machines cannot climb; to abandoned fields; to hilltops nobody wanted to cultivate because it was too dry there; to marshes, too wet to use.
Which one of your projects is the closest to this theory?
Parc Matisse in Lille I designed in 1990. The central element of this park is a seven-metre-tall artificial platform, spanning 3000 square metres. It was made of soil dug out during the building of a new TGV station, right next to the park. We cut the mound walls vertically, enforced them with concrete and flattened the top. The shape we gave the platform is not accidental – it mirrors the form of an island near New Zealand, which is exactly on the opposite side of the planet from Lille.
The platform is not available to the park users. Our goal was to create the Third Landscape, developing without any human intervention. We didn’t plant anything there. We knew birds and wind would bring the seeds. In a few years, the bald hilltop grew a lush green mop of trees and bushes. The only person with access to the platform is the city gardener who climbs there twice a year to make an inventory of all species of plants and animals living there. And to remove the balls, kicked up there accidentally by kids from time to time.
This platform is like a stage; a dais for nature itself.
There is one more theory you’re trying to promote – the idea of the Planetary Garden.
My point is that our entire planet is one big garden. There are three reasons why we should view it as such. The first is the way in which all species are mixed. In the first garden ever created, people grew local plants. They could only use the plants they knew. Today, we import so many of them. Take potatoes, for example: they came to Europe from North America. Of course, nowadays this exchange takes place much faster thanks to the modern lifestyle, but change is inherent to the earthly and human existence. We only sped things up. Look at the birds. They eat fruit, fly to a new place, digest and leave their waste with consumed seeds elsewhere, sometimes very far away from the tree the fruit grew on. Human activity has similar results, only much faster.
Is it a bad thing that we speed up the travels of plants to such an extent?
Sometimes it is bad, when local plants have no time to adapt, and they lose to more aggressive species. But it’s nothing compared to other human activities: we build enormous housing estates and create giant infrastructural investments. The chemicals we use for fertilizing and controlling the lives of plants and animals are equally problematic.
The second reason we should view our planet as one big garden is the omnipresence of humans in the world. Just like a gardener has a full overview of everything that happens in his or her garden, humans can see everything that happens on Earth. The globe has no secrets. We can access even those places with no human settlements – with drones and satellites.
The third reason is the perimeter.
Yes. The world, just like any other garden, has clearly defined borders where it can live. The area where all kinds of life on Earth can exist is only a thin layer on top of our planet. It starts in the troposphere, 10,000 metres above, and ends 8000 metres below the sea levels, on the bottom of the deepest oceanic trenches. The biosphere spans less than 20,000 metres vertically. This is our garden’s indisputable perimeter. Those spatial borders define it.
But what are you trying to say?
If we start treating the world as one big garden in which we are all gardeners, we will immediately change our attitude towards the entire planet. Those who realize it and understand it can do something good for the world. The theory of the Planetary Garden teaches us respect. And we should respect all the organisms that live in our garden.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Introduction translated by Aga Zano