Public Media Arts Hub

How landscape designer Piet Oudolf captures nature's 'emotion'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: As the season changes, we meet a man who's helped to revolutionize the way we think about gardens and urban life.

Jeffrey Brown has the story from the Netherlands.

It's part of our Canvas series on arts and culture.

Jeffrey Brown: This is the original?

Piet Oudolf: This is the remains of, yes, the former seasons. So this is winter. You see the color pattern can do a lot for the eye still.

Jeffrey Brown: For Piet Oudolf, the garden never dies. It just changes shape, texture and color.

Piet Oudolf: Especially the landscape during the winter can be beautiful.

Jeffrey Brown: Visiting his garden in winter, as we did recently, is as natural as can be.

Piet Oudolf: We create, I say, gardens, but more landscapes that are more emotional than many gardens that are just beautiful.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes, emotional, what does that mean to you?

Piet Oudolf: Yes, I don't know. It's -- for us, it's a word that it does something to you, and you feel more than what you see. It's an extra layer on top of what you see.

Jeffrey Brown: Today, Oudolf is in demand around the world. Perhaps his best-known work, the plantings on New York City's High Line, the phenomenally successful urban park, where he created a sense of nature that somehow feels completely at home in its setting above bustling city streets.

When Oudolf first visited in the early 2000s, it was a graffitied old railway line. He considers the Hauser & Wirth Garden in Somerset, England, one of his best designs, and his work in Lurie Garden in Chicago, another urban oasis, is designed to evoke a prairie in the middle of the city.

It's places like these that have helped change how we think about and experience public spaces. I talked with Piet Oudolf in his studio overlooking the garden.

Piet Oudolf: What we do is just, we create artificial sort of communities, but also enhance the beauty of nature in a smaller area, just create something that you are reminded of nature, but it's not nature at all.

Jeffrey Brown: It's not natural, of course, yes.

Piet Oudolf: No.

Try to bring in that sort of emotion of nature. So, so much is happening during your walk, and I say, what do you like of it? It's not a particular tree. You like the changes. You like the seasons. And you like also that it has something personal, something that embraces you.

Jeffrey Brown: Oudolf was born in Haarlem on the coast. At the age of 5, his family moved to the countryside, where they ran a restaurant and bar. But by his mid-20s, gardening had pulled him away.

This was his first greenhouse. Along with his wife, Anja, he searched for a spot of land big enough for a garden and nurseries.

They landed here in Hummelo, a small rural community not far from the German border.

Piet Oudolf: What you put down in gardens is more a beginning, sometimes I say a promise.

Jeffrey Brown: A promise for the future.

Piet Oudolf: A promise for the future. And you have to guide it to that future.

Jeffrey Brown: It became his lab for experimenting, as the landscape went through change after change, and his style and what he calls his palette developed. He became a leader in what's known as the New Perennial Movement, mixing the use of grasses and perennials to invoke a natural look.

Piet Oudolf: Now, plants that like to be with each other grow well together.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes, just like people.

Piet Oudolf: Yes, it's just like people. You know, if one of the plants in the group is aggressive, it pushes all the other plants out. And that's why you need to know your plants. Otherwise, it goes wrong right away.

When I start on a planting plan, planting design, I have the idea, I have all the information. I have the tools. And I have the -- I make a list of plants that I can use, a palette. I create a palette before I start, so I have maybe 100 plants that I can use for that particular site.

Jeffrey Brown: His sketches look like works of art. This is a private garden he designed for Chanel in Paris, first in its early stages, then with more detail.

Oudolf unfurled sheaves of one of his latest designs for Detroit's Belle Isle that will be planted this coming September.

Piet Oudolf: If you look at this drawing, see the groups of plants, and this is one particular grass that meanders through all these groups, so it feels more like a meadow.

Jeffrey Brown: He showed us how he represents different plant beds in his drawings, and the key he creates to differentiate among plant varieties.

Piet Oudolf: I was always sort of intrigued by Detroit, by the stories. And so then I went there and I found so much energy and so many people that were just -- the one was doing this, the other one was doing that. So, you see, then I felt that the whole city was vibrating.

Jeffrey Brown: A recent documentary, "Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf," is currently screening at arboretums and gardens around the U.S., and new commissions are keeping him busy. He says there's still much to do.

Do you think about these things as you age, along with your -- with the designs and the gardens?

Piet Oudolf: I still have the energy. I still love my work as much as I do. But there's something different, and that's the limit in time you still have. You feel that, that there's a limit.

In the garden, you experience birth, life and death. And that happens in our life as well. We are born, we live and we die. We can see it in a garden in -- let's say, in four seasons, so you see the whole process of your own life in four seasons, and then it starts all over again.

I think that is the strength of a garden, and you can see your own sort of personal cycle 70, 80 times in your lifetime.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Hummelo, the Netherlands.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.