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A Conversation with Fernando Caruncho

“I think all of us are like kaleidoscopes,” observes Fernando Caruncho, the globally renowned landscape architect based in Madrid. “Our personalities [are] constructed by different mirrors, which reflect what we are and what we have experienced.” For the Spanish-born, horticultural savant, whose experience spans cultures and continents, an elegant, austere simplicity and a minimal, philosophical approach to cultivating gardens is inherent nature. But it doesn’t matter the semantics of his job title. “Essentially, I see myself as a gardener, which is, from my point of view, a landscape architect,” he tells us. “These words define a profession that is polyhedral and has to be enriched by poetry, art, architecture, music, and most of all, an immense and deep admiration for nature.” Known for fusing harmony and geometry into creating contemplative outdoor spaces that withstand the test of time, Caruncho’s fascination with both gardening and philosophy dates back to his studies at Madrid’s Autónoma University in 1975. With over 30 years of experience, Caruncho continues to deepen his understanding in both fields, further shaping his vision of life and the world as a translator of ideas. Here, he reveals his favorite gardens and gardeners, from past, present, and future, and gives us poignant advice on how to live our day-to-day in cities, with green at the center.

So much of your philosophy is about returning to the fundamentals, a Natural World Order, so to speak. Could you expand on this?
To be original, I think it’s essential to return to the origins, whereby a personal and collective renaissance is possible. The history of the aesthetics and the history of art have proven this many times already. In this search of beauty through the garden, from my point of view, you reach the essence and values of humanism—these values are crucial for our vision of the world and are vital to be regained, now more than ever.

How has your upbringing in Spain influenced your relationship to nature? How has that translated over time as you’ve traveled around the world for your work?
It’s true that I started quite early and am highly influenced by my own experience of the gardens where I grew up in [Spain]. That must have influenced me a lot.
In my youth, when I was around 19 to 20 years old, by chance, my memories of these childhood gardens were linked with the intellectual discovery of the garden as a space of knowledge to access and reconnect with nature. This was definitely important in the lead up to now, where this specific search has broadened in circular motions and my experiences of gardens have expanded. These circles are still growing with the years and the experience I gain with every garden I create, in so many different places and cultures, and as I encounter people who have such differing yet complementary points of views.

You have such a spiritual approach to design, creating centers for intangible knowledge, wisdom and contemplation. How does philosophy inform your design?
The garden has, in relation with nature, the same feeling one has when they’re united and part of the world, the world being the cosmos. Sharing these emotions with a companion is a common spiritual experience, similar to that found in religion. The experience of the garden is very similar in that sense, since we feel connected to the universal values of the Garden. Also, a Garden is free of dogma, and for that, it will always give you the opportunity, no matter which culture you’re from, to connect to the world through it. Strangely, anybody in the world is happy in a garden and everyone feels transformed. But any space with a few trees and bushes isn’t necessarily a garden. In order for it to become a garden, a space has to have the reason to search for beauty and a higher order. The Garden is an open space to experience intuition or meditation through the elements of nature. This has incredible value…[it] makes you conscious of the magnificence of the world.

What city inspires you the most and why?
I have had two cities that have left a very strong impression on me during my youth. Florence, where curiously all the values of humanism and the Renaissance were developed, and the other city that has left its mark on me is New York. New York has an extraordinary vitality that moves all the energy and strength of mankind, and this is incredible—it’s palpable.

What garden inspires you the most and why?
If inspiration is an accumulation of memories and knowledge one gains through life, without any doubt, for me, La Alhambra in Granada, Spain inspires me the most. I believe this is the place where the Western and Eastern worlds met and connected. It represents the ancient gardens and, at the same time, the starting points of the contemporary gardens of today.

What flora or fauna do you have particular fondness for?
I don’t have a special fondness, as everything depends on place and climate. Every single place has its beauty and offers you marvelous things. It’s for this reason that designing gardens in different places is a great adventure that teaches you a lot. I love all the autochthonous plants that belong to the vegetal memory of the place.

Which gardeners throughout history, whether past or present, do you admire?
Most of the gardeners who constructed the Alhambra were anonymous, as well as many other wonderful gardeners whose names got lost in history. Among those whose names we know, there is the famous Babur, the Mughal emperor, who was certainly extraordinary, as well as King Solomon described in his Song of Songs, or Pirro Ligorio in the Florence of the Medicis, or why not, the wonderful character of Le Nôtre, full of humanity and his warm look of the world, as well as Capability Brown and all the wonderful group of English landscape gardeners from 18th century. Then, in the 20th century, there was Russell Page, Dan Kiley, René Pechère, all of them extraordinary people of unique value.

In an urbanized city like New York, our homebase, that’s low on green, how do you recommend we infuse nature into our everyday?
One of the things that shocked me about New York is that in some areas, the streets are poorly vegetated. There are parts of the city with great landscape quality and others that have a deficit of gardens, what can be easily solved with a little square with trees and benches. I think there are simple ways that cities can go greener again and nature can take more place in them. The intervention on the High Line is a wonderful example, but many concepts can be applied to the city to make it more humane and habitable. I’m wishing that a promoter will develop a great vegetal building in the city. It would be like an emblem or icon. From here I propose that challenge, not only for New York, but for any city where skyscrapers are protagonist. There is much to do in this direction.

How can we facilitate and nurture greater relationships with nature and keep it at the center of our lives?
For this to happen, people need an interior change, and for meditation, contemplation and reflections to have presence in their lives. From this point on, it’s you who controls the situation and not the other way around. Then you start having a global vision, and it’s there where the change and transformation starts.
This state of mind closely connects you to nature, and to the nature of things. From that point on, you want it to be part of your existence. This change is already taking place. This new attitude with nature will be the contraposition to digital life, and between both we have to find balance.

How do you envision gardens of the future to look like?
This is a question that has a deep undertone, as it will be over this background of the memory of men where the gardens of the future will be developed. Like the poet would say, “To go forward, you need to go for the sheer clarity of the past,” as history shows us, just so you can be reborn. Regarding how the gardens of the future will be, I can’t predict it, but I know a certain thing: that in the garden, there’s always an antagonistic fight that is complementary and necessary; the organic world of nature and the world of the geometric, poetic vision of man, always engaging the space and environment. Further than this aesthetic aspect, what it will be in the near future will be up to a global envisioning of our planet: a garden-paradise in the endlessness and mystery of the universe. Our responsibility will be to reach the garden-paradise that we have once been given and to restore its splendor and joy.