Even if it is through the computer screen, on the other end of a video conference, Gilles Clément’s planet-blue eyes convey surprise and enthusiasm, curiosity and disillusionment, the possible and its opposite. Clément, 80, says he has left misanthropy behind and is approaching something akin to tranquility. He possesses large doses of wisdom and an intact capacity for wonder. This landscape designer, philosophical gardener and essayist is the father of the most revolutionary theories in contemporary gardening. His concepts of the moving garden and the planetary garden have turned around these spaces of earthly land used to cultivate and protect. For him, the living must be above architecture, and he proposes a reconciliation of man with his desire to dominate nature, giving voice to the eternally silenced: insects and wandering plants.
Awarded the World Prize for Sustainable Architecture in 2022, Clément has long since stopped making “gardens for the rich” and devotes his time to public projects, such as the garden of the Centre Pompidou-Metz, with his former student Christophe Ponceau. And he is working on a book about his encounters with the people who have influenced his career, which he hopes to publish in 2024.
A horticultural engineer and professor at the École Nationale Supérieure de Paysage in Versailles, Clément has developed, without intending it, a capital thinking in several installments that forces us to understand the garden with new eyes. The history of landscaping, as we know it, has a before and after in Clément, who says that the whole planet is a single garden limited by the biosphere and human beings nothing more than the gardeners in its care. From his parents, he says, he did not learn much. During his childhood in Algeria he was puzzled by the deserted landscapes, but in the family garden he marveled when he wondered how the caterpillar he had just found in the grass would transform into a butterfly. And it was also there that, while handling poisons to kill the aphids that were invading the rose bushes, he fell ill from a pesticide. That accident made him think of all the artillery of war that was handled in the field, poisons designed to kill insects, but also the gardener.
When he began to design gardens, Clément suspected that there was some alternative way to relate to nature, but he could not put his ideas into practice without a garden of his own. In the late 1970s, he was able to find a space where he could try doing nothing to understand how shrubs and grasses reacted, without the need to remove pesky weeds or poison the soil and water. Little by little, he began to understand the interrelationships between species and to elaborate his theory: plants, gentlemen, move. The garden must change. It must walk. And remain untouched, like his famous island in Henri Matisse Park in Lille. The Basque landscape designer Iñigo Segurola, author of the acclaimed garden-laboratory of the Gipuzkoa Lur Garden in Spain, recognizes in Clément’s postulates the axes of his practice and his thinking. He remembers the look on the Frenchman’s face when he called him “guru” while introducing him at a landscaping conference in Irun in the 1990s. “He is so humble that he doesn’t like to stand out and being called that overwhelmed him.”
Widowed for several years, the essayist-gardener writes from a heart moved by nature and a poet’s sensibility. He divides his day into agile activity, the same as he has been doing for the last 40 years. In the morning he writes at home and, in the afternoon, after a lengthy nap, he walks down to his garden. There, hectares of nature await him, which he has been guiding by listening and respecting, letting the local species express themselves and intervening only superficially. His garden is every garden; there, he prunes, listens, directs, digs with his hands, observes, perhaps tutors, or allows this or that species to cling to the soil if they have decided to do so. He works until he gets tired. Then, even in during the early days of autumn, before the cold weather arrives, he bathes in the lake with a bar of biodegradable soap and returns home with the satisfaction of having lived fully. Like Jain monks who sweep the ground they walk on so as not to crush any insects, Clément does not consider himself to have the authority to kill any creature. His own house is a nest. On his roof live snakes and a coypu that he has nicknamed Grisonné, which he sometimes has to attract the attention of by climbing on the piano so that it stops making noises (and he can sleep).
Elita Acosta, editorial director of Spanish gardening website Verde es Vida, highlights his spiritual plane: “Clément transcends the genius loci, the spirit of the place; he speaks of a 21st century animism, where everything that is part of nature, even the inanimate, is equally important and must be attended to, cared for, respected and preserved.” Clément, a universal gardener, says we must leave nature alone to express itself freely. Despite climate change, he believes in a reconciliation with the natural world. He talks about the young people who move to the countryside and try to produce plants and legumes using new methods. “They have understood everything,” he says. “We, used to living luxuriously, waste electricity, water… We are not up to the task. But I believe in them. I have hope in this garden called Earth.”
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