How landscape designer Piet Oudolf captures nature’s ‘emotion’

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, Landscape Architect: 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.

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