Paths of Least Resistance: A Conversation With Teresa Moller

‘It is a brave piece of land,’ Chilean landscape architect Teresa Moller says of Punta Pite, the setting of one of her most acclaimed projects. ‘It is one of those places where you can witness how ocean and earth happened to touch one another.’ Teresa is a poet of place. Over the past thirty-five years, word of her work has trickled across the world. Quiet, spare, mysterious. A friend, when I mention I’m interviewing Teresa, tells me her work is ‘transcendent’. It is rare for a landscape architect’s work to be described as such. But as I am soon to learn, Teresa herself has never managed to stay within the bounds of what is expected and assumed. Her work stands alone in a place that is and isn’t design. It is somehow more.

‘I work with nature as my partner,’ she tells me. The partnership has taken her from the Atacama Desert, where she and her studio worked with existing plants and agricultural structures to create a landscape at the Hotel Tierra Atacama that speaks only of place; to the Venice Biennale, where she utilised quarry offcuts to form a series of resting points along the city foreshore titled Catch the Landscape, intended to bring ‘value to the existence of the landscape’; to a project in the forests of Chile’s south where Teresa’s only landscape intervention was a water-channel made of fallen tree trunks running through the property.

Teresa Moller. Photo: Chloe Humphries.

And then there is Punta Pite, on Chile’s western coast. Teresa’s brief was to create a pathway along the coastline as part of a larger project for a private condominium development. But how do you make a path in a place that already speaks so strongly? You don’t. ‘If the rock wants you to walk on it, you do not need a path,’ she says. Instead, a series of small stone interventions were made. Hints, rather than instructions. ‘The fact that it’s a discontinuous path makes you look for directions or signs in the landscape … Sometimes, it is absolutely clear where to go, to know where you are. And sometimes you have to search for clues, like in life.’ There is no need, she says, to intervene when it is not necessary.

It is easy, these days, to find all you need to know about someone online, except for Teresa Moller. I hunt around, and while I find some project images and snippets of information from past lectures, I don’t find out much about Teresa herself. I imagine her to be a cloud of a woman, enigmatic and serious. And so I prepare, very diligently, for a serious conversation. Instead, I find myself being interviewed. Teresa wants to know everything! She is warm and genuine and interested. We share a delightful hour, but we could have talked all day.

Teresa Moller: I want to ask you so many things. I want to do the interview for you.

Georgina Reid: Let’s have a conversation instead of an interview and it can go both ways. I’m so interested in where people come from. You’ve said that ‘life brought me to work with nature because I couldn’t do anything other’. I want to know how this came to be?

TM: I am a very good example of somebody who is successful, but has difficulties being in the system, accepting things the way they are. I was always questioning everything, and doing things the way I thought they should be done. That brings a lot of problems in the system, you see? Because I did it my way very deeply.

GR: Were your parents free-thinking, or were you the black sheep?

TM: I am totally the black sheep. My parents were Catholic, and they were very, very fanatic. I always say I had enough of religion in the uterus of my mother. So, from there on, I came out and I say I had enough [of religion], this is it. So please let me go on my way. But also, my father was somebody who was very much connected to nature, he went to nature to save himself too.

GR: And did you grow up in Santiago?

TM: In Santiago, yes. But I grew up outside Santiago in a house, it was a very farm-like place and my everyday life was outside in the garden. So, I came from school, where I felt very restricted because it was a religious school, and I spent afternoons under the trees. I felt totally good, fine, protected. It was my place for solving the problems I had. My family was really hard. I think, without knowing, I stayed under the trees to save myself.

GR: It’s interesting how often our bodies save us, like as you say you went to the trees, not because your mind told you to, but because you had to, intuitively. It makes so much sense to hear you say this, because it comes through very strongly in your work – this intuitive sense for place, a knowing that is bodily not necessarily intellectual.

TM: You know, I have no studies …

GR: No university study?

TM: Not that way I should do it, you see? I took the other way. I get bored in classes. I fight the teacher. And I say that’s not true, why do you say that? I am really, I don’t know, somebody who is difficult for the system.

At Hotel Tierra Atacama, in the Atacama Desert, Teresa Moller Studio designed a landscape intervention around
existing vegetation such as the algarrobo (Prosopis chilensis) and saltbush, the design celebrating the tenacity
and life-force of plants surviving in one of the driest places on Earth. Photo: Chloe Humphreys.

GR: How did you go from lying underneath the trees to designing all these incredible gardens and landscapes?

TM: At university I studied kinesiology, I had very good grades and I was doing well, but I was very emotional with the people I had to work with. So, I studied something else, but I left because I found it not so important. So you see? I am very sensitive. I didn’t have the protection to be able to work with people who are suffering.

GR: That makes sense. But it makes sense also that you’re very interested in people and emotion as well.

TM: Yes, very much. I wanted to help people, you see? It gives me a sense of life. I mean, why else are we here? After I was two times at university, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t go back. And then my boyfriend at that time said, ‘Why don’t you go and study something with flowers and gardens? It wouldn’t hurt you.’ So I felt like okay, I can’t do anything other than that because I’m not good at anything else. I was totally derrotada [tired, defeated]. But from the very beginning, it felt right. I had a very good teacher who’s a well-known architect here in Chile. I learnt a lot from him. I didn’t expect it, but suddenly everyone was like, ‘Please do this, do that.’ And every day that happened to me.

GR: I had a sort of similar path, in that I studied journalism at university, but my heart wasn’t in it. And, of course, doors didn’t open. But the minute I decided to study plants and design, everything just happened – jobs came, doors opened.

TM: It made sense, everything made sense.

GR: Yeah, I knew one hundred percent that that’s the path I was supposed to be on. It’s like something opens in the world and says, ‘Yes, this is where you’re going. Go!’

TM: It’s fantastic, isn’t it?

GR: Yeah, it is.

TM: It’s a gift of life that comes for free.

GR: Yeah, you just have to be open to it. So what happened next? You studied and …

TM: I went to live in New York for four years and studied at the New York Botanical Garden. It wasn’t for me. I did it because I knew that it was going to help me when I came back to Chile, they love people who have studied anything in New York, any place. So when I say I studied in New York, they say, ‘Oh, come over here.’ So I did that, and then I came back and I started to do projects, little by little. I mean, I have never stopped because they have been asking me for projects all the time. So, I’m really lucky.

Punta Pite. Photo: Filipe Fontecilla

GR: Has your aesthetic evolved? When you first started like twenty, thirty years ago, what sort of gardens were you doing then?

TM: Most of my best-known projects are ten or twenty years old. And I keep doing the same. It’s becoming the way to work. Today, people are thinking more of keeping and giving value to what is in the place, being very sustainable, and more conscious of the beauty of nature – the way it grows, belongs, tastes. It’s not about aesthetics, it has to be much more than that. It’s working with life, it’s getting involved with something that helps to understand life.

GR: I think so too. Your work resonates so strongly for me because, you know, you’re really asking the questions. You said recently about beauty, how it’s not enough anymore, that there has to be something before or after it. What do you mean by this?

TM: Well, I think that having beauty or aesthetics as a goal is not enough anymore. There are some other values that come much before. Beauty should come after everything is well designed, is well thought out and experienced. I mean, the project should work by itself. And that’s the beauty. It’s not the colours or the textures or the extravagance. It is, for me at least, having people involved and feeling that they are part of that place. We are part of the forest, it’s not like we’re here and the forest is there.

GR: So beauty is more of an intangible rather than form?

TM: Today I was asked to do an amazing project in the south of Chile and I cannot start by thinking how can I make it beautiful? No, it’s like how I am going to respect that place? How am I going to understand that place? How am I going to touch that place? You see? It’s other questions. And if I work on answering them, and end up with an answer that works for that place, it will be beautiful.

GR: Yes, and yet many designers talk about the same sort of things that you talk about, but the outcomes are so different, you know? They talk about listening and genius loci and all of these things, and then they build all of this terrible stuff. And it’s like, where did that come from?

TM: This is not very nice to say, but on our planet, there is a thing of becoming well-known, published. Architects used to think that the more you are noticed, the more you can be seen by the machine that is taking photographs or whatever, the better. So, if you work for being published, it’s one thing. But if you work for the site or the people, it’s another. You need to be very simple, very humble.

GR: Yes, humble is a word I’ve written down to discuss with you. You have to have humility to do the sort of work that you do.

TM: Ego is a killer, you know? Because it’s like, how am I going to be recognised for this project? Like lots of concrete, lots of lighting, lots of huge things that come from helicopters? You see, it’s another thing.

GR: I guess the question in some ways is who is the client? The way you speak, the land and the human have an equal say in what actually happens. Whereas most of the time, it’s the human, and the land is the blank canvas or the backdrop.

TM: Yes, that’s very interesting what you say. It’s like we see each other as two parts, different. So, then we walk on top land as if we were the owners of it. But, actually, we are like this [clasps hands together, linking fingers], we are in the same position in life. If we don’t understand that, then we never will find a way to respect land.

GR: Yep. I guess the other thing that I think is very interesting, is that we’re all inspired by nature, but in design there’s quite a difference between re-creation and response. Your work is like a conversation rather than a replication.

TM: Yes. Many times, I say in my projects that this part is not going to be touched, we will leave it the way it is because it’s the best way it can be. And we will walk on top of this grass, for instance, and have the feeling of the place the way it is. We don’t want to change it. People are still thinking of having what the others have, they want to make wildflower meadows like the Americans, you see? It’s like you never think what you have is the best you can have.

GR: So your job then becomes helping people see what they already have?

TM: Yes, and it takes a lot of time, energy, and explaining when we’re talking to somebody who really wants to have a garden more beautiful than the garden next door. It’s difficult.

Hotel Tierra Atacama, in the northern Chilean town of San Pedro. Photo: Chloe Humphreys.

GR: On that note, are you very particular about the clients you work with?

TM: I think I am really easy, because I am grown-up enough to accept that people will not understand everything. I never say no. It’s like, well, a client might want a mixture of colours and things that she sends me many photographs of. If I work my way and she is happy, she will connect with nature through her own ideas. So I keep going. I don’t fight. Because my goal is other, you see? I really want her to be involved in her garden. So, if I have to do something that is not my style, I don’t really care.

GR: I assumed you would be stricter.

TM: No, because I feel old. At the beginning, I said no to many people. You want me to do a rose garden? This is a horrible thing you are asking me. You know, that client, she was an old English lady, and she said, ‘Well, I don’t care what you want or you don’t want, I want the rose garden and you will do it.’

GR: Wow.

TM: I was just starting and she was kind of nice to me. And I always say thank you to her – I learnt about roses because of her. And I really got deep in roses and I worked in the rose garden and I loved it, you see? I learnt, I thought it was horrible to do that and it wasn’t.

GR: Do you use a lot of roses now as a result?

TM: No. But if I see roses, I appreciate them, you see?

GR: Oh, I’ve got a dog at my door [dog barking]. One second, sorry.

TM: Oh, let me see it.

GR: She is naughty, this dog.

TM: She wanted to be in the meeting because now she’s really quiet.

GR: Yes, now she’s happy … So you mentioned in the Harvard Graduate School of Design lecture that you spend a lot of time thinking about line and landscape. And your project at Punta Pite is very much about line. Can we talk about lines please?

TM: At Punta Pite, the line came first, and then I thought about it [laughs]. I was in this place, and I said, what should I do here, I can’t do anything because it’s so beautiful, and I did a line to cross it, a path, and then I looked at it. It works so well, I can’t understand why.

So I started to think why the line works so well. And I said to myself, I am always looking at the lines in the sky of the airplanes, I am in love with train lines in the landscape. It’s an obsession in my life. You see a fence on a landscape and it is amazing how it works. I don’t know, it’s like the line represents the human mind and it represents the simplest way of going from one place to the other. And since we cannot try to be like nature, because it becomes really horrible, I think it’s about simplicity and rationality, it’s about the way humans have worked or touched nature from the very beginning; by irrigation, by walking.

Punta Pite. Photo: Filipe Fontecilla.
Punta Pite. Photo: Pascale Mondion

GR: I’m thinking about your project in the forest in Patagonia, with that one line, the hollowed-out timber. Sometimes all you need – and I think you understand this better than most – is a circle or a line. That’s all that is needed to mark a landscape.

TM: Totally. And that is more difficult than clients understand.

GR: Why do you think it is so hard? You know, we make more and make more noise and add, add, add to a place. I wonder why?

TM: I think it’s just pure insecurity of human beings. Just that. Relying on what the others have, think, say, not on your own feelings and what is inside you. I mean, I don’t know how to explain it. I am not so good in words.

GR: I think you are, actually. I feel like landscape architects and people who work with land have such important skills in terms of connecting with nature and shaping our world in ways that are more sustainable and regenerative. But we’re stuck in this sort of decoration mindset. I’m wondering how you see the role of landscape architects, designers and gardeners going forward?

TM: It’s changing.

GR: I hope so, yes.

TM: That’s why I was so happy to hear from you. Really. What you are doing is amazing and so important.

GR: But you’re doing the same thing.

TM: Yeah. It’s just that I am really old doing this. But now it’s being published, it’s being talked about, it’s being shown.

GR: Are you saying that your work is getting more attention now than ever before?

TM: Well, I think my work is being better understood now than before.

GR: So the world is catching up to you. That’s great.

TM: That sounds too much. But I feel like we are more. Every day we are more.

GR: That’s really good to hear.

TM: You don’t feel like that?

GR: I hope I do. I’m an optimist, obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. But I sometimes wonder if I’m so sort of deep in this thinking that I just assume everyone is coming along when really no-one is taking any notice.

TM: I think twenty years ago, you would not have found anybody for your publication. They were all looking at who has the most beautiful garden. I think everything – COVID-19, climate change, economy – is bringing us to the answer. There is no way to keep going the way we used to. So it’s going to be fine.

GR: I hope so. Your work reaches beneath the conceptual to the essence of things which is so powerful. There’s a truthfulness to it. Is there a kind of spiritual undertone or thread that connects your thinking?

TM: Well, I was born asking myself, ‘What is all this about?’

GR: Same.

TM: Can you explain to me what is this about? I can tell you, I haven’t found any answer but being nature. So this is my answer. Everything is in that answer. I belong to something, I am part of something, I am not a unique intelligence on top of society directing the world. The only thing I know is I have no control. You see, every day it becomes more clear that there is no control. It’s the way it is. So that’s what I think, I’m trying to understand.

GR: That’s all you can do really. And also accepting the impossibility of ever actually understanding everything!

TM: We will never understand. People think that they understand everything. But still, it came to COVID-19 and we were all looking at each other saying what happened? We were in control of everything. I keep seeing your plants behind you on the screen. I find it is so beautiful they come back into our homes and surround us. All the time reminding us who we are. You know, I feel myself very much like plant material.

GR: You’re a poet.

TM: Or crazy.

GR: No, no. Poet. Do you have a garden actually? I’m curious.

TM: I live in an apartment here in Santiago. I have a garden in my studio where we sell special plants and beautiful things. But my garden is on Punta Pite. I have a huge experimental garden on the seaside. It’s full of planting materials from Australia. And I play there and I spend all the time I can there. That’s my garden. You are so invited to come to my house in Pite. We can talk about planting and about life and dogs and everything.

GR: I’d love that. I’ll be there.