Designer Chat: Miguel Urquijo

A good garden cannot be made by someone who does not know and love growing things,” says Spanish garden designer Miguel Urquijo. ‘We just try to replicate the forms, shapes, mood and manners of nature. We humbly try to order and give life to the little space for which we have access’. Miguel is one half of Urquijo-Kastner, a landscape design studio based in Madrid. Listening to him speak recently at the Australian Landscape Conference was a joy – his passion for gardens, nature and the cultivation of the human spirit bubbling beneath his words.

Image by Claire Takacs

Can you please tell us a little about your approach to garden design and its relevance to Australian garden makers? How can sustainable planting benefit people, wildlife and ecosystems? As in any Mediterranean environment, we share a series of conditions and factors that inevitably influence our designs. The shortage of water forces us to choose plants with great resistance to drought – these are obviously those of our environment. The temperature and low relative humidity of the air deepen this situation and make it even more necessary to use the available plant material in the closest environment.

Although we can use plants from California, South Africa or Australia, those that naturally grow in our proximity will always be more adaptable. Soil and its chemical composition (pH) is another important factor. Plants in the Proteaceae family do not work well in Spain because in their natural environment (south west Australia) they grow on poor, acidic soils, whilst in Spain we have poor soils but they’re alkaline, not acidic. The adaptability of a plant to a certain environment depends enormously on its natural history as well as atmospheric conditions.

In a more specific way, we share the need to use mulch, drip irrigation, planting small is always recommended, working well and deep the soil before planting, trying to plant in periods of lethargy or low temperature (autumn or winter) to give time to the plants before the summer to develop a system of important roots. We also recommend native plants as these are known and appreciated by our native fauna.

There is something else, deeper and not so easy to perceive, requiring not only professionalism but also some sensitivity; to build a garden that seeks to instil peace, tranquillity and connection in its users we have to use, as far as possible, local materials and native plants. Both the cultural and natural elements of a place must be valued if we want to evoke a feeling of integration, of belonging.

We will always recommend using materials and plants with respect and care for cultural traditions and vernacular landscapes.”

Our gardening is based on the representation of the whole range of plants – everything from annuals, perennials, grasses, bulbs and trees. A landscape is composed of all these elements and for us a garden is a representation of a landscape. These elements should be integrated in their proper proportion in our projects, and we try not to leave any of them out.

What role does structure play in creating year-round interest in the garden? Gardens are not about plants. At least not in a country where plants are put to the limit of their possibilities with extreme temperatures and low humidity. Dumping all the responsibility of the appearance of a garden over 12 months on the plants is not sensible. The gardens in our country need to be made not only of plants, but of material elements (stone, water, ceramic, wood, etc.). Plants are very important, but don’t create the spaces by themselves.

Also, in the central hours of the day the garden loses contrasts and runs the risk of remaining flat and blurred if certain factors are not taken into account. The garden only becomes visible by creating definite shadows and intentional chiaroscuros based on hedges or structures. These structural elements can be formal or informal, but they must have well-profiled lines, making their contours and the shadows they project well defined.

Either with a wall or with a hedge you can make a good garden structure to both bring order and also compartmentalise space. This has another important virtue of creating lights and shadows. Formal or informal hedges may serve as a background to contrast the loose forms of your garden (perennials, grasses, lose form plants)

In our designs, we try to have at least 60 percent structural plants in each garden. These don’t necessarily have to be evergreen but at least must have an interesting and defined body or presence throughout the year.”

Image by Claire Takacs
Image by Claire Takacs

You write on your website that ‘a capacity to exercise a certain control over nature is what makes us human.’ How do you balance this desire for control with respect to the processes of the natural world? This is a difficult question to answer but let me try. Termites, using soil and grass, create impressive sand cathedrals just as beavers cut trees to build dams for their nests. Both are creating their homeness. For this, both use elements they have in their closest environment. We humans fundamentally do the same.

Although our scale of modification is not comparable, we modify space exercising our power with the aim of creating a sense of homeness.”

As a species, our ideal of home is always difficult to define and varies according to culture. Nature can be enormously beautiful, even sublime, but we could not say that it is precisely friendly or welcoming; for that reason, it will never be home. For this we have to transform it.

In Christian theology or tradition, life is spoken of as a short lapse of time between two gardens: the lost garden of Eden, and the promised garden of heaven. The celestial garden tends to be represented not as a wild nature, but as a nature adapted to human interests and needs, without spectacular views or dramatic scenarios. If there is a credible image of the vague beyond, this must necessarily be that of an idealized or perfected nature, pleasant and pleasurable. This being so, it is reasonable to think that while we are here we will long for that garden and conform our home to somehow bring us closer to that ideal of the desired garden. It is the way we engage with our environment that speaks of us and defines us as rational beings.

In the case of most of our garden design projects, we start from scratch, on land devoid of vegetation. In many cases what is intended is to recover a space for nature and therefore any contribution of plant elements will always be beneficial.

But a distinction must be made between both landscaping (gardening) and revegetation. There are two ways to approach revegetation – active and passive. Active involves a human intervention (we plant plants) – this will always be an imitation of nature, and will always have an artificial, if not vulgar, result. Passive revegetation is where one simply lets the environment heal by itself. This will take much longer but at least the result will be ‘the truth’. Personally, I prefer the latter but I know that clients do not have that perspective or patience.

In the end, our solution is to make a garden. For this we must inspire ourselves, extract the essences or abstract a model from the landscape we are working within. But NOT imitate it. We have to contribute to it with our vision, but not make a copy.”

If you were a plant, what would you be? I think I wouldn’t like to be too small but neither too big. I like my country and would have to tolerate this demanding weather. I would have to be adaptable to many conditions of life, and valid for different purposes. Also looking good all year round, with some flair once in a while but not too striking. And capable of recovering with no apparent loss after a tragedy like a fire.

That plant in our gardens is Arbutus unedo (strawberry tree). I would not mind being as good as this little tree. If there is one plant that has repeated in all our gardens this is it.


All images of Urquijo-Kastner garden design projects by Claire Takacs.

Image by Claire Takacs
Image by Claire Takacs