Designer Profile: Juan Grimm

On the coast of Los Villos in Chile, a garden balances on the edge of a clifftop, limbs of wandering shrubs crawling over the rock face towards the depths of the Pacific Ocean below. The architect of the seaside shelter, Juan Grimm, can be found hidden within the many pockets of the garden, experimenting with unusual plant combinations or admiring a newly sprouted shrub whose seed arrived on the wind. His enduring wonder for the minutiae of the natural world is one of the many reasons Juan Grimm is considered South America’s most outstanding landscape designer. With a career spanning over thirty years and a design portfolio that includes nearly a thousand hectares of public and private gardens across Argentina, Peru, Uruguay and Chile, Juan is the master of creating natural spaces in harmony with the richly diverse landscape of South America.

Landscape designer, Juan Grimm. Image by Renzo Delpino
Juan Grimm's home garden at Los Vilos, Chile. Image by Renzo Delpino
Quillota Garden. Image by Renzo Delpino

After thirty years of creating public and private gardens across Argentina, Peru, Uruguay and your home country, Chile, what keeps you excited about landscape design? When I first began designing and building gardens, I thought about how they would develop over time. Due to the little knowledge of botany and gardening that I had then, I worked with great intuition, without being very clear about the final results; I wanted the years to pass quickly, to see the newly planted trees mature. Today, after thirty-five years of experience, and with the privilege of having seen so many of these trees develop and grow old, I am deeply motivated to continue to create public or private green spaces; knowing that these places will endure over time for the use and enjoyment of future generations.

What does a typical day in the life of Juan Grimm look like? The vast majority of my days are dedicated to garden design; projecting and drawing in my studio, with the advice of the team that accompanies me. Another important element of the day happens in the field – supervising and distributing plants in the gardens that are in the execution stage; work that is fundamental for me because on the site, many things are decided that are impossible to resolve during the planning stage. It is in these moments that the garden begins to take on a life of its own. On weekends, I spend my time in my house on the coast, enjoying the landscape and the garden; I never finish intervening.

Can you please tell us a little about your life growing up and how this influenced the person you are today? My childhood was always closely linked to contact with nature; family summers on the coast were repeated for several years.

My connection with the sea – the infinite space, the rocks and the vegetation that appears very delicately from the coastal edge towards the interior – was a very important experience in the direction that my professional life would take.”

Initially, you trained as an architect. What prompted the change to landscape and why? My training as an architect was essential to recognize my passion for nature. There was no event that determined a change; rather, my architectural student projects always involved the landscape. Once I graduated, I had the opportunity to present a project to the first Biennial of Young Architecture. The proposal was the design of a park and an urban structure strongly affiliated with each other. I won first prize at the Biennial, and this confirmed to me that my path was in landscape design.

Viña Errazuriz Garden. Image by Renzo Delpino
Patagonia Garden. Image by Renzo Delpino

What is your design philosophy? I consider that there are interesting and fundamental concepts for the good design of a garden; notions that I seek to incorporate in my work, and whose presence will become evident as the garden grows and the projected space acquires form and volume. Movement, exuberance, infinity, sustainability and mystery.

One distinctive feature of your style is your choice to design primarily with native plants, or plants you have grown from seed. What is the thought process behind this? Native vegetation, anywhere in the world, is the vegetation that best adapts to the demands of the climate and other characteristics necessary for its optimal development. There are times when a project is located in a place where there are no nurseries available to acquire these plants. This was the case of the Tambo del Inca Hotel Project, located in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, in Urubamba, Peru, where we went to the mountains to collect seeds from trees and shrubs, which were then grow in our own nurseries. Today those trees have already reached full maturity, and the garden is a reflection of the intimate landscape of the gorges of the Sacred Valley.

Global warming, and the climatic changes that our planet faces, makes it imperative that landscape gardeners increasingly use native vegetation, because with their high efficiency in adaptation and prosperity, they ensure the best energy economy in a garden, with optimal results.”

Your expansive design portfolio reflects the rich diversity of the South American landscape. From the woodland gardens of Otero and Garcia, to the coastal extremities of Chiloe and Mingo; the lakeside estates of Allende and El Robe, to public spaces like the Jardin Montemor and Soza Park. What is the secret to creating gardens that blend harmoniously within their landscape? The Chilean landscape is determined by its geography, which ranges from drylands and extreme drought in the north, to glaciers in the south. We have diverse climates from the desert to the cold and rainy forest, with the nuances determined by the proximity to the Andes, the valley and the Pacific coast. The richness of landscapes that this allows, is for me, a source of inspiration. In my designs, I seek to approach the unique characteristics within each of these places until the garden is integrated within the landscape of its natural setting – through the shape, colour and texture of the vegetation, and an opening towards the distant landscape that is an extension of the garden.

Your own coastal garden, Bahía Azul in Los Villos is a breathtaking example of design reflecting wilderness. Can you please tell us about your approach to this garden? The garden of my house in Bahía Azul has been my laboratory. There I have experimented with the adaptation of plants to water scarcity, to soil quality, the strong influence of the maritime climate with its saline environment and its winds; experiments that have been a mixture of successes and failures. It is also a garden, that in some sectors, has slowly formed with many species that I have not planted. Instead, plants have spontaneously sprouted from seeds moved by the wind from the ravines and rustic soils of nearby surroundings. Although I consider the garden to be already finished, there will always be events that determine areas of renovation or small interventions.

How do you explore ideas of ecology and sustainability within your practice? Ecology and sustainability are pillars on which landscaping must be supported today so that the presence and company of nature persists alongside humans in future generations. The neglect of natural processes and the harmful intervention of man in the exploitation of resources leads us to increasingly difficult disasters; the huge fires in the last summer of the Northern Hemisphere; the floods due to extraordinary rains in the north of our country, or the dramatic drought facing the small north zone in Chile today are each a reflection of this. I believe that our contribution is to achieve the greatest economy of resources and energy in terms of vegetation use, land management, and water use in the design of gardens.

Pedro Grau Garden. Image by Renzo Delpino
Pirque Garden. Image by Renzo Delpino
Santa Cruz Garden. Image by Renzo Delpino

What piece of advice would you give to someone beginning in the landscape design industry today? I think it is very important to get away from “fashion” and instead work by observing nature and its processes. However small a garden may be, there will always be a challenge in creating a space that responds to its place of origin and the landscape itself. I recommend that my students observe a lot, ask questions and study. There are no recipes. Just experiment until you find your own way.

Who are you influenced by? When I first began working with gardens I had only my training as an architect to rely on. I didn’t know about botany and plant management, so I went to the parks and gardens to investigate. It was through this process that I discovered the work of Oscar Prager, an Austrian landscape designer who developed large parks and private gardens in Chile. Providencia Park was a great encyclopaedia where I observed and learned how he projected the elements of the garden architecture through the arrangement of trees and shrubs.

Another very important lesson I learned from Prager was how to create space in a garden – a garden not only requires beauty; it should also be a place willing for man to dwell within it.”

Later I discovered the Japanese garden, a delicate language which I continue to find wonderful in its aesthetic value, achieved through only a few simple elements. I am also influenced by English gardens because of their structure which is based on the shapes of the landscape.

If you could choose only three plants to design a garden with, what would they be? It depends on where the garden is, but undoubtedly, I would choose noble plants – that is, plants that last over time, that respond to their place of origin and are preferably native.

If I were designing a garden in the central zone of Chile, I would choose Peumo (Cryptocaria alba) as a persistent tree; the Santiago Oak (Nothofagus macrocarpa) as a deciduous tree; and Escalonia (Escallonia rubra) as a bush.

What is your favourite season in the garden and why? My favourite season is Autumn. I love the change of contrasting colours that occur for a short time in the landscape, the splendour of Autumn colours, the fall of the leaves with the wind and the geometry of the structures in view of the bare trees which very clearly show the concept of constant movement of nature. This is a concept that guides many of my designs.

If you were a plant, what would you be? Of course, a Peumo (Cryptocaria alba), because it is an endemic tree, noble, large, with a dark and bright green foliage and small red fruits. The aroma of its leaves and fruits is for me, the true aroma of Chile.

Juan Grimm's home garden at Los Vilos, Chile. Image by Renzo Delpino
Melipila Garden. Image by Renzo Delpino
Santa Ursula School Garden. Image by Renzo Delpino
Santa Cruz Garden. Image by Renzo Delpino
Montemar Garden. Image by Renzo Delpino