Louisiana, Denmark - a perfect synthesis of sculpture, archictecture and landscape

Louisiana, a contemporary art gallery north of Copenhagen just has to be one of my most favourite places. Not for the contents so much (I am no great fan of contemporary art) but for the extraordinary and quite unique synthesis of art, landscape and architecture it offers. It also has an atmosphere of immense calm, almost a healing atmosphere. I think I have been there six or seven times now and every time I walk away quite mesmerised by it. Louisiana link here.

I once went to an exhibition there about the design of museums, which made the point that western museums tended to be macho statements that put the building first whereas in Japan many museums are designed to melt themselves into a landscape; oddly enough I don’t recall the exhibition having made the point that this was just what Louisiana was doing. My only experience of Japanese museum culture has been the Adachi Museum, and that does the job amazingly, as you don’t actually get to see the outside of the building at all.

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Louisiana offers an experience of a restful parkland landscape, its sculpture collection, and views over the Øresund to Sweden. You are either in the garden, or you are looking at it from carefully framed vistas inside, or you are getting snatches. Or indeed underground, as many of the galleries are below the surface. A journey around the museum takes you down below, then up again, along light corridors with trees, and shrubs on either side (including one of the biggest beech trees I have ever seen) or just throws you snatches of greenery, and then down again into another underground bit. You are hardly ever aware of the building from the outside; it is all about being in, and looking out.

Not surprisingly, orientation is completely unlike that of a conventional gallery building. In fact it is very easy to get very lost, but not to worry as you just find and exit into the central lawn area and dive into another door. There are also lots of little paths down around a lake and down to the coast, all with judiciously-placed sculpture on the way. Children everywhere, and that is one of the wonderful things about the place; this is Denmark after all, it is very child-friendly, so it doesn’t have that precious-pretentious air that so many galleries have.

The planting is very Danish, i.e. quite minimal. This is not a great gardening culture, but one where a limited number of plants are used to great effect; hedges in particular. The simplicity adds to the sense of calm and of course does not compete with the sculpture.

End of an era as Piet Oudolf closes the garden at Hummelo

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So, you have until October 27th to see Piet and Anja’s private garden at Hummelo. After that, sorry, but its no more visiting. All of who know Piet and Anja have been rather shaking our heads for some time wondering how they cope with the visitors and the stress it must involve. Well done them for keeping going so long.

An end of an era, eloquently summed up by Tony Spencer in The New Perennialist blog. Time to cast my mind back to August 1994 when I first visited with Eva Gustavsson, a Swedish teacher of landscape design. I think Piet had probably decided he’d entertain two unknown foreign guests on one day; it was good as we all bounced ideas off each other and with Henk Gerritssen who we visited on the same day.

I don’t suppose Piet and Anja had any idea of how popular the garden would become when they came here in the 1980s. The idea was to grow plants for Piet’s growing garden design business, and sell a few on the side to keen gardeners. The front garden with the famous yew hedges was a nursery bed and trial plot initially; when I first saw it in 1994 it was still relatively new.

The Oudolfs were always very social and used Hummelo brilliantly as a base for promoting Piet’s ideas through plant sales and the famous Grass Days. For visitors outside the garden world, it was Anja you met, always hospitable and welcoming. Piet would tend to go off and hide in his office, so speaking with him became something of a privilege; but then if it was him who was doing the meeting and greeting I suspect we would long ago have seen our last new Oudolf garden.

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A pic of how it used to look, the late 1990s. Yes, really! I think that those of you who only know Piet as the prophet of perennials are in danger of overlooking his intellectual and artistic roots, in a more modernist-formal style. The occasional flooding tended to see these yew hedges and columns off, which I dare say speeded up his decision making process, but I think he was getting tired of them anyway. They may have seemed fresh and contemporary to us in Britain who have almost never seen clipping done in anything other than a cliched classical way, but to the Dutch they were part of a look that had been around some time. (courtesy of Piet BTW for these older image - mine are still on old transparences - remember them!).

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Again another winter’s pic, giving a good idea of all that structure, and lawn! A reminder that the perennials gradually crept in towards the end of the century. This image I think should make us aware that behind what appears to be soft, naturalistic planting, is actually a very strong graphic sense.

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I shall never forget getting an email from a rather pompous colleague who wanted to know all about the history of the hedges that used to be at the very back of the garden, and made such a theatrical backdrop, ‘what did they mean?’ he wanted to know, were they symbolic, were they a quotation? I had great pleasure in telling him they were an accident, the result of failing to see some rows of yew seedlings, rather than dig them up, Piet trimmed them into shape. And the rest is history. Until the winter wet began to get to them too in 2011, and off they went.

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I always used to love these pillars of silver pear which used to adorn the nursery area, removed about six years ago, to make way for the very successful perennial meadow. They were a reminder of how we could be so much more inventive with clipping if only we tried.

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And this was the bit below the nursery area which for a few years seemed to be a place where seeds lodged and germinated and made some amazingly chaotic combinations, I particularly remember the forests of Digitalis ferruginea, that amazingly narrow foxglove relative.

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Most of us loved it when the perennials and grasses really began to take off; by the early 2000s all that lawn had gone and we had this kind of planting. What’s interesting about the way Piet has worked, as I understand it, is that he plants and then apart from basic maintenance, does not replant. So some borders are really old, 25 years plus even; a great opportunity to see what has survived over the years and how it has spread and seeded.

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For me, the most interesting of all the experiments that Piet did here was the perennial meadow on the site of the old nursery area. I was so sceptical about it at first I must admit, but for some reason it took off with a good balance between meadow grasses, wildflowers and perennials.

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I always learned new things on every trip to Hummelo. One year it was Piet enthusing about these self-sown Mertensia virginica sprounting in the middle of really dense clumps of Panicum grass that made me realise how possible it is to combine plants whose physiologies mean that they grow at different times of year. Panicum is an incredibly competitive grower and yet in April is still dormant, so the mertensias can do their thing and then go dormant for the summer. This was a picture I took the weekend that Piet planted the first perennials in the new meadow bed.