Modern Tropical Garden Design
Editions Didier Millet/Wijaya Words (2007) pp.207
Though some fall out of fashion in a season, others go on for print run after print run, Made Wijaya’s Modern Tropical Garden Design looks set to become one of the latter.
With decades of design experience, Made understands the vagaries of the tropical garden very well. He also knows how to combine scrumptious photographs and insightful text.
His much-praised Architecture of Bali (Archipelago Press, 2002) is still in a class of its own while Tropical Garden Design (Archipelago Press,1999) has been a classic ever since it hit bookshop shelves. So why is anyone surprised by his latest one?
It’s the word “modern”.
Made has always flaunted his credentials as a renegade romantic who draws on ruined empires, English country gardens, Balinese temples, paintings by artists like Matisse and Fragonard, along with artifacts and architecture from around the world to inspire his work.
A full-blooded sensualist with a taste for the Baroque, he’s never seemed to have much sympathy with those drawing-board disciplinarians of the “less-is-more” tradition.
Weaving complexity and contradiction into whatever he does, he’s often railed against “lean-and-mean” designers for having fallen out of love with nature, ”making the man-made look computer-generated” and “trying to turn nature into white sliced bread.”
So why has this usually sharp-tongued critic written a book in praise of modern (read mainly Modernist) design?
Net widely cast
Made himself might well argue who better to offer a commentary than one who’s traveled from skepticism to belief, who’s out to share his newly won conviction, “modern gardens do not have to look like lime-green Letraset”.
Unlike the earlier Tropical Garden Design, which focuses mostly on Made’s own work and advises on how – as well as what – to do, this new one takes a wider view, tracing concepts rather than practicalities, highlighting master designers and setting their work in context.
The first three chapters set the scene, romping through 80 years of history and circling the planet. First to be considered is Roberto Burle Marx, the revolutionary Brazilian painter and landscape designer whose mastery of color and shape established “tropical modern” as a full-blooded and feisty successor to the pseudo temperate templates that had so often been imposed on the tropical world.
Mexican architect Luis Barragan comes in for special mention for his inward-looking houses with brilliantly colored courtyards and terrace walls while Japanese/American sculptor Isamu Noguchi rates a places for his natural materials and serene lines.
From the continental Americas, Made heads westward, touching on the organic shapes and sculptural plantings Richard C Tong developed in Hawaii, which spread to hotels around the tropics, before considering Geoffrey Bawa’s ground-breaking work in Sri Lanka, Bill Bensley’s macho fantasies in Southeast Asia and those romantic courtyards with “ordered jungle”, water and moss-encrusted sculpture that Made his own.
There’s a nod to New Asia and Zen Modern masters such as Karl Princic before this section of the book fetches up with the bold and often industrial-inspired gardens of Australian media star, Jamie Durie.
It’s a whirlwind tour, but an enlightening one – most of all for its focus on those Central and South Americans who’ve been so seminal, and yet whose contribution is so often underplayed.
A full-blooded sensualist with a taste for the Baroque, he’s never seemed to have much sympathy with those drawing-board disciplinarians of the ”less-is-more” tradition.
Deconstructing the garden
In the middle section of the book, Made takes the elements of the tropical garden apart, looking in turn at how different designers have dealt with courtyards and patios, pavilions and pergolas, paving, water features, walls, plants, color, furniture, lighting, art and even flower arrangements.
There are plenty of inspirational modern classics. A Raymond Jungles path of pebbles and stone in a Florida garden is a page away from a sculptural stone ramp by Geoffrey Bawa at Sri Lanka’s Lighthouse Hotel.
Karl Princic’s of wild grasses at Bali’s The Bale is showcased along with Nancy Goslee Power’s sculptural cycads. Botanist Patrick Blance’s exuberant plant walls rub shoulders with Ng Sek San’s eminently sensible suspended mesh pathways and Jamie Durie’s caged granite boulders.
Sculptors and muralists get a look-in, too, as Made points out that crisp art modern and argues, “It is in the spirit of modernism that art should be edgy, a bit in-your-face.”
Like the rest of the book, this section is luscious on the eye, showing what it means when the indoors moves outdoors and the garden becomes an extension of the living room; when comfort means shade, colors need to stand up to fierce tropical sunlight and shapes have to hold their own against stark moving shadows.
The book closes with a section titled Avant Gardeners, double-page profiles of 14 designers in words and photographs.
They’re an eclectic mix. Some, like Geoffrey Bawa and Roberto Burle Marx, are bedrock and demand a place; a couple is very personal choices.
Others, like the wonderfully irreverent Ng Sek San, master of sensual minimalism Karl Princic, skilled plants woman Nancy Goslee Power, and Made himself, are among today’s top practitioners.
The book contains nearly 300 photographs, the majority from Made’s own collection and that of his long-time friend, Tim Street-Porter; others widely sourced.
Some are superb panoramas like Haruyoshi Ono’s shot of Burle Marx’s work at the Tacaruna estate in Brazil or Tim Street-Porter photograph of the wonderful tropical fantasy garden created by Tony Duquette for his home in the Malibu mountains.
Other focus in close to highlight fine details like the crinkled pattern of a leaf or the shadow a lamp throws on the wall.
Throughout the book, text and photographs play off each other beautifully, yet Made rarely reaches beyond the visual.
There’s a nod the way water can create passive cooling, how the white noise of a fountain can mask less attractive sounds, but strangely for a designer who plays with all the senses in his own work, no mention of how even the most restrained of modernist designers have used the soft rustling of bamboo or small-leafed trees or the scent of a frangipani tree to bring out the magic of a minimalist planting.
Despite that one small caveat, that book is impressive. By the end, Made’s justified his conversion, proving ”One can achieve a modern look without the garden looking soulless, bird less or godless,” and the modern tropical designers have conjured up a very different – but equal – magic to their temperate counterparts.