Spanish Landscape Design
Image by Kerstin Riemer from Pixabay
Landscape Design

Spanish Landscape Design

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Architectural Digest.

Seated beside a crackling fire at his firm’s studio in Madrid, landscape designer Fernando Caruncho recounts a Spanish parable. “There was a man who wanted to build himself a home, ” he says. “He started with the garden, and then he built a loggia where he could gaze upon the garden. Only later did he build a bedroom. The art of living, this story suggests, is not about comfort. It is about keeping our relationship with nature at the center of our experience.”

For 35 years the elegant Caruncho has done just that—planting environments that encourage contemplation, inspired by the gardens where the ancient Greek philosophers felt at one with the world and its rhythms. Recent works include the grounds of the Renzo Piano–designed Botín Foundation’s cultural center, which opens this summer in Santander, Spain, as well as private demesnes from Greece to Maine. Large or small, they share unmistakable qualities, such as boldly manicured shrubs placed like sculptures and agricultural crops incorporated into elaborately structured, defiantly contemporary settings. At one estate, for example, enormous parterres of golden wheat alternate with pools of dark water.

This sense of drama can be found on a vest-pocket scale at Caruncho’s one-acre studio compound, down the street from the house he shares with his wife, Maru (owner of the home-and-garden shop El Jardinero), and their two college-age sons. Set amid grand residences with bombastic fences, the compound’s gate is unexpectedly discreet, so tiny that visitors must stoop to enter. “The mere act of lowering one’s head, ” Caruncho says, “marks the beginning of a new story and a refreshed vision.”

Soon a stand of holm oaks parts, revealing an ecru structure with a tower at each end. Caruncho’s office and archives occupy the tall one, while its companion contains a reception room. Linking the towers is an open stairway fronted by a gravel courtyard formed of three graduated, slightly overlapping circles. Each round is a virtual room, Caruncho says: “The floors are the gravel, the ceiling is the sky, and the walls are the clipped laurel and boxwood that follow the curves.” A fountain centers the largest segment, its rippling water amplified in the spirals that are raked into the gravel each morning by the designer’s staff.