Sculpting The Land

May-2014-e1401976150614-257x227This past February, between snowstorms, I had an opportunity to listen to one of the world’s foremost landscape architects. The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx gets powerful speakers and prominent horticultural professionals. This was certainly no disappointment. In the Arthur & Janet Ross Gallery & Lecture Hall, Gregory Long, President & CEO of the NYBG introduced Kim Wilkie to us as a British landscape architect that grew up in the Malaysian jungle and the Iraqi desert. He attended school in Winchester, opened his London design studio in 1989 and is a “contemporary thinker with ancient ideas.” The audience seemed steeped with students and fellow designers/architects all there to imbibe Wilkie’s philosophies and quantum works. An architect known for working with soil and mud and his ability to sculpt the land, Mr. Wilkie opened with remarks of history, his predecessors and our existence of where we live.

“In the total volume of the planet, we inhabit the thinnest layer on the surface of the sphere and rely on a meager band of atmosphere that hovers above that layer”, Led By The Land Landscapes By Kim Wilkie pg. 11. Speaking to the frailty of life, “landscape is our physical and cultural relationship with land, water and air.” He went on to describe spiritual lumps of earth, linked to burial, worship and battle that have lasted longer than any building will. It was these protrusions of land that has inspired many great designers. Kim Wilkie’s works are so vast, so complex and so powerful it is difficult to have a favorite. The fan of grass terraces behind Heveningham Hall in Suffolk and the observant Gormley Watcher at Shawford Wet Meadows in Hampshire certainly stand out. However, for me, it has to be Boughton House in Northamptonshire.

Commissioned to create the first new feature at Boughton House since the 18th century, Kim Wilkie, a historian as much as he is an architect, was the right person for the job. The original 18th century lawn sculpture, complete with giant angular features stood before Wilkie and his decision to invert his architecture, mirroring the image set before him, amplified his remarks made earlier. “Respect the history and do something in our time. To do things well you need to understand what was before you.”

Lord Dalkeith, of Boughton House, invited Wilkie to the property asking for an opinion and in so doing showed him “a perfectly truncated grass pyramid that Charles Bridgeman had designed in 1724 for the 2nd Duke of Montagu as a base for a mausoleum”, Led By The Land pg. 150. The decision to juxtapose the existing mount required imagination, lengthy geometry and mathematics and a deliberate attempt not to trump the existing design. After all, 165 x 165 feet and 23 feet deep, down to the precise millimeter, required more than the 3 diggers and 9 months to accomplish. Archeological concerns had to be dealt with as this property is listed as a Grade I. In the end Hadrian, Vitruvius, Corbusier and da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, studies of proportion amalgamating artistic and scientific objectives showed not only the precision that Bridgeman had, but also others going forward.

Mr. Wilkie spoke little of how his perfectly creased edges, or good tight swords, are formed. Dense, pure blue clay certainly plays its part and this estate has its fair share, at least in the Orpheus landform. After the excavation and form, Wilkie clothed his Orpheus landform with grass, rolling it out from top to bottom, and pinned it with fine bamboo canes to hold it in place. Once the grass had taken root, specialized remote-controlled banks mowers help keep his perfect, crisp lines. The end result; a tranquil, slow decent towards a pool of water that reflects the sky above all the while offering a place for contemplation.

Kim Wilkie’s obsession with landforms at an early age has led him to a calling. A calling that has pushed the envelope and in so doing has given us all landscapes to admire while honoring what was before him. I took away from his talk that his appreciation for humanity and the environment goes far beyond words. Perhaps it was his diverse upbringing, or his studies at Oxford and the University of California that have contributed to his sensitivity of the ecology while working with the land. Wilkie ‘s passion for working with mud and creating lasting impressions speaks to his words “respect the history and do something in our time.” Words that when he spoke them evoked memories of Walt Whitman’s O Me! O Life! “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” Mr. Wilkie is certainly contributing a lengthy verse.