Houston’s Most Amazing Private Garden?

World Champion Gardening Star Jets in From London to Work His Magic

BY Catherine D. Anspon // 10.07.15

Italian-born, London-based Luciano Giubbilei is a three-time grand champion winner of the most prestigious garden competition in the world, the Chelsea Flower Show in London — an honor tantamount to winning an Academy Award. With projects around the universe (something a Chelsea Flower Show champion tends to garner), he recently designed his first Texas garden — and his only tropical creation to date: a commission for the new home of an intensely private art-collecting Houston couple.

Carol Isaak Barden, a developer (but not in the ordinary sense), has brought in architects such as François de Menil and Sundberg Kennedy Ly-Au Young Architects from Seattle, for her projects. She sought out Giubbilei and introduced him to his Houston patrons for the sheer reason that someone in this city with an elevated taste level needed to own a Giubbilei garden. Barden and the designer talk light and shadow, Morocco and Siena with Catherine D. Anspon.

How a Maestro Gardener Came to Houston:
Pages from Carol Barden’s Diary
Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Houston-based Carol Isaak Barden wanted the house-cum-art repository that she was developing for private dream clients to be a gesamtkunstwerk. It would be the most epic home ever undertaken by her eponymous firm. Wrapping this fall, after almost five years from concept to move-in, its assured, dramatic and lyrical design by Seattle- based Sundberg Kennedy Ly-Au Young Architects demanded more than mere shrubbery and a side of azaleas. Barden looked beyond Houston, seeking a landscape talent who would be the match for the art house that was taking shape down a cosseted, secluded street west of Memorial Park.

Only a designer of refinement and understatement would do — one who could tame nature’s bounty with a nuanced formality matching the handsome home with its imposing geometric strength and order, softened by a reverence for natural, straight-forward materials. The art house demanded an art garden.

Barden shared some of her notes from her two-plus years working intermittently in the garden with Giubbilei. The idea for the commission began with a volume. “I was knocked sideways when I discovered Luciano’s book (The Gardens of Luciano Giubbilei, Merrell, 2010),” she says. “I had never seen such precise layouts. The gardens were relatively simple, with endless rows of identical trees and thick lush hedges. The priorities of his gardens were clearly proportion, elegance and quality of materials … His perfect trees fascinated me. The canopies and trunks were all identical and the precision and rhythm of his gardens was amazing. His lighting was also just right and so dramatic. It was subtle (not like the loud sparkly outdoor light that resembles an airport runway), yet beautiful.”

Giubbilei commission for The Boltons, London. (Garden images Steven Wooster, © Luciano Giubbilei)

“Within a matter of hours flipping through the book’s pages, I was captivated,” Barden says. Phone calls and emails were exchanged; an introduction to her clients and a trip to Houston was arranged. She soon would have first-hand experience of Giubbilei’s meticulous, extreme and hands-on process, which would lead to his fifth American garden, and first in Texas. Barden, who grew up in Seattle with an antenna set to nature, immediately discovered Giubbilei was as passionate about trees as she was.

“I had the shock of my life when I discovered how Luciano selects trees,” she says. “He insists on personally seeing each tree. As he was slightly crazy about his exacting standards of tree purchasing, he was always hopscotching around the country, visiting nurseries and choosing the most perfect specimens. Trees for this particular garden were selected and grown for two years before arriving in Houston … When the trees arrived on the site, Luciano was on his phone [FaceTime from London], watching the entire procedure, approving placement, checking that the most beautiful part of the tree, the face, was showing.” Like a Matisse drawing, no stray natural element was allowed to mar the carefully choreographed green space.

The maintenance of the garden was militaristically prescribed. After exhaustive research and interviews, Kevin Gruber, of F&G Landscape in Bellaire, was selected as the installer of the garden, which also involved the science of pruning under the directorship of Giubbilei. F&G’s hedge trimmers are “even outfitted with engineering tools and snap lines to insure a sharp, clean edge,” Barden pointed out during a recent walkthrough of the nearly completed garden. Aligning one flank of the house, an army of men in brown uniforms wield survey tools, assiduously pruning boxwood and yew hedges into staggered, calibrated heights.

Giubbilei’s Houston commission can only be described as a living outdoor stage set that reverberates with intelligence and importance, informed by a whisper of fantasy bordering on the surreal. “There is an uncluttered purity to a Luciano garden,” says Barden, who was amazed at the designer’s fortitude and zeal for taking on a new horticultural challenge. “He would fly [almost monthly] from London, shower and go straight to work. He has endless energy.” Barden became a facilitator, introducing Giubbilei to a new language of the tropics. Together they embarked on this verdant adventure.

“I loved driving around Houston with Luciano, helping him learn more about Texas plants, tropical plants,” Barden says. “The landscaper with a look — dressed in jeans, Prada tennis shoes and his signature white linen shirt — jumping out of my car before I had come to a full stop, snapping photographs of crape myrtles and magnolias, ligularia and autumn ferns.” Of Giubbilei’s response to the semi-tropical foliage of Houston, “He loved the Texas redbud trees and big elephant ears. He shot hundreds and hundreds of photographs before laying out his plan.” His resulting garden includes 18,000 autumn ferns. “The light, delicate plant shows the movement of the wind,” Barden says. “Luciano chose them to resemble a soft green carpet for the floor of the meadow garden.”

Lest anyone be beguiled by his looks or charming demeanor, this man of the earth is a force of nature. “Beyond the appealing angel face,” Barden says, “there lurks a type-A control freak. It will come as no surprise that he designs the garden furniture. He specs every light fixture and bulb.”

Perfection was not an ideal; it was a goal to be achieved in every element. “When we were shopping, we were on a mission to find the perfect boxwood, the most interesting tree. Which reminds me, the man who likes perfectly matched trees, also loves contorted trees. He sometimes selects trees with twisted trunks and limbs as signature pieces in his gardens.”

Reflecting on a 2 1/2-year odyssey with Giubbilei, Barden believes his unwavering aesthetic has been realized in the Houston art house commission.

Let’s begin with your process. What goes into a Giubbilei garden?
All of the gardens that you see, whether they are on the website or the art in the book, each tree is chosen in person. How can you get the feeling of a tree from a photograph? There could be a tree that you look at and pass every day, or something that you see, but you think about the tree in the project. So immediately that is a character, a feeling, that the tree carries. And it’s a beautiful feeling for this garden.

Why you design gardens.
It is the fact that beautiful spaces are very rare. Beautiful public spaces for people, or a beautiful private garden, is very rare.

On you and trees.
Trees are probably the easiest plant for people to understand. They’re already there, and they’re standing in front of you, and there is a scale and beds where they distribute the leaves … I have a book that illustrates the feeling of a tree in the winter, and the feeling of a tree in the summer, and what that brings into the space. And we can all understand that.

Your vision for this Houston commission.
It needs to be what nobody else has planted. I think it’s interesting to be able to work in this way; you have to be collaborative. There could be a person at the botanical gardens in Chicago, someone who has been working with plants all of his life … he could fly over here and look at the plant conditions here, and he would know that the conditions here are the same as they are in Asia, in the east part of the world. And he knows that what grows there can also grow here. That sort of understanding. I love it, because it means we can make spaces that are unique, but also a different narrative for the people we’re working with.

Your gardens feel very ceremonial and formal. Your book traces your sense of a garden and nature to your Italian upbringing, specifically Siena.
Yes, they are very theatrical spaces. I think there is something about being born and living in Siena. Siena — when I talk about it, I always talk about the density, the density of the architecture, and growing up, and playing with my friends in these narrow streets. The narrow streets are something that you always remember. But what you remember the most is the mornings, especially during the summer, you have this feel of the morning sun and the pigeons. And after you have all of this unfolding of the light, so one side is dark and one side is light, and it’s a very dramatic event over the day. And I remember upon first living in England, that was the thing that I missed the most. I missed the light on the buildings, and the warmth of that, and how it was an unfolding drama.

On how the memory of Siena’s light and shadow carried out into your career as creator of gardens around the globe.
I think that with gardens, or design in general, there is a kind of seduction. In a way that seduction, if you like, is given by the light. There are things that you can and can’t predict. There are things you can arrange in a certain way, but there are things that just happen because of the light. You can only leave space to the objects so the light comes through the voids, and can define the object. There are all of these things that the light also defines, a certain design.

On invoking light in your gardens.
A very good client said to me, “I was looking at your garden, and I thought how simple is this garden. The more I stay in the garden, the more I get what you do; how the light defines your gardens.” And I don’t get many clients that speak to me like that about my work or what I do in the space. But it was an extremely sensitive person that was observing this space and light … I don’t do anything about light, I just create the spacing.

The power of repetition.
If you think about, or have ever been to Siena, they have a very famous square, which is called Piazza del Campo. Piazza del Campo has about 100 pillars in the shape of a shell. You become infused by an understanding of what is powerful, visually, what is pleasing and what is relaxing. It’s the idea of proportion, of repetition, of spacing, and all I was doing for the past 14 years as I was designing gardens, was working with the same notions of the square in Siena.

On how you got started, literally, in the field.
I came to gardens because of growing vegetables. At age 17, I moved with an English girl to the Italian countryside. It was very romantic. And we lived together there, and there was a countryman that was taking care of the vineyard and the olive grove, and he set me up with a vegetable patch. And I became fascinated by the vegetable patch. I loved going to see what was going on, and I realized how easy it was to grow things. I said to Sarah, who was my girlfriend, “I want to do this as a job.” And I started to design gardens from that day, creating spaces where food and people could be brought together. And as the spaces became bigger, they stayed the same within the ideas of proportion and spacing and repetition, and how, with all of these elements, the light played within the space, and the effect the spaces had on the viewer.

Chelsea Flower Show as game-changer.
After 2009, I did three Chelsea Flower Shows. It’s part of the royal calendar and part of the Royal Horticultural Society, and I think it’s the best flower show in the world. So, I’ve done it three times, and in the three times I’ve done it I was given a gold medal for each one of my gardens, one of which was Best in Show in 2014. What’s interesting to me about a flower show is that it brought me closer to flowers. All of my gardens, up until a certain point, did not have flowers.

Classic Giubbilei: Addison Crescent, London. (Garden images Steven Wooster, © Luciano Giubbilei)

On you and blossoms.
I didn’t like to use flowers. I love flowers, but to be able to use flowers to the degree of understanding, you need to invest a lot of time into it. It’s year after year after year of trying something, then trying something else. And this is just the plants within one environment, but after, there’s another environment. This is a lifetime study. It’s not something you can improvise from a book … open a book and plant a plant, and do it like that. You may do trees, you may do hedges, but with flowers, it’s continuous work. It’s constant education for your client once you’re done, because a tree is a tree … it may need pruning, but flowers, it’s weekly, almost daily. This is the work it needs.

On who shouldn’t have a garden.
I think the beauty of gardens is gardening. A gardener knows about the soil, planting, plant companionship, plant community, spacing, seasons — we’re talking about old-fashioned knowledge. There are certain work values and ethics, so that everything you do for this family, the family is also invested in. But if you don’t like gardening, I don’t think you should have a garden … just go play golf. It’s much more relaxing for you.

On learning flowers: Great Dixter in your practice.
No matter where I am, I always return to Great Dixter [a storied garden in Sussex, England] and spend two days a month there. Life moves so fast that I need a space where things move slow, and things move slow because they are done well. I’m not necessarily learning just about flowers [at Great Dixter]. I’m learning about methods, and the method informs me about the way I want to work, and the way I want to be in my life … I can make things slowly and properly, and then I can tell my client this is the way to do it.

On time and nature — and your epiphany over tea.
There’s a British fashion designer, Paul Smith, whom I went to have tea with. I was telling him, “I have all of these things to do, but I need time.” And he said, “You know, Luciano, one of the great things about this is that we’ve got time.” Smith told me, “Now is the time. Your work is really great, but now it’s time to also do something new. Something that you may use much later in your life, but something that gives you a different understanding.” He told me to do things slowly and properly, and with an ethic.

On lessons and life at Great Dixter Gardens.
Being in fellow gardeners’ presence and being close and working together — there’s a lot of exchange, of course. They’ll tell me everything about a particular plant … When they wake up in the morning, that’s what they do every day. It’s a little bit like being a monk. There’s that sort of routine that keeps you focused. It’s a minimalistic approach to life … to live in one place and work in one space, all the time.

Favorite flower.
Tulips — Belle Époque, pink peach — which are surprising and flower like a rose.

The future chapter: What you’re thinking about next.
I’m writing a book … one very different from the first book. It’s a book that has to do with flowers, but also with my own understanding, and working with the people at Great Dixter. I think, for me, this is a completely new territory.

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