Patrick Watson interviewed by Jacqueline Nurse

October 2013

JN: As an organisation, David Krut Projects is always trying to emphasise the broad nature of creativity, and the fact that everyone is creative, if they can just see how. You are one of South Africa’s leading landscape architects. Can you comment on your own creative process?

PW: First of all I see myself as an artist. It’s not just professional gardening and planting lawn. I have clients, but I fall out with them if they don’t see what I make for them as a work of art. I don’t like clients to change what I’ve made, but gardens are changing things by nature. That’s the trouble with gardening: painting you finish, gardening you can do forever. It gets older and you’ve got to plant this and then it gets shady and you’ve got to plant that. So people do mess with it – and minimalism I like. So you make a minimalist garden and the next thing the client’s got pink elephants standing in the middle, and I find that really annoying.

JN: But it’s not only about the plants for you, either. How did you get started on this path, and what kind of creating do you like best?

PW: When I was a kid I was mad about plants. I’m really interested in wildlife, nature, plants, integrating birds and things with the landscape even in an urban setting. Here [in Johannesburg] we’ve got squirrels and everything, birds and fantastic things. I plant with that in mind, and how each site develops over the years. For instance, I got to do one garden in the Seychelles and I restored the North Island to the natural plants of the Seychelles. There, at a time only 1 percent of the original flora existed. You know, some of the birds, there were only 6 left in the world. So it’s interesting to do that but still, it must be aesthetic. So some jobs are forestry and nature conservation rather than gardening. But then we do, for instance, Japanese gardening – I did one for Francois Pienaar, its Japanese, raked sand, all Japanese plants. I did one for [Stark Studios] – they make the TV series Binnelanders here in Randburg. That’s all pyramids, sculptural and different plants and exotic plants. They ask for indigenous and I say indigenous is not Los Angeles glamourous, so some are Los Angeles gardens. We live in Joburg, everyone’s got their own thing. I just made a garden for a client’s “Italian Renaissance” house (it’s actually Victorian, but anyway). There I’ve used ecology. So I put a few Italian hedges up, but then the rest of it is wild to Sandton, so I like breaking the rules sometimes.

JN: And the Nirox project must have been quite a lovely one to do, in that sense.

PW: Yes. Nirox itself is not so indigenous, but it’s a very indigenous setting. It’s all lawns and things. It’s very sculptural. I did the concept and then Benji [Liebman] did the day to day running of it and somebody else did the landscape. I was a partner in that. But I did Benji’s own house at one stage which was earlier than that, 14 or 15 years ago, and that was totally indigenous at the time. And then I’ve done a whole lot of others, so I do stick 99% to indigenous. For Nirox, Benji came in with the land art thing and I’ve carried on with that. I just made a garden which is quite obviously man made but in a natural environment. I see that as land art, it started like that. Take a very man-made object, stick it in a game reserve or a natural park. So there is a connection to land art in my work.

JN: There are some fascinating land artists who manipulate vegetation in such a way that it still appears quite organic. So it’s a lovely crossover between man and nature. There’s a whole conversation around that, which is quite a fascinating one, especially with conservation being an increasingly large part of our lives.

PW: That’s right. When I started it wasn’t, people thought I was crazy, when I was 16 years old. They thought, “Well, why worry about all these things?” But today it’s become a big thing.

JN: Which is good. You must be pleased about that.

PW: Yes, very. We did pioneer a lot of the thinking. But still a lot of people react against it. A little bit too austere or indigenous. Most people still like palm trees. I did Sun City, for one, and I would have liked to be indigenous to the site, even 35 years ago, but I used bougainvillea and things that tied in. And then when we did the Lost City, that was 90% indigenous and so now you’ve got a core that’s exotic – plants from South America and wherever – and then it goes out to indigenous on the edges. I always have some kind of connection with the nature, the indigenous aspects of the site, even when it’s obviously not , you know, when it has to be a really exotic farm or a casino or that sort of thing.

JN: What are the projects you like working on the most?

PW: Indigenous and domestic. Funnily enough, I think domestic is the best because its more intimate, its more artistic. I’m going to be working on the Steyn City development, and it’s huge – there you have 30 million plants, but there you also have 40 thousand other people involved. They all have their own opinions and it definitely gets spoilt, and it’s just sheer scale that’ll overcome all that. I prefer getting appointed by very artistic or sensitive people or people who want something different and those are usually domestic gardens, and those are not necessarily small. So I’ve always done those and I think the best are those really. They’re also so different. I’ve got 30 different projects now. The one runs for 30 years, same plants, same thing, like Steyn City, but a little garden can be a week, and you can do something: red or green or pink garden or something artistic and then you move on to the next one. I like conceptual things. I’m a concept type. I don’t actually follow the day to day running through. I leave it to the project managers and contractors. I employ quite artistic contractors who have a feel for it and they do the day to day ordering of plants. I just make sure the concept comes out right. So concept’s the most important and then making sure the concept’s built, but whether the irrigation is leaking or not doesn’t worry me too much.

JN: And am I correct in saying that you didn’t have any formal training as a botanist or a horticulturalist?

PW: Yes. When I was 6/7 years old I used to order plants, go and walk in the veld around Joburg and collect them. When I left school, I would have been an architect I suppose. Or I would have done civil engineering but I wasn’t good at Maths. I got the artistic side. I think you are either born with the artistic side or not, but you also need the technical side, so I’ve learnt to work with other people.

JN: I believe you have built a very large database of plants, over the years. Collecting, documenting.

PW: There’s no database, I haven’t written it down. I would say I know more about plants than most people, certainly South African plants. I’m also not a taxonomist. I just like to know how plants fit into the ecology. This soil, that soil, winter rainfall, summer rainfall, on top of mountains, bottom of mountains. So it’s a pity if I drop dead tomorrow and all that data is gone. And knowing them is one thing, but you have to know how to grow them. I’ve grown them all. I’ve grown thousands of plants, collected them, dug them up, put them in the ground and seen how they grow. I would say plants are a big obsession. Art and plants. A lot of landscapers go in for hard landscaping, using concrete and cement, and then the plants you forget about. But I find plants the main thing. It’s like writing music, actually. So I didn’t have any training but I grew up with an architect, I was surrounded by architects, so I’ve got a very architectural approach to gardening. Except that architecture has got four walls, you’ve got to have the kitchen there and this here. Gardening you don’t have to do anything, it’s just musical sound or shapes or forms, it’s very abstract.

JN: So plants are definitely your medium then.

PW: Plants are a big thing and there are endless plants. I mean, if you’ve seen a lion in Cape Town or a lion in Kenya it looks the same, but the flora in Cape Town is radically different to what you get in the Serengeti, so that is a fantastic thing.

JN: I love the fact that you’ve come to this place now, as the country’s premier landscape architect, really as a result of living with nature in a sensitive way. I don’t know if you feel the same, but a lot of gardening, a lot of planting, is a lot about being sensitive to the land and sensitive to the plants that you are dealing with. They are entities that have a life of their own.

PW: Yes, absolutely. When you plant a tree, it seeds itself and comes back. That’s the trouble from the artistic point of view. You put trees in a line and they break themselves up, seed all over the place. Engineers put a column in here and want it to stay. I plant a tree here and it will seed down in the valley, so it’s much more long term.

JN: Where is your favourite place to work?

PW: Joburg. I grew up here and I like the mines. I like the mines, I like the flora and it’s a dynamic business-like place. Most of my clients originated here and then went to live in Australia or Malaysia or wherever, Cape Town. Forests I am fairly enamoured with, jungles, Central Africa. But I’m happy with Joburg. I’m born here and that’s where I want to be. I like the attitude.

JN: Well, you’re rooted to the landscape. I think most of us are rooted to the landscapes we were born in or grew up in. It must be particularly important for you working with it all the time. It’s an emotional connection that’s important to your work.

PW: Yes, and it’s disturbing to see how much has been destroyed over the years.  All the landscapes like Bryanston – I used to walk in the veld there and now it’s just wall to wall housing with ghastly plants, deserts. Most gardens are deserts, they’ve got lots of lawn and two little shrubs on either corner and all the wildlife and the lizards and the insects, butterflies all gone. So that’s not good, but people are starting to reverse that. People are realising you can live with nature, totally integrate it with birds and things. Not the big things like elephants, but the bird life in Joburg now is much better I’d say than a 100 years ago.

JN: Tell me about the Jerusalem orphanage project. I’m not sure when that was? How did you approach that from a land architecture point of view?

PW: It was recently, two years ago. I just put indigenous trees into that area. It’s taking a while, because there’s not a lot of money – the project is running on donations – but it will come. It’ll take 10 to 15 years before you see the results of it. I just like shade. It’s very austere and awful for the little kids there so I planted a lot of indigenous trees to that area. It’s not land art, it’s just humanising the landscape.

JN: That’s another very important thing about planting: the humanising aspect, the humanity aspect. Robert Pogue-Harrison wrote a book about trees and planting and one of the main thrusts of argument throughout his book is the level of humanity that is gained through looking after plants, which is something I think is often overlooked these days. I think a lot of people consider it mainly an aesthetic endeavour, where in fact it’s it also has quite a good psychological impact.

PW: I’m sure if you took really deranged people and gave them gardening it would have an effect on them. But even physically, we have to live in more shade. Like Joburg, it’s warmer now in winter and cooler in summer. Gardening definitely physically humanised the landscape whereas it was very austere before. I’m sure there are a lot of psychological things about plants. If you think of indoor plants, it is good idea to have a green plant next to you if you’re sitting in an office 24 hours a day. We grew up for 3 million years with plants. It’s very difficult to get them out of you.