Luciano Giubbilei: The Art of Making Gardens

Luciano Giubbilei: The Art of Making Gardens (Merrell Publishers, London and New York, 2016, $70) is a beautiful book; and a profound expression of garden thought. It’s also confusing. Is it a beautiful coffee table ‘art book’ with pretensions of being a gardening book; an artistic gardening book, an essay, or a gardening book that is really a confessional. At the end of the day, it is all…and none…of the above.

The difficulty comes from its title, and the promise that ‘the art of making gardens’ will illuminate, elucidate and confer upon its readers the secrets they long to have explained. There are dozens of authors and even more books, from every part of the world, that better plumb the depths of “making gardens.” Truly that is not what this book is about. Giubbilei acknowledges as much, saying, ‘It’s not a ‘how to’ book—I’m not trying to teach anyone anything….”

The real story of Luciano Giubbilei: The Art of Making Gardens is the highly personal odyssey of a celebrated garden designer; the evolution of his thoughts on designing gardens to a higher plane.

fullsizerenderThis is a book about a ‘road-to-Damascus’ moment for a garden designer who has never had a garden of his own; an award-winner whose most famous work is best characterized as classically informed modern, monochromatic, and Italian. Green (”…lack of colour is important.”). Clean. Geometric. In his own words, “masculine.”

It is a rare, introspective look at a successful designer, accumulating commissions and accolades, who is vaguely uneasy, dissatisfied, and convinced, finally, that something is missing. “On paper everything looked good, but inside I was struggling to find the meaning in what I was doing,” he writes. THIS is the “why” of this book and the story for which you’ll want to read it.

This book is about a search, a quest, a personal journey. It’s a documentation of an evolving creative process and approach to garden making. The text is warm, vulnerable and honest—extraordinarily personal. It is a frank baring of Giubbilei’s thoughts and soul, coming from a compelling need to move his artistry beyond what made him successful–and a growing recognition of that which he did not know.

Dogged by nagging thoughts, he consults Fergus Garrett, of Great Dixter in England, and begins a dialogue that leads to a relationship—and a plot of land—at the garden. There he begins what could be described as a high-level internship, to search for that missing element, and learn about plants and their garden uses. At Great Dixter he gains a new appreciation of the relationship between design and horticulture, becomes enamored of flowers and colors beyond green. He grows, and he grows. Three years later ascends the mountain at Chelsea garnering gold and best in show.

The book has three major sections. The first is about Great Dixter, what brought him there, his experience with the place and its people, and the inspiration he drew from his time in the garden. Following this is a discussion of the new aesthetic emerging in Guibbilei’s work using his 2014 Chelsea garden as an example. Finally, he discusses craft and collaboration; one of the key components of his new approach: using experts in horticulture and allied fields to fill in the gaps in his expertise, commissioning original works of art, and designing and manufacturing bespoke garden furniture with which to dress his gardens.

There are a few shortcomings to this book besides the initial confusion about its central thread. They occur before, during and after Guibbilei’s ‘aha’ moment.

Before: The book fails to place Giubbilei’s preexisting work in context so that the transformation in his thinking can be seen. There are no examples of his earlier work and thus the book misses the chance to visually establish the condition precedent to the entire story arc. This could be a business decision based on the republication by the publisher just last year of, The Gardens of Luciano Giubbilei, which does cover the early gardens, but if that’s the case, Merrell does a disservice to readers of this book. The impact of his evolved thinking is diluted as a result.

During: With all due respect to the iconic garden and its people, the book spends too much time on Great Dixter. We know it, we love it and we revere it. Pages could have been saved for the early work or the post Chelsea oeuvre. In addition, the over-attention paid Great Dixter is curiously dark, brooding and off-season (the better to show garden-making, I suppose)—the very antithesis of what it is known for.

After: Post-awakening the book misses in the same fashion it did with Giubbilei’s early work. We are left only with Chelsea 2014, gold medal and best in show, but a competition garden. There is no indication of how his new thinking informs (or not) his current work. Not a single commission or project is shared and, consequently, no indication of whether his new ideas were a passing fancy or continue to influence what he does.

Physically, the book contains copious amounts of white space—and nearly 30 pages either completely blank, or containing just a caption. Given what was left out, these could have been employed to stronger effect.

While most photographs have some sort of caption, there are likely to be readers disappointed with captions that don’t identify the elements of the attached image and/or pages and images with no captions at all. A pure art book might get by with anonymous visuals, but a hybrid—even an elegant one—loses a little if you don’t know what you’re looking at. And a garden book is often measured by its captions.

Buy this book. But buy it for what it is, not what it says it is…. “Passion, patience and love are what counts, even if your garden is just a single pot,” writes Giubbilei. He brings those three virtues to this book in spades. Since they are at the core of his epiphany, they are central to the real message of his book.

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