Conversation with Gilles Clément

We reach the place where we have agreed to meet and Gilles Clément greets us with a wide smile and shakes our hand affectionately. His appearance breaks all the moulds in terms of what you would expect of an international landscape design guru: black leather bomber jacket (which betrays his passion for motorbikes, on which he has travelled the world), backpack with his reading material and own writings, neatly tousled grey hair that makes him look like an absent-minded genius...


Talking with Gilles Clément is always a pleasure. He is warm and friendly, usually more concerned about discovering the place he is visiting that imposing his vision of things.

He speaks slowly but commanding the space around him, and there is a slightly South American accent to his Spanish, a memento of his experience in that region. His Franco-Spanish expressions take you by surprise, and uttered by him they could easily coin new terms in the language of international landscape.

We have arranged the meeting so that he can tell us about his particular vision of gardens and landscapes. In many respects, it is a vision that has broken moulds, and as such it has its enthusiasts and its detractors. It is a transformative vision, but one that he has forged by observing everything around him. In short, it is an innovative vision with which to develop not only a conceptual model but concrete intervention recommendations.

Y our professional baggage includes having worked from a more conceptual, theoretical standpoint to designing and maintaining green areas on every scale. And you still prefer to use the concept of “garden” rather than “landscape”.

Yes, it’s true that I define myself as a gardener rather than a landscape designer. Both work with architects, but a landscape designer can create a landscape with material like concrete or plastic, for example, without including any living organism in his intervention. But in the case of a gardener that’s not possible: gardeners always work with living organisms, with plants, and with and animals some times, and above all with time.

The most important thing for us it what develops in the coming years, after the garden has been created. When an architect finishes his job (a building, for example), his work is done. When a landscape designer finishes his job, the garden proper begins and there’s no knowing when it ends, because the work of the garden and the gardener is never done.

Once a building is finished, if there’s no one to look after it, it ends up a ruin. But in the case of a garden, if there’s no one to look after it, if there’s no gardener, it becomes a jungle. For example, if you don’t do anything with a wasteland, it turns into a jungle. Well, perhaps not in Aragón, although there are always species that survive and create a natural landscape. That’s why I say that if we do nothing, landscape designers serve a purpose in the world because trees give oxygen and we share that: the quality of the air is improved and everyone benefits. There are not many professions where doing nothing serves such a useful purpose for everyone.

Gardens are very important for me. I started out with my own garden, which for me is a place where I can experiment, a laboratory. Then I got the opportunity to create parks, public spaces in towns and cities, gardens, etc.

For me, the landscape is everything that develops before our eyes, or indeed the rest of our senses. It is a subjective thing, linked to one’s culture, something totally personal. Whereas the environment is the objective view we take of things, aspects that can be measured, such as soil acidity, noise decibels, and so on.

The garden is made up of both of these concepts: subjective and objective. A garden is a dream, an ideal thing that is developed within an enclosed area that protects it, with the best at the centre of that enclosure. For example, the Arab- Andalusian garden contains the four rivers of paradise, where water is the centre and the other spaces are organised around it. These civilisations have developed in areas where water is scarce and represents a prized commodity. The romantic garden dramatises nature and there is always a belvedere, a high point, an observation deck where we are told what we must look at. However, there is a difference between what is experienced in this space and what can be viewed from it.

But what is the most important thing today? What should we protect? Ecology emerged in the early 20th century and has had considerable influence. Uncontrolled urban development is terrible, and you can’t keep developing in this way ad infinitum.

Water flows around the planet and is found in animals and plants. But it must be of high quality for the future, because if not we can’t survive. Our lives depend on all of that, and on diversity too. Everything we eat, everything we drink, comes from this diversity in the terrain.

So today, what do we do if we have to create a garden? What do we write? What do we say? What do we put in the centre of the garden? What message do we convey? A message like before, with the classical approach, with a building in the centre to create a perspective, like a way of representing power? Or a romantic vision? In my opinion, none of those things.

I think we need to create a space for life, but how do we draw that?

It’s a difficult thing because we’re used to making a drawing for a space—for instance, a park—on a desk, with pencils and paper, and we draw a shape. But why that specific shape? What does it mean? It’s a problem.

Perhaps there is no drawing or formal conception to explain something that is specific to our time. It probably has to be a different drawing for each type of terrain, climate, soil, the people who live there...

That’s what I experimented with in my own garden. I wanted to protect life and diversity. And that meant forgetting what I’d learned, because what I’d been taught was to kill, only kill: to be “against” insects, “against” plants, “against” moles...

I was very young when I started working and for five years I created gardens for private customers. At the time, the cultural model was to have the perfect garden, in which little mounds of earth left by moles were unacceptable. I learned to kill moles, with terrible poisons that killed some dogs as well because it was strychnine.

One day I went to see a customer, and in his kitchen there was a window overlooking the garden, and I saw that he had a shotgun and he told me: the mole comes at seven in the morning, at noon and at five o’clock. And he would shoot at it from the kitchen window. It was terrible. That changed my point of view completely.

The other crucial anecdote is that I cut my forehead and the wound became infected with the poison I was using to kill animals, and I was ill for two days. And I asked myself: Why does maintaining a garden mean killing everything? Even the gardener!

Y our garden is your testing ground and it seems that not only have some interesting plants germinated there but also a passionate reflection on landscape theory and its implementation in green areas, especially as regards the Garden in Motion.

That’s right. In that garden there are two areas that require different types of maintenance. In certain parts (a small area), the maintenance is very meticulous, whereas the rest is left to develop naturally, where nature sprouts with its own energy, giving rise to a mixture of autochthonous and exotic species. I believe that if there is a biological compatibility between autochthonous and exotic floras, there is also an ecological compatibility, and that the mixture on the planet of these external and local plants is part of the mechanism of evolution. A mechanism that emerged long before man appeared on the planet, even if nowadays it occurs at a much greater speed.

Initially, I noticed the growth of a lot of plants that I had never imagined existed there. They sprouted from seeds that were already there in the ground just waiting for the right moment to grow. There is definitely a biodiversity that we are unaware of. There is a latent seed bank that we can’t see but which develops and grows when the temperature, light and humidity are just right.

Traditionally, gardeners worked on the basis of subtraction: maintenance meant removing plants from the ground that were not wanted there. But in my garden plants appear and are left. The image changes constantly, which is why it’s called the garden in motion, a garden in which there are plants that are always there and others that travel, that are going to come.

Trees are not pioneering species, they have a different model of development. For example, in my garden an apple tree fell down. It didn’t die but began to sprout again. A branch started shooting up, and I let it grow.

A lot of people think trees aren’t programmed to age, and they survive, and if they die it’s because of a disease, or a violent storm. Trees can survive, which is why as gardeners, if there is a diseased branch, we don’t need to kill the tree, just remove that branch. Every branch behaves in a different way. Today, our view of gardens is completely different.

The garden in motion stems from observing an invasive species in my garden: Heracleum mantegazzianum. It’s a plant everyone hates because it grows quite tall and also because it burns the skin. But I love it. It’s a very interesting plan because it survives through the seed that animals transport from one place to another.

I knew that these seeds had been brought into my garden from outside and they sprouted along a passage. What was I to do: dig it up or leave it? I chose to keep it and change the path, to let it stay there. A gardener must repect the garden’s energies, even the physical motion of these plants. That’s why it’s called the garden in motion.

There’s a group of horsetails that are disappearing because of the herbicides used on crops to get rid of them. These plants grow when earth is turned over. In my garden a mole turns the soil over, which permits the growth of seeds that couldn’t grow in thick, artificially maintained lawn. It’s a diversity that’s maintained because of moles, because moles turn the soil over, and we should be grateful to them. Besides, it’s all free. So there’s a combination of maintenance in my garden: artificial and natural. And it changes from one year to the next.

Y e t you go beyond the confines of your landscaped area. You believe that the entire planet is one vast garden.

Yes, I do, because birds, dragonflies, the wind, all carry seeds to different places and plants appear in the next garden, so the garden is really the whole world. That’s why I say you can understand the earth better by seeing it as a garden.

There are three reasons why you can see it in this way:

1. The earth viewed as a garden: the planetary garden, because it is anthropised, covered and controlled by man. Even in inaccessible places, we have satellite views of the areas.

2. The planetary mixture is found in every corner of the world: plants from one continent turn up in another, either because they have been transported by animals since the beginning of time, or because they have been put there by man, especially since the 19th century.

3. The proper definition of the world garden is “enclosure”.

Because all this occurs in a space, the biosphere, which has boundaries, so the boundaries of the garden correspond with the thickness of the layer that we call the biosphere.

That’s why I call it the planetary garden, and that’s why every inhabitant on the earth is a gardener. We might not know it, but we are. Everything we do has an impact on the air, water, soil, the substrata that permit life...

Once when I was visiting the island of Réunion, I looked at the coastline and realised that between the levels of water I could see (clouds and sea), I could also intuit the water that we can’t see (the atmospheric humidity of the air layer). Well, we live in that layer of water which is constantly recycled: that is the planetary garden.

For me, the dragonfly is a symbol of the planetary garden: it lives as carnivorous larva deep beneath the surface of water, then in its last change it moves up to the surface of the water and finally passes from the water we see to the water we can’t see, in the air.

Diversity originally stems from geographical isolation. If you look at a map of the world, you will see many points that are islands, that have the perfect conditions for isolation. Plants and animals develop in such isolated conditions. Stemming from common origins, species (animal or plant) gradually evolve on each island independently, eventually becoming different species.

Diversity is currently on the wane. Party because globalisation and the anthropisation of the planet mean that there are fewer and fewer mechanisms of isolation, and speciation through this type of strategy is therefore less frequent. But the most important reason for the loss of diversity is the disappearance of habitats: in other words, the ecosystems where certain species live.

And that’s because we are always extending our towns and cities (often on fertile terrain), building roads and airports, and doing it in a very clumsy way. Those are the true causes behind the disappearance of species across the globe. Well, that and pollution.

The mixture of species occurs through a mechanism of evolution. True, sometimes certain species disappear. Exotic species may be displacing certain autochthonous species. And why not? We have oak trees in our country and they came from Spain. The oak is a mythical, sacred tree. But they didn’t exist in France before. A bird flew north with the seed from the Iberian Peninsula, and thanks to that we have forests of sacred oaks.

Y ou have applied some of the examples of this planetary vision in your projects for the Domaine du Rayol and Quai de Branly gardens. Can you tell us about them?

The Domaine du Rayol garden is a space related to the Mediterranean biome. The plants can travel and develop but they need a climate similar to that of their places of origin (a tropical plant can develop in another part of the planet with a tropical climate: that is a biome). So the Mediterranean biome was the theme I chose for the Jardin du Domaine du Rayol.

In one of my projects I made a drawing of a theoretical continent that comprised different biomes. The Mediterranean biome is relatively small but its biodiversity is enormous.

The Jardin du Domaine du Rayol is situated on the French Riviera, near Saint Tropez, in what used to be private property.

It was bought by the coastal protection agency and I’ve been working there for more than 20 years. It comprises 25 hectares, of which seven are garden.


I’ve created landscapes that refer, in each case, to a region of the world where this climate is found (Chile, South Africa-Cape Town, South West Australia, and so on). The terrain is quite complicated and there are examples of different plants, such as some from the Canary Islands, the Australian eucaliptus, plants from South Africa, New Zealand...

While travelling through these countries looking for plants to introduce in these gardens, I realised that all of these plants live with the dynamics of fire. I first discovered this in South Africa. When fire breaks out, no one bothers to put it out. There’s a fire, and that’s that, because it’s very difficult to fight fire. Besides, it’s useful for the flora that can’t survive without fire.

A thermal shock occurs that makes the latent seeds, which may remain latent for years and years, germinate. Other plants need a chemical shock, generated by smoke, to germinate.

To make certain species germinate in the Jardin du Domaine du Rayol, the gardeners put the seeds in a frying pan. They don’t cook them, as that would kill them. It’s just for a few seconds to produce a thermal shock, and then they sow them. With other species they put them in plastic bags with smoke before they sow them. These techniques are perfect for making them germinate and grow.

This is using fire—a terrible thing that scares us, that leaves us with no choice but to flee—as a tool of the planetary garden. It was difficult convincing the coastal protection agency people because they might have thought using these techniques would make us arsonists rather than gardeners.

There are plants that only flower when they have come into contact with the ash left by a fire, such as the fire lily. Others are passive pyrophytes, meaning that their external part can be burnt to protect the inside, which then grows again after the fire.

The garden of the Musée du Quai de Branly in Paris is another example of research into the planetary garden, but in this case it refers to cultural rather than biological diversity.

When I had to do this project and started reading the legends that had been written about these cultures with mainly Buddhist populations, I realised that there was one symbol that cropped up time and again: the tortoise. It was a planetary symbol. I’d never imagined it.

For example, in the Asian world, before the advent of Islam and Indo-Buddhism, the tortoise was thought to carry the world on its back. In certain African populations, the chairs on which criminals sit are shaped like tortoises. In South America there are Indians who lay out fields in the shape of a tortoise, with the tail in the direction of the river, and the Huron people of North America talk about tortoises a lot.

So I used it as a symbol to draw the museum courtyard, as a reference to cultural diversity. I said at the beginning that it’s actually impossible to make a drawing, a formal representation that captures the concept of the garden in motion and the planetary garden: you have to draw in nature, with the tools of the gardener. But in the garden for the Musée du Quai de Branly I chose the oval shape of the tortoise, and everywhere (on the terrace, in the lower courtyard, on the stones scattered around the garden...) you see the drawing made with these oval shapes.

The landscape in this garden is not a western landscape, it’s more a savannah with trees. A landscape that is natural yet actually sophisticated, though very easy to maintain.

As well as these two projects I’m working on another very symbolic one that has to do with war, specifically World War One. Visiting the north of France, there are cemeteries everywhere, it’s terrible. But a lot of people from different continents come to see these places where their relatives died.

I chose a side of the lake next to the museum. It’s a symbol, a very small project that consists in creating five little islands, with plants associated with the five continents, and a sixth island that cannot be reached because there’s no path. The species used belong to the temperate biome (because it’s the biome of the site of the project) and come from all five continents, although they’re mixed here.

The people that come to the museum use the boat, buy (or don’t buy) a plant from their country at the local nursery and plant it on the islands. As it’s a small space, I decided that once all the islands had been planted, the operation would continue along the banks of the lake.

The idea I want to convey is that people came here to die, to kill each other. Now, the species are planted to coexist alongside each other.

Another of your lines of reflection and work concerns what you call the third landscape. What does this concept refer to?

The third landscape is a place of refuge for the diversity that can’t take root elsewhere because constant human intervention prevents it from developing. Very often these are wastelands, or ground that has been abandoned for a long time and has become a forest or jungle, places that no man has ever reached, and all of this protects the diversity.

We can’t go on thinking of wastelands exclusively as spaces where man has abandoned his power. They are places with a genetic treasure, that guarantee the future, and they occur on every interface (shadow-sun, forest-meadow, water-earth, etc.).

In Europe today mechanisation means that only areas with an uncomplicated topography are worked, while complex areas are abandoned. Before, in those areas as well there were people who exploited the steep slopes with animals (goats, sheep, cows, and so on). As a result, the hedges and trees in flat areas have gradually disappeared, whereas areas with a more complicated topography have more biomass than a hundred years ago.

Occasionally, these steep areas coincide with spaces that have become sacred, like the slopes in Japan. And in Buenos Aires, for example, an urban expansion area was planned along the River Plate but with the economic crisis nothing was built and it became a nature reserve. A third landscape.

In France, we had a project for the Défense axis but they changed their mind and are now thinking about building an enormous rugby pitch.

Some time ago a group of people responsible for city planning (in Montpellier, Bordeaux, Lyon…) commissioned us to carry out a series of studies on the theme of the third landscape.

The Third Landscape Manifesto has been published in several languages (including Spanish) and the French version is there for anyone to consult on my website. In this publication I explain how politicians can use this concept to imagine a different type of urban planning. Should we intervene or not in spaces regarded as abandoned or residual?

We have proposed three types of interventions:

- In spaces opposite a school or similar places we are going to come up with a project for people.

- In others that are too small to do anything else we are going to maintain them in the style of a garden in motion.

- And in the third group we are not going to do anything. It’s important not to do anything. It’s a refuge for biodiversity, and that’s a treasure that doesn’t exist in any other part of the city, which is why we are going to protect it. There have to be places like this because they form an urgent part of future city planning.

We made a map of the island of Lanzarote with projects on this theme but they were never carried out. We also created an exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal with objects and plants to show the biodiversity.

One project that includes the third landscape is the eight- hectare Henry Matisse park in the city of Lille. We built a mound with concrete walls at the top of a hill. I did that project more than 15 years ago and it was a problem for the city because people didn’t like it, they thought it looked like a wasteland. They said things like, “We’ve paid for this and we live in a city where things don’t cost much.” There was no educational programme to explain the importance of a space like this. Now there is one, it’s been explained, and that’s that.

Another project is the Belvédère des Lichens, a group of wooden platforms in a natural environment overlooking a landscape that had previously been cultivated entirely by man. Today it’s completely abandoned.

We’ve published one book explaining the diversity of the landscape viewed from the lookout and another on the diversity of the lichens. This diversity is very important because lichen can be a biological indicator, or bioindicator, of what is happening with the air quality, for example. This is something that’s linked to the idea of the natural genius, which is what explains diversity.

In all of your projects plants are the protagonists, even when the plants in question are generally viewed as simple weeds. I’m thinking in particular of proyects like the one for Saint Nazaire and the Nettle Garden.

The Saint Nazaire project is a garden created at a former submarine base built at the end of the Second World War. It was never completely finished and there are areas where the roof is just a few beams with gaps between them and another where there are only walls.

The project was broken down into three parts, one with trees in bomb rooms which were built with beams so that if they were bombed they would explode upwards, to the ceiling, and wouldn’t damage the submarines down below.

The tree tops emerge between the roof beams. It’s a very artificial space and the trees are planted in containers with a drip irrigation system.

In another of the gardens the plants begin to grow on a shallow bed (less than 10 cm) of degraded concrete and there are more than 45 different species that grow completely unaided (Jardin des Orpins et des Graminées) and can be viewed from above, from the walkways. It’s a garden that requires hardly any maintenance and nowadays is a public park.

The last garden is a place where we haven’t done anything yet. It’s called the Label Garden (Jardin des Étiquettes). The main purpose of this garden is observation, which we’ve been doing with students. We observe how plants appear in the garden on their own—they are not brought in—and we put their names on labels. It’s two years old now. The important thing for these students is to understand what happens, what these pioneering plants are. There is no such thing as “bad plants or weeds”. There are plants, and that’s that. Each one serves its purpose in preparing the ground for the plants that come after. So the project helps us to understand the dynamics of how landscapes are created.

The Nettle Garden came about because I was interested in using certain plants that belong to the common good. Like nettles, for example. Nettles became a political problem in France when the sale of the slurry obtained from this plant was banned. The aim of the project was to restore the idea of the common good. So the nettle garden was the first political garden. It was making the point that nettles exist. Due to pressure from the multinationals, the slurry from this plant is on the list of products banned in Europe. We have our own market, and we give a little bottle to every visitor to mark our non-acceptance or unwillingness to give up a common good because of an unfair law. And we made samples of the different nettle species that exist around the globe to show people.

Everything you do and say indicates that you are a great observer of nature and that you try to discover nature’s hidden clues and processes in order to work with them and make them focal points of your projects.

It’s not just me. As well as harnessing nature’s energy, nowadays research labs and engineers are interested in understanding what happens between plants and animals, between plants and plants, between animals and us, and what type of communication exists between all of them. Plants most definitely communicate with each other, although we don’t really know how. For example, there are plants that create a surface around them on which no grass can grow. It’s because the plant produces a poison that prevents the development of other species around it.

We always want to get rid of weeds, but could we use them? We haven’t thought about it. We’ve never imagined that they might be a resource we can use. Now the people at the INRA (Institut National de Recherche Agronomique) are beginning to look into these topics. Until now we’ve gone against nature, but from now own we can start using nature.

We’ve also observed that there’s a curious relationship between certain tree species. If you look up from the ground at the branches of two trees, you’ll see that they don’t overlap, they respect each other, there’s light between them. Scientists have studied this phenomenon and they call it “crown shyness”. There’s a debate about what it means. Something is obviously going on between the two branches, between the leaves, but we don’t know exactly what it is. A lot of communication is invisible. We don’t know anything about it. It requires a lot more research to imagine how to make a garden with nature instead of against it. Because going “against” is very costly and dangerous. It’s completely different from going “with” nature. Besides, it’s free.

We have to start putting the soul in the natural genius, even if with our current attitude that means confronting those who oppose the idea merely for reasons of financial profit.

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