A tribute to Jacques Wirtz

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At the end of July 2018, one of the greatest contemporary landscape architects, Jacques Wirtz, left us forever at the age of 93. He revolutionised the garden art of the last century, reinventing the art of topiary in his many gardens, mainly private, but also public, such as the beautiful intervention in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris.

What surprises his admirers is that the Italian academic world has not yet given him the posthumous recognition that his genius and revolutionary cultural innovations deserve. For Jacques Wirtz, the Belgian landscape guru, a landscape was not about romantic meadows or herbaceous tapestry-like borders.

His gardens are scenographic, rich in geometry and perspective; they enter into direct dialogue with the architecture and spirit of the place or they detach themselves from it, generating an entirely new identity.

There is a conceptual link between the private gardens created by Wirtz and Pietro Porcinai, in the tumultuous debate between “formal and informal” that characterised the 20th century. The relationship between garden and water, for example, carefully inserted with geometric shapes and surrounded by aquatic plants, in the villa Theobald in Cologne, or set in stone, in the villa in Portofino, both designed by Pietro Porcinai, is linked to the long formal canals often created by Jacques Wirtz in his gardens. In both, harmony and balance are of utmost importance and are achieved through the infinite expressive qualities of natural materials, the perspective point of view and through a geometric structure of all the parts that make up the natural landscapes.

Wirtz, however, did not deal with “intimacy or nostalgia”; his gestures were imperceptible, and his vision was that of a sculptor rather than a mosaicist. He moulded volumes using a large quantity of herbaceous grasses, with which he obtained the appearance of soft cushions delimiting sinuous paths; in opposition to them, he raised thick vegetal walls using beech, yew and hornbeam hedges, playing with all shades of green.

The gardens bequeathed to us by the Belgian master are stunningly beautiful. By skilfully using the Japanese technique of packing and shaping evergreen shrubs into waves or clouds, Wirtz has created spaces and views appropriate to the visitor’s intended use. The ornamental grasses froth, the trees arranged in rows march in formation with the rooted hedges fanning out over perfectly manicured green lawns.

Many critics of garden art have rightly observed that in many of his most significant gardens, such as his private family garden in Schuten, there are film-like settings and scenographies, evoking in our imagination an atmosphere inspired by Fellini or by some of the great films of the French “nouvelle vague”.