Noel Kingsbury: The Ghost in the Machine

Thoughts on Noel Kingsbury's contribution and a review of his latest book with Piet Oudolf

Noel Kingsbury is the great chronicler of contemporary planting design.  Kingsbury has been involved in over twenty books spanning the last two decades, most of them focusing on the topic of design inspired by nature and ecology.  Few garden writers are as prolific or as influential.  Garden writers tend to be an anonymous sort. In an industry still dominated by the soft pornography of photographs, garden writing offers little more than annotating captions. But Kingsbury has transcended the role.

In terms of the contemporary planting avant-garde, Noel is this generation’s Gertrude Stein: the thought leader that holds together a generation of loosely-affiliated, but intellectually-kindred designers, plantsmen, and nurserymen—all working in within the “new style” of naturalistic plantings.  Like Stein, entrée into the Kingsbury salon is a kind of validation in itself.  To draw the attention of Kingsbury is to have your work remembered by (planting) art history.   The Kingsbury “salon” includes international celebrities like Piet Oudolf and Dan Pearson.  But it also includes little known thinkers of central Europe, thinkers such as German Professor Richard Hansen; landscape architect Urs Walser; and Dr. Walter Korb of the Bavarian Institute.  The former group gives the Kingsbury posse cachet and international celebrity; the latter gives it intellectual credibility and authenticity.  Kingsbury’s blandly titled 2004 essay, “Contemporary Overview of Naturalistic Planting Design,” included in the book Dynamic Landscape, remains one of the finest summaries of the “new style” and its practitioners ever written.   It proves that Kingsbury remains the central voice in an increasingly international movement.

Naturalistic planting design is still a relatively small world, but Kingsbury’s influence is hard to underestimate.  In fact, practitioners of the “new style” can almost chart their intellectual standing by whether or not they are prominently featured in Kingsbury’s writings. That the work of Piet Oudolf gets much attention, while the work of the American landscape architecture firm Oehme, van Sweden—whose body of work with herbaceous planting is as vast and, quite frankly, as photogenic as Oudolf’s—receives relatively little mention from Kingsbury is telling.  Oudolf’s continual intellectual evolution interests Kingsbury, while Oehme, van Sweden’s more formal compositions do not. Prettiness is not enough; Kingsbury is after much bigger game.

So when an American editor told me that Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury were writing a new book together, I was immediately interested.  Oudolf and Kingsbury have collaborated on two other books together.  Both of them are among the most dog-eared, tattered books on my shelf.  The first book, Designing with Plants, was essentially Noel writing about Oudolf’s work.  That book was largely responsible for introducing Piet Oudolf to the world, raising his status from a European designer to an international icon.  The first book was very plant-specific, but it was the second book, Planting Design: Gardens in Time and Space, that the collaboration really flourished.   Noel’s role transitioned from chronicler to thinker, and as a result, Oudolf’s work was given an intellectual depth and substance rooted in a larger, international movement of ecological design.  Because of Kingsbury’s writing, Oudolf’s role moved from cutting-edge designer to ceremonial figure-head of an international movement.  So what would a third Oudolf/Kingsbury collaboration offer?  For me, the anticipation was not just to see Oudolf’s latest directions, but to understand how Kingsbury’s voice would emerge. 

Last week, I was graciously forwarded an advance copy of Planting: A New Perspective.  The editor had described it to me as “Oudolf made accessible for the residential gardender.”  Something about this description made me cringe.  I’m not sure I could stand an Oudolf for Dummies—a stripped down version of Oudolf that would make every common landscaper capable of thoughtlessly replicating the Oudolf style.  The idea of a simplified book also felt wrong.  There were still so many questions left unanswered by Planting Design: what defines the “new style”?  What role do native plant communities play in this style? Is it really possible to create a low maintenance, long-lasting version of the new style?

Let's be clear: this book is not Oudolf for Dummies.  And thank God for that.  Any review that describes this simply as "Oudolf for home gardeners" has clearly not read beyond the dust jacket.

More than any of Oudolf/Kingsbury’s collaborations, Planting establishes the “new style” as a potent artistic and intellectual movement.  This book has real meat.  The liberal use of Oudolf’s planting plans are reason alone to buy this book.  For the designer or gardener, these hand sketches are a Rosetta stone for understanding Oudolf’s process.  This book delves deeply into compositional strategy: how are plants grouped, layered, and mixed based upon their unique structures and ecologies?  Kingsbury’s recent doctoral work at Sheffield clearly comes through in the brilliantly explicated sections of perennial’s lifespans and competitive strategies.  The book’s most valuable section may be its discussion of the work of other contemporary designers.  It grounds the "new style" in a broader, more international perspective that ensures its endurance.  Planting just might be one of the most valuable books on ecological planting design yet written.

A new area of planting at Hummelo shows both "intermingling" and  graphic legibility. photo by Phillipe Perdereau
While Oudolf and Kingsbury’s separate voices felt harmonious in Planting Design, in the new book, they often feel dissonant. Kingsbury’s voice is much more dominant than before, and his clear preference for an “intermingled” style of plants—as opposed to cleanly massed blocks of plants—often stood at odds with the photos of Oudolf’s work.  The text celebrates the advancement of a more relaxed, more intermingled planting style, while the photographs of Oudolf’s work show the often show the triumph of massing and legibility.  The Salvia rivers at Dream Park and the Lurie Garden; the massive drifts of Molinia or Deschampsia at Trentham, Scampston Hall, and the Bonn residence; the strong blocks of planting in almost every Oudolf project  are stylistically unique Oudolf flourishes that show the need for the legibility of clean massing at any scale.  Yes, many of Oudolf’s newer projects like the Highline and the grounds of his former nursery at Hummelo show experiments with intermingling.  But even in these highly mixed schemes, Oudolf has single plants in each season that dominate.  Even his most intermingled design—his design for the former nursery grounds at Hummelo where he used a custom seed mix for most of the plants—include strongly thematic plants such as Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ which dominate the late season.  Order always emerges from chaos.  It is this creative tension that gives Oudolf’s work its edge.

Oudolf's rivers of Molinia at Trentham are a triumph of massing and monoculture
What happens when an Oudolf book is no longer about Oudolf?  The fact that Kingsbury has broadened the scope of this book to include contributions of other designers is a step in the right direction.  One has the sense that the “new style” movement—to the extent that there even is a movement—is crumbling under the weight of one dominant designer.  Kingsbury’s most lasting contribution to the naturalistic planting movement is to broaden it beyond Oudolf, to expand its intellectual and artistic influence to a more international and diverse group of practitioners.  Planting does just that.  The combined contributions of Dan Pearson, Roy Diblik,  Heiner Luz, James Hitchmough, and Nigel Dunnett show that there really is an effort for garden design to respond to the challenges of globalization, climate change, and loss of native landscapes.   

But venturing beyond Oudolf is risky business.  A movement needs its heroes, its iconography, and spiritual leaders.  Despite the experiments of other designers, the “new style” still stands in the deep shadow of Oudolf.  It relies on him for its legitimacy, its artistic merit, and its future direction.  Oudolf’s work is still the most visually riveting, emotionally arresting planting done anywhere in the world.  The world has yet to fully understand the meaning of Oudolf’s work.  We still need great chroniclers to explicate and interpret Oudolf to the rest of us.  Planting starts to do this, but ultimately we lose Oudolf’s voice altogether.   Planting is Kingsbury’s voice dubbed over Oudolf’s images.  

Planting could have been one of two great books: either the ultimate explication of Oudolf’s art, or Kingsbury’s definitive manifesto of the “new style.”  Unfortunately, we are left with an odd combination of both that leaves me wanting more. 

Kingsbury has been the ghost in the machine, the narrative-weaver that has held together a movement—a movement that could yet offer a potent alternative to the great environmental challenges of our time.  But the movement needs more than a symbolic leader, it needs a spiritual text.  Kingsbury is just the man to write it.  But when?  
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