Belgian landscape architect Peter Wirtz is the brains behind Wood Wharf’s open spaces. His company, Wirtz International, has designed some of the world’s most celebrated and beautiful public spaces, from Jubilee Park in Canary Wharf to Paris’ Carousel Gardens, which links the Louvre to the Tuileries Palace.
A garden that’s not beautiful in winter is not a beautiful garden. That was the philosophy of my late father, Jacques, who founded our company in 1950. For almost 30 years my brother Martin and I worked with him on landscapes from Jubilee Gardens in Canary Wharf to Les Jardins du Carrousel in Paris – until his death in 2018. He taught me the meaning of beauty.
It’s easy to please the crowds in the summer, but to please them in winter – in our dark, rainy climates – is far more of a challenge. You almost have to reveal a third dimension in nature by creating things that reflect the light to enhance space and colour. A garden has to keep its liveliness when the weather turns. I’ve been told we achieved that with Jubilee Park.
But Wood Wharf is a very different animal. It’s of an extreme density and very wind-exposed, from the South Dock. And on top of everything, the water of the South Dock turns rather blackish in winter. So we’re using a lot of sweeping forms of ornamental grasses and perennials that look truly lovely in winter. They turn brownish and black and when you don’t mow them – which you should never do – are rather dramatic. And in the summer, they turn into a celebration of blues, purples, yellows and a bit of white.
Here at Wood Wharf, we have pulled out all the stops. We have a massive splash of spring flowers with the flowering trees in spring, such as crabapples and cherry blossoms, which are white and pink. The paths swirl about in a serpentine way and the trees are planted in clumps. Then, along the boardwalk of the South Dock, I thought it the appropriate time to introduce prairie-type flowers – like the kind you would find on the American prairies. That’s rather fashionable at the moment, I know, but I gave it a twist. I used very few grasses and lots of perennial plants – a sort of variation on the theme of the herbaceous English border. I think it will be very jolly and uplifting… and fun.
Competing with Wood Wharf’s powerful architecture was perhaps our greatest challenge. So I went for a complete contrast with the open spaces. They’ll be a gentle, lyrical world of very feminine forms – a visual massage to people who circulate through. There will be tree canopies under which they walk, and the ventilation shafts, security stuff and all the other less interesting things will be wrapped by masses of clipped beech shrubs so you forget they are even there.
As for the fauna, where do I start? The Thames is a migration route for many breeds of bird, from nightjars to robins, geese and cormorants. And there are all sorts of green havens of peace where these birds can rest along the river. Wood Wharf, I hope will be one.
Then there are the bees. I am a beekeeper myself and, if any bees feel like popping by I will give them a very good time. I think they will be swarming all over our blossoming flowers.
Did I mention the migrating butterflies? Many will visit, but there is one above all that I hope will stop by. It is called the painted lady and it migrates from Norway to Southern Europe in three generations, with England as one of its pit stops. So I am sure they will touch down for a bite to eat at Wood Wharf. They are magnificent.
Before I became a landscape architect I studied music at college. And gardens, like music, have the capacity to elevate you from the earth; to make you forget where you are.
Take the Adagio of the 8thSymphony of Bruckner. When you hear that, you are transported to a world that abandons the pace and rhythm of your heart. So my strong hope is that when people pass through these green spaces they will also feel elevated from being in the Docklands, as though they are in another world.
The Japanese Cherry, known also as The Bride, does that. When it flowers it is like a cloud of snow. It is without doubt the most enchanting flower I’ve ever seen.
If there is one memory that sums up my childhood, it is travelling with my father, mother, brothers and sister to the most beautiful gardens in England, like Knightshayes Court in Devon and Kiftsgate Court Gardens in the Cotswolds. I remember some breathtaking moments discovering those marvels.
But there is one that sticks out clearest of all. It is the day we visited Cranborne Manor Gardens in Devon. I must’ve been about seven. I looked across it, with its apple trees and lavender, peonies, honeysuckle and old-fashioned roses, and thought: ‘This is what I want to do.”
If you visit one garden in your life, it should be Villa Lante, the renaissance garden in Italy. There is a sequence that goes from a forest to a very sophisticated clipped boxwood garden with inserted lemon trees. It has a water chain going through it, Spitting Neptunes, and Nymphs. It is exquisite. Man, those bishops in the Renaissance knew how to live.
Interview by Matt Blake