Monday, September 30, 2013

James van Sweden - a memoir



James van Sweden, who has died at 78, after a long illness, will be remembered as one of the great revolutionaries in the landscapeworld. With his long-time business partner, the late Wolfgang Oehme he turned the tide (or perhaps I should say began to turn the tide) of one of the worst aspects of the American landscape - the tyranny of the lawn. He was one of the most creative minds in the landscape business, incredibly influential, a true visionary. He was also great fun, and a lovely guy.
Jim was not a gardener though, but an architect by training. His plant knowledge was not great, and he never really grew anything himself. But he had realised early on in his career that he was, as he told me once "more interested in the spaces between buildings and around them than the buildings themselves". What changed everything was his meeting Wolfgang Oehme, the nerdy, awkward, brilliant, maddening plantsman and garden designer. Together they formed an extraordinarily successful partnership. Neither could have achieved anything much without the other, and yet they could not have been more different. Wolfgang was simply the worst lecturer anyone had ever heard, while Jim was the consummate people person, to our European eyes, the classic American - confident, expansive, charming. His professional genius was to see the potential of Wolfgang's plant knowledge (gained in Germany from where had emigrated in the 1950s) and how that would fit into American suburban and urban landscapes.
Jim was a good businessman, he invested in property, he bought good art, and sold them both when necessary. Without his business skills he and "Wolfie" would have still be humping plants and paving slabs out of the back of a VW station wagon like in a wonderful old picture of them both in their hippy gear taken way back in the early days. Wolfgang's complete lack of business acumen eroded their relationship in the later years, but Jim always kept it in perspective, and managed to laugh off Wolfgang's increasingly eccentric behaviour.
 The two men got their big break with the garden of the Federal Reserve Bank in 1978. It is one of the great stories of landscape planting and deserves retelling in some detail. Chairman David Lilly knew their work from a colleagues' garden Wolfgang had designed. Staff however were horrified - they were expecting the usual crap that passed for landscaping and civilisation in 1970s USA - mown grass and evergreen shrubs. What they got were lots of big grasses and drifts of flowering perennials. The Indians or the hippies or something were clearly on the war path. Jim always said to me that he had learnt to love grasses because he had been brought up in Grand Rapids on the edge of the prairies and remembered as a kid the remnants of the wild landscape running along the edge of the railroad.
Never afraid of facing his public, Jim (probably with Wolfgang in tow rather than in the lead) made a presentation to the staff, explaining about the plants and why they had used them. Grudgingly they were accepted, and as they grew, they became acclaimed and loved, with FRB staff realising that their office looked distinctively different and therefore distinctively better than all the other boring mown to death grassscapes of DC. So, the New American Romantic Garden was born! Soon, everyone in the DC area started to see the beauty of grasses and perennials and realise the potential of these plants to create something new and distinctive, alive and seasonal in the American urban landscape.
Over the next decade Jim and Wolfgang began to make big changes around DC. Wolfgang tested plants to destruction in his chaotic garden. Only the boldest and the bravest and the deer-proofest made out onto the street. It was a limited range, but in 1970s and 19802 Washington, Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' and Sedum spectabile were revolutionary material. It was a good way to start using plants in a plant-cautious place. Wolfgang had that wonderful German ability to make things work technically. Jim had, he liked to say from his Dutch ancestry, an artistic vision. He made everything work aesthetically. Although he helped the birth of a new consciousness in planting, he coudn't take untidy plantsman gardens - I remember on the Horticulture magazine tour when we first met, we visited Sean Hogan's garden in Portland, and mid-visit, noticing he was not there, I went to find him; he was standing alone in the rain on the other side of the road - "I can't stand this mess" he hissed.
While it was the public plantings that got the limelight, it was the private garden clients who enabled the two to really refine their style. Initially they got a lot of the liberal art collector crowd; the tribe of people who are the heart of the forward-looking and globally-aware community who are behind so much of what is good and progressive in the country. I got to visit several of them in the late 1990s researching stories for garden magazines - without them there would have been no landscape revolution. Jim got quality landscape and garden design out there - his hardscaping and landforming a foil for Wolfgang's planting. The Oehme and van Sweden look began to make waves. Just last week Roy Diblik, a pioneer of containerised native plant production in Wisconsin, was telling me that it was their work which began to change attitudes to perennials in the Midwest. Almost the whole perennial-growing world owe these men an immense debt.

Jim was a fantastic guy, with a great sense of humour and joie de vivre. I met up with him around a dozen times and stayed at his house on Chesapeake Bay or in Georgetown. We had first met in somewhat trying circumstances - and as so often when people meet at a time when things are less than ideal, every time we met conversation would return to that awful evening and we would laugh ourselves hoarse. It concerns the late Rosemary Verey. I had been invited by Horticulture magazine to be part of a lecture tour across the US, with a number of colleagues, four of us in all, one of them Jim. I had heard he was visiting England about a month before the tour, so I contacted him, and he suggested that I join him at Rosemary's Barnsley House. "Typical" I thought, "invite a near stranger to someone else's house, no Brit would do that". I phoned Rosemary to check this was ok, and yes it was. Arriving, I realised that all was not well, as she was clearly very drunk. Rosemary then proceeded to be as rude, as patronising as offensive to me as possible; quite honestly it was simply one of the worst experiences of my professional life. This was normal for Rosemary; in the garden at Barnsley she was very generous with her time with visitors; but she was also a notorious drunk and noted for her abusive behaviour to staff and colleagues. "Rosemary" I can still hear Jim admonishing her; I can also remember the acute embarrassment he was feeling - it was so palpable. He and his companion had clearly decided to take control of the evening, finishing off cooking and serving, Rosemary being completely incapable of anything other than rambling more or less incoherently, letting slip incidentally that she was spending Christmas with Ross Perot (yes really). So, when we met, Jim and I would laugh about many things, but that dreadful evening in particular, we had to relive it every time.
 Jim loved to talk about Japan, which had clearly made a huge impact on him. Not that his work was in any sense Japanese in style, but he had got something deeper from the experience, a sense of proportion, honesty to materials and the feeling that Oehme van Sweden designs were, to use that ungainly German word, Gesamstkunstwerk - holistic and consistent and thought through all of a piece (you see the English is even more ungainly). Not that I wish to lower the tone, but there was a story about a sexual encounter with a monk in a Zen monastery which he liked to tell as well. For him, there was nothing sordid about the encounter, it was all part of the same rich authentic experience. Japanese food was a great love too - we always seemed to eat Japanese when I came to town.
I count myself lucky to have seen the site of Jim's house on Chesapeake Bay before it was built, when it was just a patch of overgrown soyabean field on the flat shores of the flat water of one of the most minimalist landscapes I have seen. Native plant expert Darrel Morrison helped him integrate Wolfgang's plant selections into the wild flora, and his friend the architect Suman Sorg designed a house, in a style he liked to describe as 'unresolved' - unfinished, raw, open to suggestion. Later, when it was built, complemented by its almost wild but not quite garden I remember visiting and watching ospreys feed their chicks on a nest in a tree down by the water.
Jim was not an Anglophile (thank god, and do not mention Downton Abbey in my presence) but the idea of an Englishman driving him unsettled him, as if I might suddenly, somehow atavistically swerve his Mercedes onto the wrong side of the road. Several times I drove him out to the country, and he would always at some stage start singing "drive on the right, drive on the right, pray to Jeeesus". He always wanted to get a commission in England though, somehow it would set the seal on his career as garden maker not just as an architect in the landscape – now it turns out the practice have got a commission – the American Museum in Bath. I am sorry to say I have not seen him for several years, as my travels in the US seem to have been less frequent, so I did not get a chance to tell him how 'prairie' has recently become a buzzword in British gardening circles. He would have enjoyed the irony.

















15 comments:

Thomas Rainer said...

Love this remembrance. You captured him brilliantly.

Thomas Rainer said...

By far the best remembrace of Jim I've read yet. You got his vision balanced with his spit and vinegar. Much appreciated.

Thomas

Amalia R. said...

Fascinating Noel! And moving too... Sounds like he has been an extraordinary man in many ways.

Amalia R. said...

Fascinating Noel! And moving too... Sounds like he has been an extraordinary man in many ways.

Olga van Saane said...

What a wonderful, very humane post, Noel. This "drive on the right, drive on the right, pray to Jeeesus" just adds to my idea of van Sweden, though I've always felt a great human being behind the projects I've seen. Never had a privilege to know James in person, but his ideas were contagious and he was one of those few who taught me to look at prairie style with different eyes. Thank you for the post, Noel.

Don Statham said...

Noel
Thank you for your sensitive portrait of James Van Sweden. Your first hand account of spending time with him was refreshing.

valeria hermida said...

Great to read your memoirs on James van Sweden Noel, through your personal, lively and real. yet theatrically writing I feel like I met him already.

Rosa Complicata said...

what a beautifull hommage!

Susan Hines said...

Noel,

Very funny and true to Jim. Thank you for sharing. Can just hear him hissing, "I can't stand that mess!" Legend has it he hated Wolfgang's collection of potted plants so much he banished all indoor plants from the office. Pity the poor associate who placed a small plant at her desk, not knowing the rules.

Susan Hines said...

Noel,

Very funny and true to Jim. Thank you for sharing. Can just hear him hissing, "I can't stand that mess!" Legend has it he hated Wolfgang's collection of potted plants so much he banished all indoor plants from the office. Pity the poor associate who placed a small plant at her desk, not knowing the rules.

Susan Hines said...

Noel,

Very funny and true to Jim. Thank you for sharing. Can just hear him hissing, "I can't stand that mess!" Legend has it he hated Wolfgang's collection of potted plants so much he banished all indoor plants from the office. Pity the poor associate who placed a small plant at her desk, not knowing the rules.

Layanee said...

I never had the pleasure of meeting this legend and know him only through his work. You have made him oh, so human. If you are ever in New England, I would be happy to show you some special gardens...ooops, how American, but the offer stands. Loved your tribute.

Kim Mattingly said...

Architecture in the Garden was the first garden book I ever purchased...I thoroughly enjoyed your remembrance of (one of) its authors.

jayneonweedstreet said...

I guess my head has been in the dahlia beds because I did not even know van Sweden had died! I am glad I found out through your memoir - what a generous tribute! The drunken Rosemary story made me fall off the chair laughing, though I am sure it was painful at the time.

susanne payne said...

I had the good fortune to meet Van Sweden once many years ago at an Association of Professional Landscape Designers conference in D.C. I told him I thought his work was pretty gutsy given the state of the typical public landscape at the time, and asked him if he ever had any doubts if he was doing the right thing. "Never" he replied. I don't have the same level of confidence in my work but I guess that's what it takes to be great. (Wolfgang gave us a tour of his own garden at that same conference -that's quite another story!)