‘If I get a new life, I would like to be a gardener.’ This comment by Arne Jacobsen reflects his lifelong passion for botany. Former employees have described that when he was not at the studio, he could usually be found in the lush garden at his home on Strandvejen or in the natural landscape around the summer residence at Gudmindrup Lyng in north-western Zealand.
Arne Jacobsen used his private garden as both a refuge and a laboratory. At Strandvejen 413, where he lived and had his studio from 1951, he established a densely packed botanical garden with more than 300 different species of plants, many of them brought home as cuttings from trips abroad. He spent countless hours here, often taking photographs or working with a pen or a paintbrush, as he studied the colours, textures and shapes of the plants. These plant studies were an important source of inspiration to Arne Jacobsen.
The inspiration from his nature studies is most directly evident in the textile patterns Arne Jacobsen designed during his exile in Sweden in the 1940s, but his passion for nature was reflected in every aspect of his artistic practice – from his pronounced sensibility to the surrounding landscape reflected in his works of architecture to the organic expression in many of his designs.
At first glance, Arne Jacobsen’s interest in lush, untamed nature might seem to be in contrast to the generally stringent expression of his architecture. However, projects that included the grounds around the buildings clearly reflect his ambition of framing the rich diversity of nature in overarching lines, figures and patterns.
One early example is the garden plan Arne Jacobsen created for Novo CEO Harald Pedersen’s private residence in Holte in the 1930s in collaboration with a landscape architect. Arne Jacobsen painted a watercolour of the layout to illustrate his plan for the flow of the garden experience by means of paths and a circular flower bed covered with red tiles in the middle of the park. The circle was a recurring figure in Arne Jacobsen’s garden designs, as it was in his architectural and design universe.
Several of Arne Jacobsen’s large, public projects also included artistic garden and landscape designs. One example is the municipal primary and lower secondary school Munkegaard School from 1957, where Arne Jacobsen aimed to create calm and aesthetic outdoor spaces for the pupils. He designed the classrooms as low pavilions, each with its own private courtyard garden. The individual gardens were designed with plaster casts of sculptures from antiquity, carefully selected plants and a particular species of moss that grew in the gaps between the paving tiles and created an abstract pattern in a remarkable union of nature, art and design.
St. Catherine’s College in Oxford is another example of Arne Jacobsen’s emphasis on achieving a close interplay of architecture and nature. Here, his design of both the college complex and the garden needed to consider the architectural traditions of the historical university environment. The college consists of a series of individual, low buildings centred around a central courtyard, the Quad, where Arne Jacobsen designed a circular lawn with a Lebanese cedar. In a comment on the interplay of architecture and nature, Arne Jacobsen pointed out that the growth of the cedar provides ‘the strongest possible horizontal effect, which fully underscores and acts as an extension of the architectural design’. To the north and south, the Quad is bordered by free-standing walls and box-shaped yew hedges that underscore the unity of built structures and garden.
The last project that Arne Jacobsen was able to see to completion before his death was the first stage of the Danish national bank, which was finished in February 1971. In this project Arne Jacobsen composed a garden plan for the northern courtyard with a clear emphasis on stringency and geometry. On a gravel base, Arne Jacobsen planned seven rows of semi-cylindrical plant drums with low plants interrupted by alternating gaps and circular ponds – a large pond at one end of the garden and three small ones at the opposite end. Arne Jacobsen’s watercolour of the plan illustrates how the overall garden design, with its geometric figures and strict regularity, becomes an abstract pattern.