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Architect Garden

Text Graham Wood Photographs David Ross The design of architect Minky Lidchi’s garden in Houghton, Johannesburg, has its origins in the architecture of the house. She conceived the garden after renovating her house (see HL, April 2010). One of her trademarks is the way she opens rooms to the light. ‘Two light sources are better than one, and three are always better than two,’ says Minky. ‘The view is free, so open a door and a window wherever you can.’ From every room she has a vista of the garden. Her garden is classical in its emphasis on balance, proportion and definition. ‘My philosophy is axis, axis, axis, vista, vista, vista,’ she says. Minky has used arches at the ends of the axes to provide focal points that can be seen from one end of the garden to the other (and from the house). She says that they are influenced by Sir Edwin Lutyens, a British architect and contemporary of Sir Herbert Baker, who designed the Anglo Boer War Memorial at Zoo Lake. ‘Where he has a statue, I have a millstone,’ Minky says. ‘It gives you something to look at and provides a sense of scale and impact.’ Although the house is in the middle of the large garden, it has no clearly defined back or front. ‘It really has two front gardens,’ says Minky. ‘One is more public, the other more private.’ From the doors and windows, the garden reveals itself all at once. Although it has a sense of progression and there are levels and layering, it doesn’t hide anything. ‘I don’t like being hemmed in,’ she says. ‘It comes from years of living in a flat.’ The courtyards and intimate spaces near the house are filled with plant pots. The ones outside the kitchen contain herbs, salads and strawberries. Among them are orchids and roses, and cuttings of various other plants. ‘I make lots of cuttings because I give away a lot of plants,’ explains Minky. There’s a five-metre drop from one end of the property to the other, so the garden is dividedinto a number of terraces. Planted steps lead from the kitchen courtyard up to the first terrace, and then up towards an orchard. It’s a beautifully structured area with clearly defined stone paths, rows of lavender and borders of vygies taken from Minky’s house in Koringberg in the Swartland (HL’s House of the Year 2010). ‘I always include edges to define the ground, the path and the garden,’ she says. Minky loves the chaos of scent – the orchard includes a variety of young citrus trees: kumquats, calamondin, naartjie, Valencia and Seville oranges, grapefruit and lemons. Sweet orange and lemon blossom mingle in the air with lavender and lemon verbena. The hardscaping, while providing definition, blends well with the garden. It is all made from ancient materials – marble, sandstone, terracotta, brick. The ornate sandstone screens were hand carved in Jaipur and the door in the arch was bought years ago in India. ‘I didn’t have a home for it,’ she says. ‘Eventually it found its place in the arch in the garden.’ Minky says it reminds her of the song, ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ from Fiddler on the Roof, about a stairway ‘leading nowhere, just for show’. The formality of the garden’s structure contrasts with the spontaneous features that appear in between the plants, including random little crops of vegetables among the flowers. There are also various sculptures and dozens of vessels, including metal, ceramic and stone pots and bowls, and even marble baths. Once, a visitor to the garden asked Minky if she believed in water spirits. ‘Actually,’ she said, ‘they’re water bowls for the dogs!’ Nevertheless, water features play an important part in the garden’s ambience. The fountains introduce the sound of water and the ponds of still water are essential, Minky says, to capture the reflection of the sky. She says she wishes she had the discipline to choose one kind of plant, and stick to it in certain areas. The pots on the front verandah are a mixture of whatever has caught her eye. The Nandina domestica on the steps leading to the front door sends her into raptures. ‘It’s one of the most rewarding plants,’ Minky says, pointing out the sacred bamboo’s myriad shades of green, grey, crimson and orange. ‘Going to the nursery is a love affair,’ she adds. ‘When I see a plant I like, I just have to find a place for it.’ Another surprise is what Minky calls the ‘Noah’s ark of topiary’. Everywhere, the hedges of privets, Syzygium and lobelia transform themselves into animals before your eyes. There are tortoises, elephants, birds and buffaloes. ‘My gardener, Lot, started making them because it was very hard to get hedges straight,’ explains Minky. The books of European topiary that she showed him have inspired the creation of this animal world. ‘The plants suggest to him what they should be,’ she adds. Although the garden is structured around the house, the building itself is almost invisible, nestled unobtrusively among the hedges, and dwarfed by the jacarandas and the borrowed view beyond. In the evenings the subtle scents of the star jasmine (Murraya exotica) and the flowers of the yesterday, today and tomorrow bushes drift inside. If you close your eyes, the house, subservient as it is to the garden, almost completely disappears and you feel as if you could be sitting outside. Minky Lidchi Architect, 011-442-3550 This article was originally featured in the October 2011 issue of House and Leisure.