Garden, Gardens

a natural star attraction

Christoph Hoffmann

It was five years ago that Stark Studios moved to Randburg’s Fontainebleau. It’s an ideal location for television-recording studios, being close to MNet and the SABC. ‘We wanted both the new building and its surrounds to be conducive to creativity and the garden allowed us to think out of the box in quite a dramatic way,’ says co-founder Elsje Stark.

Bordered by a row of Tulbaghia violacea, Crassula succulents add colour and texture to the pyramid face. OPPOSITE A walkway of manicured kikuyu lawn leads to a pyramid covered in Kyoto dwarf mondo grass. Bordered by a row of Tulbaghia violacea, Crassula succulents add colour and texture to the pyramid face. OPPOSITE A walkway of manicured kikuyu lawn leads to a pyramid covered in Kyoto dwarf mondo grass.

Elsje commissioned landscape architect Patrick Watson to mastermind a modern, dramatic space that would complement the architecture. ‘TV is an intense industry with extremely long hours,’ Elsje says. ‘I pictured a place where people could clear their heads; somewhere beautiful to meander through and feel renewed.’ The site already had masses of strelitzias and a series of trees, including a tall palm. ‘Both of these are glamorous, Hollywood type plants,’ says Patrick. ‘We’re talking movies so it made sense to keep them and go a little LA.’ Patrick’s vision included a series of high-impact cubist sculptures that lend the impression of shifting stages and frames as you move around them. In a triumph of recycling, debris from the site’s demolished houses and newly excavated car park was assimilated into the pyramidal shapes. ‘As a concept I suppose it has its roots in land art, though that tends to be far more minimalist,’ Patrick says. ‘We’d worked with berms in natural gardens before but never pyramids of this size and precision. It’s about simple geometry. The whole idea was to create a sense of theatre and surprise.’
Shallow grassed steps connect the main building to the garden. Shallow grassed steps connect the main building to the garden.

It’s a daring design to be sure, even for someone known for his sense of adventure. It’s a good thing, then, that Elsje shares this trait. ‘You can’t go more radical than your client and Elsje accepted that this was a radical garden.’ Actually implementing it all was hardly simple. In a highly labour-intensive process, the pyramids were handmade by Rekopane Landscapes. ‘It looks pretty instant but it took eight months to complete,’ says Patrick. ‘The garden is relatively high maintenance – it’s definitely exotic. If you go all veld grass or fynbos you won’t achieve the same impact.’ Patrick did plant several acacias though – his reference to Southern Africa in a garden that’s very much Beverly Hills.
 A curved walkway designed to slow visitors down leads to the natural pond. A curved walkway designed to slow visitors down leads to the natural pond.

Texture holds sway throughout and Patrick chose succulents for many of the pyramids’ slopes. ‘They’re very graphic, they’re happy in shallow soil and they’re always there,’ he says. ‘A creeping plant such as ivy would have spoilt the crisp lines.’ Colour is just as important and, while a two plant chequer effect would have worked on the pyramids, Patrick opted for more variety. Elsewhere, bold hues are expressed in singular plantings such as agapanthus, clivia and sedum. ‘We used clusters of cannas too; they’re suburban herbaceous-border plants, which I think of as Fontainebleau and LA in equal measure.’
Mass plantings of cannas beneath the Manitoba maple add colour Mass plantings of cannas beneath the Manitoba maple add colour.

Despite the visual drama, this garden is undeniably tranquil and inviting. Three types of lawn create stretches that invite you to experience the ever changing scenes. ‘We always like to carry on where the architecture left off,’ says Patrick. Shallow grassed steps, for instance, seamlessly connect the modern building to the garden below, while sculptural seating allows for quiet contemplation. A staggered walkway that intentionally slows people down leads to a natural pond that is a reincarnation of an existing pool from the 1970s.
Detail of cannas. Detail of cannas.

Much like a major motion picture, his garden is a strong statement – a lush, attention-grabbing marvel with an ongoing sense of discovery. ‘It’s designed to be enjoyed,’ says Patrick, ‘whether for corporate entertaining or as a quiet place where people can read their lines.’ For Elsje and her team it’s a vital connection to nature in the frenzied heart of the city. Originally published in HL October 2015.