TOM STUART-SMITH'S SEVEN WONDERS

A leading landscape architect chooses his favourite things, from a view in the Lake District to a journey in Peru

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2012

After winning Best in Show at the Chelsea Flower Show three times in the past decade, Tom Stuart-Smith is widely recognised as a leading landscape architect. He has made gardens for the Queen at Windsor Castle and The Connaught hotel in London. Aged 51, he has headed his practice since 1998 and opens his own garden to the public in June.

VIEW from Caw, in the Lake District (above)

At the southern end of the Lake District, in Dunnerdale, is an unprepossessing little mountain called Caw. From the top you look out and down towards Morecambe Bay; look back and you see into the heart of the Lake District. You’re in this in-between zone, on the edge. It’s a completely magical view. It reminds me of those pen-and-ink drawings in C.S. Lewis’s books, where you see the whole of Narnia. You feel you are seeing everything: the source of the water, the denouement, the whole narrative of landscape from the beginning to the end. You don’t see all that when you are up a mountain in the middle of the Lakes. That is slightly less interesting to me because you’re on the top. I like being half way up, on the edge of things.

CITY Venice

I went to Venice for the first time when I was 18, on my own. I don’t think I’d be doing what I do now if I hadn’t. I began life as a scientist—science A-levels and zoology at university—and it was my Stendhal moment. I virtually fainted with the beauty of it all. In retrospect I see it as a kind of turning point, where I became more interested in visual things than in abstract scientific things. The experience of coming down the Grand Canal and out into the lagoon was a kind of spatial epiphany. Because it’s quiet, you are able to experience the space in a way that is quite difficult in other cities. I’d had a relatively untravelled childhood, so going to Italy at that time was as electrifying as doing the Grand Tour a hundred years ago. 

HOTEL Lunaganga, Sri Lanka

Lunaganga was Geoffrey Bawa’s home near Bentota in Sri Lanka. He was South-East Asia’s most prominent architect in the middle and late part of the last century, and he built a number of hotels in Sri Lanka, one of which near Sigiriya is his masterpiece. The house is run by architects who are Bawa devotees; it’s a collection of buildings set in a remarkably beautiful garden, on the edge of a lake quite near the sea. It has the same quality as the Barcelona Pavilion of external spaces that flow into internal spaces—he was very influenced by English as well as Italian gardens. It’s one of the few hotels in the world that are quite a spiritual experience.

BUILDING The Barcelona Pavilion 

Mies van der Rohe designed this building for the Expo in Barcelona in 1929, and yet it could just about have been built yesterday. It’s one of the great timeless masterpieces of modernism. It mixes the disciplined and the poetic: it’s on a rigid grid, with everything based on mathematical proportions, and yet the overriding impression is one of being in this deep poetic space. One reason for that is you never quite know whether you are inside or outside, there’s such interweaving of internal and external space, which gives a dreamlike quality. Many modern buildings are over-didactic and tell you how to behave, but this has some private spaces, some more public, and a beautiful inner courtyard with a single statue. It was built to show what Germany was about, in that moment before fascism got its rigid clamp on it. 

JOURNEY from Cuzco to Manu, Peru

You climb on windy roads from Cuzco, which is semi-desert, to the cloud forest which has 4.5 metres of rain a year, crossing the watershed of the Andes. If you fell asleep for five minutes, you’d have gone to sleep half way up a dry hillside, and woken up surrounded by orchids and tree ferns and unable to see more than 100 metres: I can’t imagine there’s anywhere else where you get such a dramatic change of vegetation, ecology and climate. When you look at the rainfall maps of Peru, it goes from orange to purple here. In reality, one side is brown and the other is green. You go from somewhere there are maybe 50 different species of plant growing in scrubby ground, to one of the most biodiverse places in the world. 

BEACH Barra, the Hebrides

I’m a person for bracing beaches rather than hedonistic ones. You generally get to Barra in a single-engined plane that lands on the beach at low tide, on the mainland side of this low island. Then you walk across to the Atlantic side where there are big breakers coming in on a white sand beach. It’s spectacular. There’s absolutely nobody there because it’s so remote, and there’s nothing between you and America. The waves come in and provided you have got a wetsuit on, or are incredibly tough, you can go surfing. It’s completely exhausting, but fantastic. 

WORK OF ART Beethoven's late string quartets

Beethoven’s late quartets grasped the marrow of existence. I suppose because he was living in complete isolation, with his deafness, there is nothing superfluous. They have this extreme contrast: severe and terrifying in parts, with interludes of breathtaking beauty. I return to them again and again. You have to be feeling fairly robust because they are so demanding. The extraordinary thing is the emptiness, the void between the notes. It’s the first work where silence is important.

The Barn Garden, Abbots Langley, Herts, is open in June through the National Gardens Scheme (ngs.org.uk)

Tom Stuart-Smith was talking to Rebecca Willis, our associate editor and a former travel editor of Vogue

Image The Travel Library/Stuart Black