To be as patient as a tree

Una Meistere

An interview with Swiss landscape architect Enzo Enea


“There should be a moment of contemplation when you go to the forest; that is the only way you learn to take a deeper look into nature. A deeper look at a forest, lake or river, which always exists in continuous movement. It’s not just a river – it’s alive. I want people to feel that,” says Swiss landscape architect Enzo Enea, one of the world’s most respected collectors of trees. In 2010 he established the as yet only tree museum in the world, thus highlighting the importance of trees, their presence in our lives, their beauty and also their uniqueness. The Tree Museum, located near Zurich, covers 75,000 square metres and also includes Enea’s landscape architecture office (designed by the American architects Oppenheim Architecture & Design), a park, a tree nursery and the Enea Lab experimental idea laboratory, where Enea continues to expand his knowledge about the plant world and its integration in the urban environment.

The land belongs to a convent built in the 12th century that is still linked to the Vatican but now serves as a school for socially disadvantaged children. Enea has rented the site for ninety-nine years, rehabilitated the formerly boggy land and turned it into a symbiosis of architecture, design, nature and art that merges organically with the picturesque landscape against a background of the convent’s church tower and the mighty Alps. Visitors are reminded of the ancient history of the site when they see the large table in the architect’s design showroom, which is made from a 40,000-year-old tree recovered from a swamp in New Zealand.

Having first studied industrial engineering, Enea only later turned his attention to landscape architecture, studying in London and designing his first major landscape project in Hawaii for Sheraton Hotels. To date, he has worked on more than one thousand garden projects for hotels, spas, museums and private residences. The essence of this work is featured in the book Enea: Private Gardens. This autumn, he was also involved in the FOR FOREST – The Unending Attraction of Nature art project in Klagenfurt by Swiss curator Klaus Littman, in which for two months the Wörthersee football stadium was turned into a forest sculpture, thus urging people to think about our own personal relationship with nature and the general ecological situation of the world today. Some of Enea’s current projects include the Bulgari Hotel Beijing (in collaboration with the Antonio Citterio Patricia Viel architecture firm), the One Thousand Museum in Miami (Zaha Hadid’s last project) and Oaks Prague Villas (in collaboration with Richard Meier & Partners Architects).

“The most important thing is to understand and feel the place where the garden will be developed,” says Enea. “Which direction the wind blows, how much and how strong the sunlight is, what the soil is like. Then we try to identify the best trees that grow in that area and can be used in the garden design. The site itself tells us what to do. Often people choose something merely because it’s beautiful or goes well with the building’s façade. That doesn’t work. You need to understand what the root ball needs in order to live, and only then can you build design.”

This is also the way Enea’s collection of trees developed. All of them are from the area surrounding Lake Zurich – trees that had been doomed to destruction in the name of urban development. Enea rescued them from the construction sites of new hospitals, universities, office buildings and private residences. He also developed a special technique to remove, transport and successfully replant trees, including very mature trees. To date, his park is home to more than 3000 trees.

In 2013, his tree collection was joined by contemporary art. Each of the works of art displayed at the museum has been carefully selected to create a dialogue with the trees and surrounding environment. At the Tree Museum, art is a kind of bridge, a visual messenger bringing together people and nature, enhancing nature’s message and encouraging us to think. “First there’s nature, because we are nature and people who make art are nature. That is why the pieces become what they are,” says Enea.

Sergie Tappa, L'arte della memoria, Enea Baummuseum. © Martin Ruetschi

At one end of the park’s allée stands the bronze Animello sculpture by Italian artist Sergio Tappa. The stylised elephant-like figure is three metres high, and its body resembles a human face turned to the sky. The work reflects Tappa’s experience in Africa, where he unintentionally witnessed an elephant’s funeral. Enea explains: “He saw a dead elephant, and, what’s most surprising, he also saw other elephants arrive to bid farewell to the dead elephant. First two elephants, and then the rest followed. So, there was a funeral. ‘They must have a soul,’ Tappa later said. ‘Because otherwise why would you do this as an wild elephant?’ Tappa is convinced that both people and animals have a soul.” Enea adds that as soon as he saw Tappa’s sculpture, he understood that it had to stand symbolically at the entrance to the park.

The Tree Museum is shaped like an oval, an idea that was inspired by Olympia in the ancient Greek polis of Ilida (Elis) – the cradle of Greek civilisation, a former temple to Zeus where both religious ceremonies took place and the Olympic Games began. As one of the first trees he planted, Enea symbolically chose a yew. “The yew is the oldest tree on Earth; they could be 5000 years old. In Celtic times, when kings died, a yew was planted on their graves. Ancient tribes used yews to make the bows they used for hunting and defence. So, the yew has played a significant role in the process of evolution,” says Enea. Next, he planted a wild pear, wild apple and wild cherries. “Because they give me fruit and oxygen.”

John Giorno, Enea Baummuseum. © Martin Ruetschi

At the entrance to the museum is a sculpture by recently deceased American artist John Giorno. Its inscription reads: “We gave a party for the gods and the gods all came.” It serves as an invitation to all who arrive here. “Because I think everybody has something good in his personality. I am positive about that,” smiles Enea. Although, just a few steps further one also finds a different reminder of human nature, namely, the Berserker II (2007) sculpture by Stella Hamberg. “It’s a giant, and when he drinks, he starts to break things. Everything that’s around him. And this is also about us.”

Stella Hamberg, Berserker, Baummuseum Enea Landscape Architecture. © Enea Landscape Architecture

Sylvie Fleury, Mushrooms, 2012, Baummuseum Enea Landscape Architecture. © Martin Ruetschi

Sylvie Fleury’s Mushrooms (2013) also stirs up a whole host of associations, from the side effects of consumer culture to psychotropic drugs and the fairy-tale atmosphere of Alice in Wonderland’s giant fungi. Paradoxically, the brightly coloured mushrooms “planted” in the park’s lawn also remind us of the flawless workings of the so-called fungal internet, through which trees in a healthy ecosystem communicate with each other.

The museum contains a total of about fifty trees representing more than twenty-five varieties. Some of them are a hundred years old or more, such as the ninety-five-year-old crab apple and a very old maple tree on whose trunk mushrooms inexplicably grow every year despite the tree itself being healthy and quite alive. The trunks of some of the younger trees are covered with a protective membrane. “That’s to protect them from the sun,” says Enea. “UV radiation levels have increased significantly in the past eight years, and it cracks the trees when you plant anew. They get sick.”

The Tree Museum urges us to think about the invisible ties that bind humans to the plant world. And also about its sustainability, history and the passage of time; about the lifetimes of trees and humans. Some of the museum’s most venerable exhibits have lived much longer lives than the guests who visit the museum.

“The only thing you cannot buy, even if you’re the richest person in the world, is time,” says Enea. “In order for a tree to grow and mature, it needs time. And this is what I have here. I have hundred-year-old trees here, and you cannot buy them. There’s no place you can go to do that.”

Enzo Enea © Joël Hunn

There was recently a great exhibition devoted to trees at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. Speaking of his work, one of the artists represented there, Fabrice Hyber, said that for him, the autumn leaves of an oak tree resemble the colour of human skin. And when he draws a tree, he tries to put himself in its skin...its bark being clothing. “By analogy with our profoundly human behaviours, I imagine that it has invisible functions. Like us, the tree can move and communicate with others; it can be crazy or wise, hysterical or calm, depending on the context and the environment.” How would you describe your work as a landscape architect?

It reassures me to hear such testimonies. Having worked with trees for over two decades, I cannot agree enough. We live thanks to and with the trees, not the other way around. What connects Fabrice Hyber’s work with mine is raising awareness for nature and trees. Also, I believe that every tree is different and has its own character. Therefore, we choose the trees for our project very carefully, making them fit to the place, always following one of our philosophies, genius loci. Meaning that we not only respect the character of the trees integrated in our project, but the landscape as well, as one.

Trees can be emblems of towns or villages, sometimes people mention trees as reference points when life becomes hectic. Do you have any particular tree that holds a very special place in your heart?

Yes, the one tree that started it all. The peach tree in my grandfather’s garden. I will never ever forget the first bite I took from one of its fruits. I was reborn at that moment. This moment was the seed of everything I have done since then; it contained everything in it that has happened since. Every project, every decision, every meeting, every flight, every extra hour, every smile of a happy client and the soul of my beloved Tree Museum.

Tree Museum, Enea Landscape Architecture. Photo: Christoph Ledl

How did the idea of the Tree Museum begin?

It started almost thirty years ago. At that time I was a young landscape architect working for a variety of projects, and I was encountering places where people were preparing to build buildings: hospitals, offices, residential buildings. There were old trees standing on these sites, and the people wanted to cut them down to make space for the building. At the time, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. As it reaches the age of one hundred, a tree only takes on more character, and it might live for another four hundred years. So I tried to understand how I could move a tree like this, and I developed a technique for doing so.

Can you describe it?

I can describe it a little bit, but not exactly... The story goes back to when I was a young kid, seven years old. Instead of going out to play football (which I also did), I started training in karate. We had a Japanese teacher, he had 7th dan, he was a big master. And he had a collection of bonsai trees. I did karate for twenty-two years, and during that time I learned a lot about bonsai trees. I never had a collection of bonsais myself, because I thought it was something very Asian, very super-manicured. But I developed a technique based on the Japanese method of cutting bonsai roots – I translated it from the small trees to big trees. In a way, I also modified the way of cultivating this kind of trees. I didn’t want to do it as strong as the Japanese do; I wanted to keep a natural touch.

So I started digging them out, washing and pruning the roots in a certain way and bringing them to the space I was renting at that time. I did that in addition to my regular job; this was my passion and still is. A lot of my customers wanted to buy these trees, but I never sold them. And then I was offered the opportunity of renting this land, which belongs to a convent, for ninety-nine years. I decided to create a tree museum. In a way, it’s a combination that’s also rooted in my family heritage.

My father was working with stone, making balustrades, and he was also designing pots and selling them to garden centres. I grew up in an environment of garden decorations. So, I’m a bit into land, into stone and into forms. But I didn’t study landscape architecture at first; I was an industrial designer. And then I did a second degree in landscape architecture. So, I become both. I’m somebody who tries to integrate technique into nature. And this is what I also need in my daily work. I need to understand the technical aspects of building up a park. The beauty, of course, is something that goes on top. But first, the place has to function. All the places we’re working on have to function.

Why did you decide to call it a museum, not a park or garden?

It’s a museum because the trees here are all almost a hundred years old, and it’s a collection. And I wanted to give them the right background. I think they deserve to be in a museum because of their natural beauty and also the way we worked with them. They’ve kind of become works of art, but it’s not art.

Baummuseum Enea Landscape Architecture © Enea Landscape Architecture 

In the museum each tree is set against a block of sandstone. Why?

To carve out its beauty and uniqueness, to make people see better.

Have you ever calculated how many trees you’ve planted/saved in your life?

No, but it must be in the thousands by now.

Trees are connected to each by a complicated system of roots. There’s a belief that this is the way they communicate with each other. The roots of trees are so connected that one tree can even give another tree what it needs.

The roots of trees are full of mushrooms called mycorrhizae. The mushrooms give off electrochemical signals, and this is how the trees talk to each other, via the “fungal internet”. You know locusts, if they arrive in the thousands, they eat up all the other species. But, for example, if there’s a row of trees, the locusts usually just get to the middle and no further. Thanks to these signals, the rest of the trees start to emit a substance that stops the locusts. So, trees can communicate. They interact in a way. I feel that, too. They are alive. Nature is an organism that is alive. And thus, it’s important to understand this and be part of it. We need nature, but nature doesn’t need us.

At one moment nature can just put us out of the game.

It can put us out because we’re forcing it to do it. With dirty water, with overfishing the rivers and oceans, with cutting, burning, overbuilding, taking the best iron out of the ground, and so on. We have a problem of erosion, cities are falling apart. It’s difficult, and there are lots of different things to care about. But I think it’s important that we’re aware of it. This isn’t only about the forest; it’s about the next generation and the next two generations that have to live with it. And we cannot just go on and do as we always did, because it’s just not going to last much longer.

Manolo Valdes, Tree Museum Enea Landscape Architecture. © Martin Ruetschi

Amazon Indians are convinced that plants possess intelligence and that plants were also the ones who passed on their knowledge to the Indians.

When I moved here, the land here was wet and swampy and people weren’t able to use it. I created an allée of taxodium (bald cypress), which are tropical trees and the only trees in the park that aren’t from this area. But each taxodium tree soaks up the water with its roots, approximately 3000 too 4000 litres per day. They dry out the swamp and distribute the moisture through their leaves. That way I can decrease the moisture level in the soil so that other trees can grow deeper roots. Over the years the soil just becomes better and better, because the taxodium trees grow bigger and take out more water. And the wind also helps by providing vaporisation towards the Tree Museum or towards the tree nursery, depending on the direction of the wind. It changes the microclimate.

So, I changed the ecosystem of this place just by putting the trees in. I was able to do this in a city where it’s a bit wet underneath or whatever – I was able to clean the air, I was able to decrease the swamp, I was able to reorganise the current state. Instead of burning trees in the Amazon, people could be planting trees, and then they could take them out alive and build a filter with them in the tropical cities. For me, this would be the ideal future to work towards.

There’s this paradox in the human relationship with nature. As city dwellers we keep nature at bay, while at the same time trying to reintegrate it into our homes, gardens and public spaces. What is the most unexpected place you’ve worked in as a landscape architect?

It seems like a paradox, and maybe even a bit cowardly, wanting the best of both worlds, domesticating what is wild, keeping it on a leash, in a drawer for when it suits us best, as if we had put Mother Nature in a retirement home. But we must not forget that it’s only quite recently – and really only in a part of the world – that we’re for the most part no longer at the mercy of nature. But we nevertheless come from a time of insecurity, from a time when we were victims to every mood of nature. Maybe that’s why we now tend to overrule it so much. But of course we feel bound to nature, because we’re part of it. Living in cities expresses the human need for social interaction. We want to see our friends and family and we want to have them close. A ten-hour drive for a cup of coffee leads to a once-a-year visit. Furthermore, we enjoy going to cinemas, to museums, being inspired and so forth.

An unexpected place for me was Beijing. A project I’m still super-happy to have been part of was working for Bulgari and with masters like Tadao Ando. I did not expect to have such an impact there. Not because of the design itself, but because of the effects on and the reaction from the people. By planting ancient trees from the jungle and cleaning the river with filters made out of stones, the hotel surroundings have received the best reviews you can get – people are enjoying themselves there, reading, playing, chilling, even swimming in a river they never swam in before.

Bulgari Hotel Beijing, HGEsch Photography

This autumn you participated as a landscape architect in an unusual art project, FOR FOREST The Unending Attraction of Nature in Klagenfurt. It involved planting a forest in the middle of a 32,000-capacity stadium. The project lasted for two months and embodied an obvious paradox: an impressive amount of resources were invested to artificially plant a forest in a stadium, all in order to make people think about what’s happening in the nearby natural forests as well as the ecological condition of the world as a whole. When we met in Klagenfurt, you said: “I think it’s time that we do something so paradoxical that it switches the way our brains think. We have to turn things around now – that’s the whole point.” But isn’t it in fact already too late?

It’s never too late for human beings to do something, but only as long as they actually do something. I think that for me, all art has to have a reason, or something behind it. Otherwise there’s no sense in doing it. Whatever you try to say, the message should arrive somewhere. I always see a lot of things when I go to a museum, but there are just certain paintings and sculptures that touch me… If they touch me, if they move me somehow, that’s what I want from art. If people go to Klagenfurt and realise that they’re looking at a real forest in an artificial location, it could move them. At least I hope it does.

The forest has been removed from its normal living space. I think it’s important that people just sit down and reflect on this. This contrast is very important, because when people think of the forest, they think everything is normal – everything is as it should be. For example, for me it’s a normal thing to go out into a park, because I grew up doing that, and for me it’s a completely normal thing to have a park to go to. But when you go for a walk in the woods, you usually don’t think about what’s going on with the forest itself. Does it get enough water? Sometimes you see a dead tree, and you have no idea what happened to it, but you just ignore it and go on.

What we wanted to do with FOR FOREST is give people a sense of what could happen and what is happening to the forest at this moment in time. We’re killing biodiversity with monocultures, the soil is being poisoned, bees and butterflies are already disappearing from many places, and so on. If we continue like this, all that will be left of nature will be a zoo. You’ll have to go to the zoo to look at a forest.

Klaus Littmann, FOR FOREST - The Unending Attraction of Nature, Art Intervention 2019, Wörthersee Stadium Klagenfurt, Austria © Gerhard Maurer

What do you think are the most important things people can learn from trees?

To be as patient as a tree. Because a tree just stays where it is, and the weather passes over it. And the tree is patient; the tree takes everything in stride and adapts itself to the situation. I think humans have to do the same thing with evolution. Adapt yourself and try to stay as natural as possible.

What do you see as your main responsibility as a landscape architect?

To create values for generations to come.

How do you feel the approach towards landscape architecture has changed since you started working in the field?

I think what has changed is that before, we were just like gardeners, and now we’ve become part of the team. Modern urban planning laws dictate that landscape architects are involved from the very beginning. And that’s very important, I think. Because a landscape architect reads the land in a different way than an architect. The landscape architect works with the land; the architect uses the land. But now we’re partners and we have to be on the same level.

What landscapes move you most?

No matter how spectacular a landscape is or isn’t, it will always be the hills, scents and sounds of the place you were born that are rooted very deeply within you emotionally.

How does topography affect the way we see, interact and move in a space? Is there one bodily sense – sight, touch, hearing, movement – that is most powerful in experiencing a place?

Topography is very influential and, of course, affects the way we move in a space, because we are earthbound. If there’s a hill, you gotta climb it. If you don’t, you stay where you are. Generally, I firmly believe that landscape shapes its inhabitants. For my work as a landscape architect, sight is the most powerful sense in experiencing a place. I could not touch a shadow, for example, but its path during the day is very important for planning our projects.

Enea Landscape Architecture Showroom. © Martin Ruetschi 

How does the scale of a landscape relate to the scale of the human body – from the intimacy of a room, to the expansiveness of a stadium or a skyline?

The relationship between landscape and body defines our perceptions of the world.

You can find all of the most complex and beautiful colours, structures and architecture in nature. Is there anything you can’t find in nature?

Not yet. I avoid working with artificial materials.

You eventually added contemporary sculptures to the Tree Museum. Why was it important for you to create this dialogue between trees and contemporary art? Is there something they have in common?

Creation is the unifying factor. Trees are created by nature, art by humans. Then again, we cultivate trees and shape them together with nature, and art is created by humans, which are also created by nature. And there you have it – we are all one. With the Tree Museum, first of all I want to celebrate the beauty of the trees and stimulate contemplation about nature, oneself and the relation between the two. For me, this dialogue is important in order to raise awareness for nature, which we are a part of.

Do you agree that art is something that complements the nature of humankind?

Art is absolutely necessary, because it’s the expression of the inexpressible. Without it we would suffocate.

Jeremie Crettol, Octopus, Enea Baummuseum. © Martin Ruetschi

From your point of view, is design an art or a science?

It’s the art of science. It’s the emotional, sensual body of rational, functional content. Like the human body is a shell to blood vessels and neurotransmitters.

Because there are sculptures in the Tree Museum, do you consider yourself also an art collector? Is there any difference in collecting contemporary art or trees?

I sure love art and keep some, but I also let lots of it go.

What do you search for in art? Do you search for connections based in your own personal background? Or do you search for an intellectual challenge? What does art mean to you?

I search for a message, a belief I share but that is expressed in an emotional, touching way.

Do, or did, you personally know all of the artists whose work you have selected for the Tree Museum? Have you always found it necessary to understand what is behind a work of art?

Indeed, I know some of them personally. When it comes to understanding art, I don’t want to dig too deep, but I at least have to feel something. I don’t take any bullshit. All the art I choose somehow reflects my philosophy of life, work, nature and the relation between them. First and foremost, they have to be, like my gardens, not just decoration but an integrated part of life.

I once discussed art and nature with British artist Tony Cragg, and he said: “We are a billion years from making something that beautiful and that complicated. It’s a miracle we can make anything at all, but we can never compete with nature. All we do is we learn some of the simple strategies and copy them.” Do you agree?

Aren’t we a part of nature, and thus already there?

Do you think art always needs a spectator, someone to look at it?

Art without a spectator is a scream in the void. But isn’t it also the case that the song sung out of pure emotion, but not for spectators, is the purest song?

Claire Morgan, Over my dead body. © Claire Morgan

Right now, art is everywhere. Social media is full of art, almost everyone is going to museums, exhibition openings, biennials, art fairs and at least buying a poster. Art is trendy now. But how strong is the voice of art itself in our society? Do you think art has the power to change something in people?

Unfortunately, for the vast majority it will remain a glimpse into a possibility. Social media is not life nor reality; going somewhere doesn’t necessarily mean being there. Biennials and art fairs demand a tremendous amount of knowledge and are overwhelming – if you buy there, you’re part of the 1%. If art wants to have the power to change something in people, it has to be part of the people. It has to be taught, lectured and lived, carried to the people; it needs to create works that answer the questions of its time or pose the right questions for the future.

Many great artists/film directors/musicians were already speaking about the issues of climate change years ago. But no one has managed to have as strong an impact in as short a time as Greta Thunberg. Why is that?

Greta does two things that make her succeed. She cuts out the media, such as film, music and so forth, and thus she speaks clear, unmistakable messages that cannot be reinterpreted. Second, she negates the “yeah, but” factor. I know smoking is bad, but it won’t affect me, I don’t smoke much. I know flying is bad, but I only do it once a year because I have no time. But, but, but... Facts become useless if you add that “but”. She cuts out the “but”. In the end, it’s not important who succeeds with this issue – all of the predecessors were necessary, too.

Have you ever wanted to go on a vision quest?

No. But I like to eat very much, so every January I go on a food retreat where I don’t eat much, or at least I try not to. The guys at Lanserhof, also a project of ours, do a great job.

What does the metaphor “tree of life“ mean to you?

For me, it’s the oxygen and the fruits that trees give us. This is the tree of life, and this is what people should understand.

If you were to think of your tree collection as a piece of music, what kind of music would it be?
The Four Seasons by Vivaldi.