The Landscape Guide

Bet Figueras'  last garden, by Gabino Carballo

La Casa dels Xuklis

Having a rose named after you is something special. Walk through a rose garden and you may find yourself in the company of William Shakespeare Charles Darwin. Such a distinction is even more especial if you are a landscape designer concerned with the perceptual aspects of design that go beyond the merely visual: the scents and the sounds, the story behind each plant species and variety.

On Friday 6th of May 2011, the Meilland variety Rose BET FIGUERAS ® was officially presented to the landscape and garden world as part of the Barcelona International Competition for New Roses, held in the Cervantes Rose Garden every spring since 2001. The rose was named after the foremost Catalan landscape architect to merge in the last few decades. Nearly a year to the day, the world of Spanish landscape design received the news of Bet’s untimely death, after a long fight against cancer.

To mark the occasion, a special event was held in the presence of her family, friends and admirers of her work. The selected venue is at the new  building designed by David Mackay, of MBM Arquitectes, the master planners of Barcelona’s Olympic Village. See website: La Casa dels Xuklis.  

David’s approach to spatial design has had a long lasting influence in Spanish and European urban and landscape design, in a profound way. He seeded both ideas, both in the public realm and in his personal life. He influenced Bet Figueras career path, encouraged her to explore Landscape Design and worked with her until the last of her projects.

In the same way that landscape is always the result of overlaying processes and phenomena, be they natural or cultural; human life is far from being a straight arrow as “no experience is a direct route but a series of perceptions and overlays of the personal, communal, and historical”. Bet Figueras’ biography and work exemplify how an array of conflicting approaches and notions become a legible palimpsest for those willing to read it. Equally, David Mackay’s presence in Spanish architecture demonstrates how a personal approach based on respect for landscape design as a discipline can encourage others to open paths that seemed long closed.

Bet Figueras work continued the discreet but long standing tradition of Catalan landscape design, whose roots lay in the work of Josep Fontseré and Nicolau Maria Rubió i Tudurí. This tradition found continuity in the work of Joan Mirambell i Ferran and Joaquim Casamor i Espona, her predecessors, in both the public and private realm. Their work was relevant and pertinent to time and location, yet they never reached the pre-eminence that Figueras’ work would attain.

Born in Barcelona in 1957, Bet Figueras’ initial career of choice, like many other talented designers before her, was  architecture. She soon grew unsure of her vocation. Timely advice came from a British architect working in Spain, David Mackay, who inspired her to follow a career in Landscape design, and suggested enrolling in landscape studies in Edinburgh (UK), which she did. On completing her degree, she attended Berkeley (California, US).

She was not the first landscape designer to leave Spain to find professional training. Jorge Subirana -author of much of the landscape design executed at the International Exhibition held in Seville in 1992, springs to mind- but prospective Spanish landscape students usually opted for the landscape school at Versailles. Going “Anglo” was unusual, even though the influence of Great Britain in the history of landscape design is unrivalled.

Like Rubió i Tudurí before her, Bet Figueras gravitated towards the English-American paradigm of landscape design, and also like him, she strived to work within the natural boundaries imposed by the Mediterranean climate and Latin culture. Rubió i Tudurí was the first to outline the principles underlying Mediterranean Latin landscape design; Bet Figueras’ work may be considered the apex of this concept.

On her return to Barcelona in 1982 she joined the office of Martorell, Bohigas, and Mackay, where she remained until 1985. She started to work on her own projects from home in the company of her friend Isable Galofré and later she set up an office with Maria Jover. Quite quickly, she became known for her insistence on the use of native Mediterranean flora and a deliberate simplicity in her design solutions at a time when public institutions drove the creation of much needed public spaces, but planting design was not in fashion.

During her stay at Berkeley she became familiarised with the “Ecological Design Movement“, inspired by Ian McHarg amongst others, and its predecessor, the “Natural Garden Movement” proposed by Jens Jensen. Her work condensed and distilled an essence of Mediterranean landscape with roots in these ideals.

Her approach showed hard landscape devotees that “vegetation can be a tool of modernity, not just a filler, but a very eloquent language" in the words of Enric Batlle, an architect with strong family links to gardening.

Bet Figueras’ work at Plaça de les Glories, originally laid with gardens designed in 1973 by Casamor i Espona, paved the way for the emergence of a new way of understanding the public space in Barcelona, a move led by her friend Patrizia Falcone.

According to Conrad Kent, Falcone’s Parc del Bosquet dels Encants, inaugurated in 1995 “is of particular ingenuity. In a 2.1 hectare space outside the Glòries junction, is a woodland corner founded on barren land in the very heart of the city. In contrast with the places dures of the previous decade, this "wild garden" in the midst of the modern city seeks to revitalize the nineteenth-century image of parks and gardens as the lungs of the city".

The entente between Bet Figueras and Patrizia Falcone continuedwith the help of the rose expert Anne Neveu-Eglise. They worked together on the improvement of the Roserar de Cervantes -also Casamor i Espona’s original work- to re-create a vaguely pastoral landscape that seemed to question Barcelona’s Cor-Ten steel and Concrete public space ethos. This kind of gentle joint effort between the two designers would arise at different stages over the years.

Their final project together was the development of a garden for La Casa dels Xuklis, a new building and gardens of the AFANOC Foundation, a non-profit organisation working to provide a shelter for families with children suffering from cancer, whose lives have been disrupted due to the complexity of the treatment required. Their flagship project is a building inspired by the foundation’s environmental aims: creating a house according to bioclimatic criteria, where the application of renewable energy and respect for the Environment means using solar thermal energy, thermal mass and natural radiation for interior temperature regulation and the re-use of rainwater in an attractive environment. Unusually for a Spanish building, each apartment has been located on the ground floor, very much like terrace houses organized around central atria, but facing the garden, which will merge with the surrounding environment.

Partially inspired by the development of the Maggie's Cancer Caring Centres, a network of drop-in centres in Great Britain, La Casa dels Xuklis aims to help anyone affected by cancer, providing a home for the families of these children that is separate from hospital but provides support nearby.

The project, to which both David Mackay and Bet Figueras offered their services selflessly, was completed early in 2011 after several years in development. Unfortunately, the same cancer that defeated Bet after three long years of battling prevented her from working on the detailed design required for execution, and she saw herself forced to reduce her input.

The preliminary designs found their way to Patrizia Falcone, Head of Projects and Landscape Works at Barcelona Parks and Gardens Department, which committed funds and technical resources towards the successful execution of the Foundations Garden as intended by Bet Figueras.

Genuinely concerned for Bet Figueras’ vision, Patrizia Falcone chose to remain faithful to, the original proposal, and her team developed a solution not far from what was intended with the help of David Mackay. In its final form, boundaries between building and garden(s) fade in multiple functional configurations that generate spaces able to adapt to the users requirements. In this context, Falcone's team developed the original concept to match the evolution of the architectural design, which has expanded considerably to accommodate more families than the original project catered for.

Thus, the garden emerges as an integral component of a project that the architect David Mackay describes as "a conversation between the building and the garden”, where the latter enjoys the status of ex aedificatoria habitatio, far from the absurd notion of the garden as “one more room in the building” or the “space subservient to the building’s programme” concept, which leads to sterile and monumental landscape designs, iconic in essence, but ultimately devoid of meaning and social significance, and very far from Rubió i Tudurí’s view of the Latin Garden: “The Paradise-Garden is so deeply rooted in the life of humanity, that its roots take priority over Architecture, a completely post-creational phenomenon”.

As the Foundation’s building has evolved, an intention hidden from those involved in its construction has become apparent : to provide every family apartment with a framed view, a little familiar landscape resembling a picture of a garden, a real life version of Van Eyck’s vedute as described by Alain Roger.

As the building is designed to avoid imposing a specific pattern of usage on its inhabitants, a gradient of use emerges, stressing its “social to private to social” centrifugal force. Families will be able to choose the desired modus for social relationship with a gesture: wholly private, wholly public, semi-private or semi- public.

Bet Figueras clever modulation of landform, of background and foreground, is achieved by working the existing landform into undulating profiles where possible and creating a dense ring of planting that advances and recedes in a protective gesture, generating similar, but radically different individual landscapes for each family.

The most telling detail found among the many sketches produced by Figueras in collaboration with Mackay, is a cross-section in which vegetation, already mature, spreads like a protective hand over the building, in a gesture that seems to describe what must have been its innermost desire, one that each family staying at the Casa will be able to share: protecting your family with all your strength.

Whilst the final design was developed in close collaboration with David Mackay’s team, Falcone’s team declined to draw a detailed planting, both for a sense of integrity and respect for Bet Figueras’ intellectual rights, and also in an act of celebration of unique landscape design traditions, as described in Humphrey Repton’s letter to his client at Blaise Castle in 1796, where he outlines the reasons behind his refusal to created detailed plans that would hamper his ability to adapt to the “multiplicity of various situations”.

Instead, a mass planting scheme with a palette of tried and tested Mediterranean plants which was flexible and able to  combine both the original conceptual requirements and the needs of the Foundation, which evolved quickly alongside the implementation of the landscape works.

This way of working implies a return to the roots of landscape design, free of the tyranny of the execution of the “plan” understood as the project objective, when it is simply the beginning of something else, the processes of growth and life itself. Once again, landscape design reflects the eternal conflict between the uncertainty of phusis, and the requirement for absolute precision by technè.

The degree of uncertainty introduced by the absence of a very detailed plan was overcome by working closely with Xavier Perarnau, a gardener who had worked with Bet Figueras on various projects in the past. In a way, the execution of the construction and planting of this garden became both a choral effort and homage to Bet Figueras’ work, life and experience of landscape design as an art that requires “continuous performance” as expressed by Rubió i Tudurí.

Arguably the preeminent Catalan Landscape designer in the transition from the 20th to the 21st century, her work heralded the evolution of the monumentalism and extreme experimental excesses of the Catalan Hard Landscape movement into a new era of exploration, a new understanding by architects and engineers of the emerging role for landscape designers in Spanish public space.

According to Llatzer Moix, Bet Figueras’ good nature “matched the softness, strength and elegance of the Mediterranean vegetation”. La Casa dels Xuklis Garden aspires to become a fitting tribute to her nature and a dignified final performance, a last garden.


Gabino Carballo, Landscape Designer, Barcelona Department of Parks and Gardens.


Barcelona 6th April, 2011