Bruce Weaving is a South African-born landscaper who has been living and working in the south of France for the past 15 years. Karyn Richards interviewed him (questions via e-mail) about his work as a landscaper there, and the similarities and differences between these two countries in the field of landscaping.
Bruce Weaving, an ex-South African landscaper, has lived and worked in France for the past 15 years.
KR: How did your interest in landscaping come about?
BW: Ever since I can remember, my mother had a keen interest in gardening and my father, a contracting civil engineer, gave me an interest in the construction side of projects. There were plenty of opportunities for my mother to create new gardens as we moved home around Namaqualand, while my father built roads.
As a child I was very close to nature, running barefoot along the Orange River and then later, (with shoes) in the “koppies” of Springbok.
KR: Please give details on your landscaping studies in South Africa
BW: I studied architecture at the Cape Technikon and qualified with a National Diploma in Architecture. I later completed a post graduate landscape design course at the Ecole de Jardin et Paysages de Grasse in southern France, near Nice. (Many people say that Nice is Cape Town’s twin city).
KR: Where did you work after qualifying and were there any South African projectsthat were especially enjoyable, challenging or unusual?
BW: I worked, amongst others, for Krige & Krige Architects, on the Worcester Teachers Training College project and during this time I had to liaise with (the late) Ian Ford, the landscape architect for the project. I enjoyed the almost unrestricted freedom to be creative on the landscaping side and appreciated the huge difference a well thought out landscape plan can make to a project. In this case it was a meandering stream through the boarding houses of the college which ended up in a recreational lake. It seemed so much more exiting to create landscapes compared to buildings, where there are so many restrictions, both administrative and technical.I was ready to become a student again. I was hooked!
KR: When did you start landscaping in France and did you have to re-qualify?
BW: I left South Africa in 1990 to do a one year European stint, but eventually married my French girlfriend (whom I had met in Mauritius) and have stayed on, 15 years to date!! As mentioned above, I did have to study again in France in my newly chosen field of landscape architecture. These studies were part time, and I created garden plans for local nurseries and landscapers in the Saint Tropez area of southern France. The French seemed to like what I was doing, compared to what their retired fisherman guardian / gardener was proposing. Clients included Jonny Halliday ( France’s answer to Elvis, ) as well getting to meet Robbie Williams, and even a certain Mr.& Mrs. Oppenheimer from London.
KR: When you first started, did the language present any difficulties?
BW: It took up to two years for me to feel comfortable speaking French. I struggled along using my hands to explain what I was trying to get done. Often I had to quickly sketch a technical detail until heads started nodding in unison.
KR: What are the differences and/or similarities between landscaping in SouthAfrica and the south of France?
BW: The main difference, in my opinion, is the way in which work is done. Generally in South Africa, the landscape architect or designer deals with one landscape company who provides a complete A-Z landscape installation.
In France you could be dealing with a nurseryman (selling his own idea of plants that he thinks will look good in your client’s garden), an excavation company, a plantation company, an automatic watering company, an exterior lighting designer and a further lighting installation company. A pool mason often only does pools, so a further company has to be found to do paving and build rock face retaining walls. Each of these individual companies has specific insurances, so can only legally build or do work in their specific field. I believe it is easier to find one, or perhaps two people in a landscaping company to take on all the construction responsibility.
In France, anything up to half a dozen “artisans” is the norm, with all the problems this entails!In the south of France where I am based, the climatic conditions are very similar to thesouthern Cape. We get slightly less rain than the area around Cape Town, so plants tend tobe more resistant to droughts along the Mediterranean coast. Soil types are generallyalkaline, although some pockets of “acid” soil exist near Toulon ( and Corsica) where it
has even been possible to grow Proteas!
The protected Royal Canadel Park near Saint Tropez has the full scope of plants thatgrow in the area from all the Mediterranean climates around the world including Agavesfrom Mexico, Acacias from Australia and naturally, an enormous palette of floweringplants brought to the French Riviera by an English botanist in the early 19th
century. These include Agapanthus, Gazanias, Plumbago ‘du Cap’ and our Strelitzias and Pelargoniums.The local Pinus pinea, Olea europaea, Cupressus ‘de Province’ and colourful Iris ‘deProvince’, Lavandula, Rosmarinus etc. abound, with large Morus alba « Platane » treeslining village roads and squares.
Generally water is scarce so only clients with groundwater / boreholes can afford to havecolourful gardens and green lawn all summer long. Residential clients usually only visittheir holiday homes for a month in summer and perhaps a few other weeks during the year, so gardens have to be planned to look their best during the summer holidays.
KR: Do you undertake residential or commercial landscaping or both? Hard or soft landscaping or both? Any preferences?
BW: My own landscape design work is mostly residential, but I do work with a Frenchlandscape architect who does commercial projects as well as projects for town andregional councils. We have collaborated on some interesting coastal protection projects,including the conversion of a military air field to a 80 ha public recreation park. In France,
most landscape architects are generally self employed andteam up on big projects if theirphilosophies or approaches to design are compatible.
I prefer to get my French collaborator involved in all the administration and red tape
required for large regional or town planning projects, while I enjoy the creative side on the drawing board. Our French counterparts seem to find the long lunches with mayors more enjoyable than creating a new roadside landscaping project in Saint Tropez.
Personally I enjoy the creation of hard landscaping features – patios, pool houses, waterfeatures, pathways etc. These are strong design elements in Provence. I tend to treat plants in the garden in much the same way a decorator would treat the interior of a house… to create the right tone or mood, depending on the architecture of the house.
KR: Do you have several people working for you? What are labour conditions like inFrance, compared to South Africa?
BW: I was having huge problems getting a few different “artisans” to perform or even come to a site meeting (after long lunches), so I decided to start my own design and landscape construction company. That was eight years ago and I have not looked back. Two years ago, an expat Zimbabwean farmer approached me to purchase six ha of land in a fertile area along a river. I took the plunge, and am nowin the process of creating a nursery with my employees (three to seven, depending on work loads). Heavy masonry works and pools are often sub-contracted out.
I hope to create an “eco-educational farm” with sun and wind powered generators forelectricity and to produce our own sunflower oil to run tractors and machinery withour own bio –fuel ( a 60 % mix with refined sunflower oil ). We will pump our own water, create our own fertilisers (animal and sea weed) and generally try not to rely on expensive,
transported products from the four corners of Europe. Labour and services are very expensive in France. Social charges cost employers up to 50% more than the salary of any employee but at least workers are well covered for all
medical and social needs.
KR: Do you obtain work through word of mouth, advertising or tendering. Iftendering, does the procedure differ from South Africa ?
BW: Most of my work is through word of mouth. I do however advertise on certain locally based English language websites ( www.building-solutions-fr.com ) and I find myself having to choose between jobs, depending on creative input, distance to site etc. I leave all the tender procedures of large commercial projects to my French landscape architect friend but help him with some of the initial sketch designs.
The most original project we worked on was the Ambassador’s Palace in Equatorial Guinea, for which we provided ideas and working drawings. A local on-site company then took over for the installation phase.
KR: Do you work closely with French landscape architects? If so, are there any problems you encounter? The reason for this question is because in South Africa there is quite a bit of conflict between the landscape architects and the landscape contractors and I have chaired a few workshops on this subject. The problems have existed for a long time.
BW: I do work closely with a certain landscape architects. Some appreciate me for my hard landscape design input and others for my horticultural qualifications. I used to have some problems with landscape contractors, even more so as my French improved! However, since I started my own landscape construction company, my problems have been easier toresolve and I actually get to have a full night’s sleep!
Effectively, local landscape architects have major problems getting themselves understood, that’s why they prefer working with me, a fellow designer who can read a plan andimplement the ideas on site.
KR: Any other information about your experiences as a South African landscaperworking in the south of France? Which country is easier to work in or are they just too different from each other ?
BW: Most of my experience in landscaping has been in France, where I have got used tothe sometimes complicated way of life. My lunch breaks are even becoming longer! I do think however, that it is probably easier to get an idea off the ground in South Africa, simply because South Africa is an “ideas” country and people know how to motivate
each other to make it happen, in good time. Also, they are not afraid of bold new ideas forprojects, and will often go the extra mile to make it happen. In France anything ispossible, but it’s guaranteed to be more complicated than it needs to be.
I am really pleased that France is becoming more and more aware of the importance and perception of the landscape, for example the case of the new TGV (high speed train) line which carves its way gracefully from Paris to Nice. Twenty years ago there was a huge outcry and talk of it “destroying the landscape.” Today the younger people perceive it, together with state of the art bridges, as “sculptures” within the landscape. This is not just due to the huge economic influx the TGV has brought to the areas it serves, but also to environmental education at schools, which starts with children at a young age.
The purpose of the “eco-educational farm” we are creating in France is to ride this wave ofeco-friendly education, to help make students from the youngest age more aware of their surrounds and to help them perceive a better world for tomorrow. (We would welcome South African landscaping students if they wished to join us in learning how we think and work in France. Accommodation can be provided on site). I feel that in South Africa there could be a need for this type of education on a large scale.
Running barefoot along the banks of the Orange River, I had never even heard of landscape architecture! Now I am passionate about it and hope that South Africans can say they know that the profession will exist 20 years from now.
As Chris de Hart, a Cape Town architect once told me as a student: “Bruce, anybody can design, all you need are eyes.”I have had an eye on the landscape ever since!