An interview with Kim Wilkie, Land Sculptor

Kim Wilkie - Boughton House
Kim Wilkie is one of my favorite landscape artists. Hailing from England, he studied at Oxford University where he discovered that there was such a thing as ‘landscape architecture’ in his last year of pursuing a history degree.
Kim Wilkie
Wilkie says discovering this profession “came as a thunderbolt…” and his captivating book, Led by the Land (Frances Lincoln Limited, © 2012), reminds us that landscape design delves as deeply into our psyche as any other of the arts.
Led by the Land 

 I saw Wilkie speak at New York Botanical Garden a few years ago.  I learned then that he is a man of deep thoughts with a solid terrestrial connection. 
From the elliptical pool that he designed for the Victoria & Albert museum to his grass amphitheater divided by a zig zag path at The Holt, Wilkie exhibits a contemporary sensibility using earthwork, shape and line as his palette.
His symbolic landscape at Boughton House is a perfect example of this. This memorable landscape is described by Wilkie as  “a garden of land and water; avenues and vistas; rhythm and reflection.” It features an upside down ziggurat, 23 feet deep, which holds a pool of water that mirrors the sky. People can descend via a spiraling grass path.

Kim Wilkie  Boughton House 2

I interviewed him via email – here is what I learned:
1.  How did you come to landscape architectue as a profession? And when?

I hadn't even heard of landscape architecture until I was 21 and working in Iran as a journalist covering environmental projects. I couldn't believe that everything I loved - land, architecture, anthropology, biology…mud, plants - was all rolled into one profession. It took a while to adjust, raise the funds and start my education all over again, but it was worth it. Good to discover some of the best surprises later in life.

2. What things have inspired you?
I'm afraid this is a question that rather defeats me. Being alive at all is quite an inspiration…. My tap root is deep in our small farm.
3.   The ‘philosophy’ page on your website is full of fascinating quotations and excerpts. Can you choose one and tell us how it speaks to you as a landscape designer?

I guess Alexander Pope is the key. He understood that design must respond to the essence of a place and the stories and needs of the people and wildlife in it. '..the Beauties not forced into it, but resulting from it’ I feel quite strongly that landscape architecture is a major responsibility. It concerns our stewardship of the land. Art installations are something else.
Longwood Gardens - photo by Laura McKillop

4.   You are known for ‘sculpting the land’. How did this evolve and would you consider this your primary focus?

The British landscape tradition of land sculpting is embedded in the soil, the climate, the low light and the culture from pre-history. I am just another designer in that chain of evolving tradition. It isn't my primary focus, but it is great fun.

5.    Can you describe your office or wherever it is that you work?

I now work from our family farm. My studio is in a big 19th-century barn that looks out through an orchard to the pasture where the longhorns graze and where my dog is buried in a grass mound. There is a big fire in the winter and in the summer all the doors are open so that the dogs, chickens, swallows and bees saunter through at will.

6.   In your talk at NY Botanical Garden a few winters ago winter you had some wise words for designers. You said that the "notion that you have to invent afresh is daunting and hubristic” and that we should discard this idea.  Can you elaborate on this?

It would be a lonely world if we were isolated designers trying to reinvent everything completely. It seems more realistic to see ourselves as part of a rich tradition that we try to understand, adapt and give a fresh spin. We have such depth of language, culture and subtleties of how we relate to the land that it makes designing a very warm, sociable and continuing contribution to how we live.

Bravo, Kim Wilkie! I quite agree.

For more info and photos go to his website (


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