When Your Backyard Costs $37.5 Million
When the world's superrich shop for a lavish garden to frame their sprawling estates, they call Belgian master-landscaper François Goffinet.
Goffinet's secret weapon: a deep knowledge of the land and a timeless classical style. With his pavilions, ironwork, gate lodges, and follies (who doesn’t love a good hedge maze?), he’s reviving the grand tradition of the 18th century one garden at the time.
The Making of the Garden
His client list stretches from European aristocracy to global titans of business, all of whom entrust Goffinet’s vision, expertise, and sophistication to create an oasis of beauty around their multimillion-dollar residences. But the rich and famous are not the only ones with Goffinet in their phonebook: The landscaper was recently commissioned by monks to design the Cistercian Abbey of Notre Dame de Saint Rémy of Rochefort in the Belgian Ardennes.
The Trappist monks happen to have good taste in more than just landscaping, being producers of the award-winning Trappistes Beer of Rochefort.
Verdant tranquillity doesn’t come cheap. Goffinet’s gardens range from $2.2 million up to $37.5 million (so far), not counting the designer’s visits to curate the land and maintain its luster. The completion alone can take a couple of years.
“It takes time to get to know the land, to understand it," says Goffinet from his studio in Brussels. “Clients give us their wish lists, we then price a project depending on the level of sophistication requested. I find that many of them want to recreate a memory of their grandparents' garden.”
In his European and North American gardens, it is common to see long avenues of linden, beech, and oak trees.
"I study the subtle association of shade and light and transparencies; trees' shadows are fundamental to the serenity of the garden."
He’ll compose flower beds like paintings with the help of a team of colourists, a botanist, and a horticulturalist. "I use green, blue, pale pink, and white to maintain harmony,” says Goffinet. “You will rarely find a strong orange and yellow presence in one of my gardens"
And the Golden Ratio of proportions, of course, is essential.
Born in 1955 in Castle Reux to the Belgian royal family, Goffinet felt the urge from a young age to create places of beauty. The first garden he worked on was his own, originally created in 1750 by his ancestors in Annevoie. Having discovered his green fingers as a teen, he studied landscaping and gardening at the Royal Horticultural Society in England and worked under the supervision of British master Russell Page, whom he succeeded, curating the iconic Donald M. Kendall Sculpture Gardens, at the PepsiCo headquarters in Purchase, N.Y. Francois has dedicated more than 30 years to maintaining these gardens.
His philosophy espouses the idea that a garden is all about the relationship between man, space, and nature and that it is the gardeners job to link those together.
"The art of gardening is the music of space which makes your body vibrate. It is the harmonious arrangement of notes."
Late media billionaire John Kluge, once America's richest man, commissioned Goffinet to design 220 acres of stunning land surrounding his family estate south of Charlottesville, Va. Today Albemarle Estate serves as an upscale bed and breakfast—plus a winery—now part of Trump Hotel Collection. (In contrast to the idylls of the garden, John Kluge Junior alleged land-deal fraud in a lawsuit against Trump, after the now Republican nominee acquired the property, once marketed at $100 million, for a mere $6.2 million.)
"British clients often ask for gate lodges, which were popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. You need to preserve the spirit of the land, respect its tradition," says Goffinet.
The designer cut his teeth curating the landscapes of some of England's most iconic castles, among which are the 250-acre park around Leeds Castle in Kent, Longleat House, where he created an arboretum, and Badminton Estate gardens.
In London he recreated and restored the elegance of the Victorian age in 14 urban garden squares stretching from Harrods (SW3) to the Boltons (SW5). Among the best known are Egerton Gardens and Onslow Square & Gardens.
One of Goffinet’s signature features is his use of water, making the irrigation of his gardens a work of art.
"Using turbulent water. which needs to be artificially pumped, ruins the harmony of look and sound,” explains Goffinet, who prefers to use so-called laminated water in elevated reservoirs and gravity alone. “A single jet of water that flows naturally and shines beautifully in the sun, on the other hand, produces a delicate noise."
His work has been heavily influenced by his ancestors' water creations in Annevoie, and today he uses the same tricks in his gardens.
They used to collect spring water from the hills and conduct it via small stone channels to reservoirs created above the gardens in the shape of canals. From here water would travel in pipes made of oak trees hollowed by incandescent red iron.
"This apparatus was created in 1750 and lasted for 200 years. The last original pipe was replaced in the 1960s," says Goffinet.
Among the most complex of his water features is a mystery "grotto" in the gardens of an 18th century Oxfordshire residence.
"What’s astonishing about the grotto is the mosaic of waterfalls and pathways contained within, including automatic surprise doors, stairways, and other tricks typical of Renaissance gardens, all decorated with shells and mirrors.”
If you want to get a taste of Francois' world of gardens, Bank of Luxembourg is celebrating his life work with a summer exhibition in Luxembourg through Sept. 15.