Obituaries

Jacques Wirtz, 93, innovative landscape designer

Mr. Wirtz designed gardens for private residences, large estates, public parks, museums, college campuses, and more.
INGE NIJS Studio
Mr. Wirtz designed gardens for private residences, large estates, public parks, museums, college campuses, and more.

Jacques Wirtz, an acclaimed Belgian landscape architect whose innovative gardens blended sculptural treatment of boxwood and yew hedges with a deep knowledge of plants and flowers, died on July 21 at his home in Schoten, Belgium. He was 93.

His son Peter said the cause was pneumonia.

Mr. Wirtz, whose career began when he opened a flower nursery in 1946, would decades later be compared to André Le Nôtre, the French landscape architect who designed the magnificent gardens of Versailles.

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“He applied classical techniques of gardening in new and inventive ways, using rhythms, patterns and repetitions that were truly hypnotic,” Brad McKee, editor of Landscape Architecture Magazine, said in a telephone interview. “He broke out of the symmetries that you’d see in places like Versailles and violate them in quite memorable ways.”

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Mr. Wirtz designed gardens for private residences, large estates, public parks, museums, college campuses, and corporate headquarters.

In Paris, he redesigned the Carrousel Garden, which links the Louvre to the Tuileries, and also the gardens of Élysée Palace, the residence of French presidents. In Osaka, Japan, he created the garden at the Belgian pavilion of Expo ’70, his breakthrough international project.

At the Crystalline private museum in Mol-Rauw, Belgium, Wirtz transformed the lakeside grounds of an old estate with tall gray-beige grasses that would wave in the wind in the sandy soil as they ascended to the main building.

And in northern England, he and his son Peter reimagined the gardens at the 11th-century Alnwick Castle for the 12th Duchess of Northumberland. It included a labyrinth with 500 bamboo plants, a rose garden with 3,000 roses in 180 varieties, a serpent garden with swirling yew hedges and eight steel water sculptures, a soaring water cascade, and a $7 million treehouse built amid 17 lime trees.

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The duchess wanted to hire the Wirtzes — Jacques and his sons Peter and Martin, who worked with him — as soon as she met them in 1990.

“I had to give them free rein,” she told The New York Times Magazine in 2004.

Mr. Wirtz, whose thinking was inspired by the music of Bach, Bruckner, and Chopin, believed a garden had to have integrity in all seasons.

“A garden that is not beautiful in winter is not a beautiful garden,” he often said. To that end, Mr. Wirtz preferred to use trees with strong branch systems that retain their form without leaves, and plants like beech hedges, whose leaves turn a coppery hue in winter.

Thomas Rainer, a landscape architect who teaches planting design at George Washington University, said in an interview that Mr. Wirtz’s art “didn’t emerge from any high-minded concepts, but from decades of physically taming landscapes and hedges. He started as a gardener.”

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Mr. Wirtz’s expansive private garden — on the grounds of an 18th-century estate where he lived — served as a laboratory for his horticultural designs.

‘He applied classical tech-niques of garden-ing in new and inventive ways.’

Brad McKee, Landscape Architecture Magazine editor  

“The plants, at first glance, appear to be pagan creatures immobilized under some sort of spell,” Véronique Vienne wrote in Metropolis magazine in 2010. “In the foreground, the wavy rows of unevenly clipped boxwood, as intricate as cloud formations on Tibetan scrolls, cast strange scalloped shadows on the silky-smooth surface of the dry, sandy walkways.”

Mr. Wirtz was born in Antwerp on Dec. 31, 1924, to Maurice and Maria (Van Nes) Wirtz. His father was a stockbroker and travel agent, and his mother was a homemaker. As a youngster, Mr. Wirtz did poorly in school.

“He was ridiculed because of his fiery ginger hair and wasn’t taken seriously by his teachers,” Peter Wirtz said in a eulogy for his father.

But he found his calling at horticultural school in Vilvoorde, about 26 miles from Antwerp.

During World War II, Mr. Wirtz was forced by the occupying Germans to work in Germany — he found work in a nursery — and later served in the Belgian infantry.

Working from his own nursery after the war, he started knocking on doors in Schoten looking to maintain and create gardens.

“My father knew hunger in the war,” Peter Wirtz told The Times in 2004. “I think that as a result of his experience he was driven to work very hard; he never wanted to be hungry again. When we were children, he worked from 7 in the morning to 7 in the evening. Every day.”

His garden for the Belgian pavilion at Expo ’70 brought him wide recognition. But his travels to Japan also provided him with an advanced horticultural education in Japanese gardens, which are known for their precision, and helped influence his gardening.

His reputation grew even more when he won a design contest for the Carrousel Garden, with its radiating yew hedges.

In addition to his son Peter, Mr. Wirtz leaves his wife, Wilhelmina Thiers; his sons Martin and Geert; a daughter, Anne Wirtz; seven grandchildren; and a sister, Mona Wirtz.

In the last few years, as Mr. Wirtz left more work to his sons, he spent time in his garden, sketching his plants. Describing the range of his father’s work, Peter Wirtz said in his eulogy that he “could intuitively and smoothly switch from modern asceticism to a wild cornucopia.”