We catch up with two lauded local landscape architects—Jorge Sanchez, principal designer at SMI Landscape Architecture, and Keith Williams, lead designer at Nievera Williams—for insight into their botanical mastery.
PBI: Describe your landscape architecture philosophy in a sentence.
Sanchez: Know your client.
Williams: Landscape design creates an environment that people can use and enjoy, preserves the land and its history, and emphasizes the purpose of outdoor spaces.
What is landscape architecture 101?
Sanchez: Landscape architecture can take many forms: an imitation of nature, a domination of nature, or an expression of oneself. It should vary depending on the situation.
Williams: As soon as you step outside your front door, we as designers are responsible for everything: irrigation, lighting, roads, walls, pools, planting, etc.
What is the first step or series of steps in your design process?
Sanchez: In order for a garden to be successful for one’s client, the process is a very simple one. Analyze the site with all its advantages and disadvantages; design with the architecture and never ignore it; get into the head of the client and interpret how they live.
Williams: I find that the initial design concept comes from the very first meeting with the client. Getting to know our clients—their needs and how they function as a family—has a lot to do with our designs. The land and how it contributes to the site, as well as the architectural style, weighs heavily on our design intent.
Is there any particular feature that’s distinct to your style?
Sanchez: If I had to pick one design idea our firm is very faithful to, it would be “respect the voids.” Clutter is bad for the soul.
Williams: I lean toward more clean, sustainable design. I’m always looking to repurpose existing materials on a site, whether that’s a tree, structures, walls, etc. I’m a big believer in green-and-white gardens; however, I do like playing with varying shades of green in all-green gardens and creating compositions with textures.
What are some of the elements in an interactive, high-end landscape?
Sanchez: In most cases, a garden should never be completely symmetrical; it is more a mark of inexperience, I think. Even in the most symmetrical of gardens, the surroundings are asymmetric, giving the mind more peaceful space.
Williams: Land provides context between buildings and architecture and creates harmony, balance, light, and a sense of direction.
How do you incorporate respect for the environment into your designs?
Sanchez: The environment is our canvas and, if you don’t respect it, it eventually castigates you. Take a basic example: any plant. Unless it is planted with the correct amount of sunlight and in the correct mix of soil, the plant will decline. It becomes a nightmare of fertilization and chemical sprays.
Williams: Maintaining the history of the site in the overall design intent is very important to me.
Are there any design elements in high demand in Palm Beach?
Sanchez: There are palms in South Florida, as there is taxus up north, but most design ideas have near equal value all over. Privacy and hedges are one. Privacy does influence any garden, large or small.
Williams: In South Florida we have two types of grass: crab grass or a hybrid called Zoysia. Zoysia is my preferred lawn—when it’s installed and maintained perfectly, it looks like a carpet and allows us to create interesting transitions. I love a zero edge in a pool, where the water of the pool, stone surrounding, and grass are all at one level, but the method only works with Zoysia grass for a seamless transition.
What’s one local project you’re particularly proud of?
Sanchez: Pan’s Garden, a public garden we designed for the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach. I have been a part of it since we came up with the concept over 25 years ago. To my knowledge, it remains the only designed-from-scratch native garden in the state. It was designed when very few had any interest in natives.
Williams: The Royal Poinciana Plaza was designed by architect John Volk in the late 1950s, but over time it became run down and underutilized. In 2016, Up Markets out of Boston took over, and we were fortunate to join in helping revitalize the plaza, bringing back the gardens and creating interaction between the outdoor spaces and the people using them. It was a joy to preserve an area with major historical significance in Palm Beach.