By Yvette Tan

Constructing a garden means more than picking one’s favorite plants and placing them wherever one wants.

Sometimes, and more often than we realize, one needs the help of an expert when planning for greenery, particularly if it’s for public use. This is where a landscape architect comes in. “We do a lot of planning before we plant something,” says Erick Yambao, CEO of Plontur, a landscape architecture firm that focuses on the design of residential and commercial spaces.

Landscape architecture takes into consideration not just the buildings that will surround the green space, but also the genius loci or spirit of the place, choosing and arranging plants in such a way that will evoke a desired emotion. “Architecture’s focus is housing people inside the building. Us, it’s the other way around—how do we integrate that experience of nature with everything that you do, in that development,” he says.

The S Residence brings together the architecture and the surrounding landscape through a holistic design style. It features a naturally curated landscape that is unique on its own but still complementary to the architecture of the home.

In short, it’s like branding, but for a park, garden, or even a tourist-centric farm. “It has a lot of effects in behavior and actions of how the people think,” Yambao adds. “On the commercial side… it’s all about the experience of the place, the cohesive branding with the architect, the landscape, the interior—it’s all about design… I would think that other people would notice it, but not a lot of people can articulate it.”

Addressing the disconnect between architecture and nature

Yambao, 34, is a Landscape Architecture graduate from the University of the Philippines, Diliman. Plontur, which is Icelandic for plants, began in 2017, and is well known for its elegant, straightforward aesthetic, which complements the surrounding architecture. The company also likes to experiment, resulting in landscape designs that modern, yet otherworldly.

There’s a growing trend, especially overseas, to link nature and architecture. A good example would be Singapore’s Jewel Changi Airport, which contains a sprawling indoor garden blended into its many facilities and amenities. “The landscape is intertwined with the architecture, which is good,” Yambao says.

This means more than just deciding which plant goes where. The landscape architect also has to determine if the plants are of the right size, if they’re available in the area, and if they will thrive in the climate and in that specific space given factors like sun and shade.

For example, plants that thrive in Metro Manila might not necessarily thrive in a coastal city like Bohol. “When we design something, we already know what plant can work for that site, and we know the suppliers already that can provide the plants there,” Yambao says. “Our goal is to get to the point where we can influence our suppliers and growers to grow different types of plants based on different specifications.”

Plontur’s CEO Erick Yambao believes that landscape and architecture should complement each other.

Also to be considered are how much maintenance the garden will need, and whether whoever will be taking care of the garden will be able to understand and continue the landscape designer’s intent. “If we’re going to do master planning, there’s still a need for an architect, engineer, (and) interior designer. Ultimately, it’s a collaborative effort, but I think the landscape architect has got to take the lead, especially if the development is big and majority of the spaces are allocated for open space.”

Landscape architecture isn’t just for residential and public spaces. Its principles can also be used in a tourism-heavy farm. Yambao cites an example, using a hypothetical 5-10 hectare piece of farmland. “We develop that farm where instead of you bringing your produce to them, they will go to your farm to buy the produce from you. That’s where I think the design comes in,” he says.

“We say, this place will be for events (and) the community, so we can bring people in to experience the place. Maybe for Phase 2, we can do an events place that will cater to the people who are renting the site. Phase 3, we do a bed and breakfast around that events place.

“That’s where master planning comes in and basically, I gave you a road map with what you can do in your site so that you can maximize your land (and) investment.”

Planning is an important, yet underrated step in construction. “It doesn’t mean that you have to stick to the plan, but it just gives you direction where to go,” Yambao says. “If you don’t have a goal, you can’t define the steps for you to get there. So as designers and planners, we can come in to help you with that, especially if you only have a very broad idea of what you want to do with your site… The open spaces, the planting of the trees, the architecture, the approach of how to get there, it’s all part of what we’re doing as landscape architects.”

Putting nature first has the potential to make an area thrive. Studies show that the more affluent a community, the greener it tends to be. A private village, for example, will have tree-lined roads while a slum area will hardly have any greenery. There is also evidence to prove that being exposed to nature can relieve stress and calm people down. “Look at Singapore, they’re a first world country. They’re very small but they put a lot of importance on nature, and I think if we do the same thing here, if we lose the poverty mindset and strive to develop things with good impact without looking at profit (first), then maybe we can be at par with Singapore.”

An industry with a lot of potential

There are a lot of untapped opportunities in the local horticulture market. Aside from the cultivation of ornamental plants, a multi-billion dollar industry internationally and one that is slowly growing locally, there are also more options opening for different professions that work within. Thus, it would be a good idea to educate clients on the difference between, say, a supplier, a gardener, an architect, an interior designer, and a landscape architect. Though their lines may blur sometimes, each has a specific specialty, one that can bring a park or farm or garden to life when utilized properly.

To further help clients achieve their vision, Plontur has Garden Plus, which is focused on residential developments, and Studio X, which is more focused on commercial. “I’m trying to explore both because I feel like I have two different markets. The first is a bit high-end, a bit luxurious, and then the other one is high-impact and high-scale, so I don’t think I will adapt to only just one design philosophy,” Yambao says. “One can be a very intimate experience (while) the other is broad and playful, and I think you can see that in our designs.”

Landscape architects have been around for a while, but locally, people are just beginning to tap into the potential of integrating nature and architecture. “People should put more importance on nature. There are a lot of benefits to it that I think sometimes is very hard to quantify. There aren’t many studies but as human beings, there’s such a thing as biophilic design, where we’re naturally connected to the environment. And if we focus on that, I believe that slowly, we will grow in a way that is sustainable,” Yambao says. “I feel that we’re slowly getting there with the onset of the sustainability (and) eco-friendly stuff. I think we’re going in the right direction, and it’s a call for everyone to pitch in. This is something that we can’t do individually as me or you or as Plontur. I think everyone should pitch in and that’s when we should see the effects.”

For now, Plontur continues to break barriers with their stunning designs. “We’re having fun, (especially) with the clients that give us the freedom to design. Plontur (is) an avenue for me to explore my principles in life, my principles, so I’m actually having fun working,” Yambao says. “I feel like everyone here feels like we’re doing something significant, which is good because most of my guys are millennials.” (Photos courtesy of Erick Yambao)

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s September 2019 issue.