“This is what we’ve been doing for many hundreds of years,” says Abbess Monika Thumm, the head of Kloster Mariazell — a monastery on the picture-postcard-pretty northern shore of Lake Zurich. She explains how her Catholic order of Cistercian nuns put a bean in a box to cast their vote when making decisions. “White is yes and black is no,” adds Sister Andrea Fux, opening the drawer that reveals the outcome. “Every monastery has such a box.” Each result is duly archived.
Fifteen years ago, the voting method was called upon when the municipality was approached to lease an adjacent plot of land to Italian landscape architect Enzo Enea. The bean count tipped to “yes,” recalls Abbess Monika, a cheerful 70-year-old who joined the monastery in 1984. “We were very excited about his proposal. It is a wonderful use of the land.” The nuns welcomed their ‘green neighbour’.
Enea and his landladies have since built a charming, harmonious relationship – one of friendship and cooperation. For example, when the monastery church was renovated in 2010-2011, Enea redesigned the gardens, which are both beautiful and easy to maintain, with a steady flow of cut flowers, herbs to make teas and tinctures, and fruit for jams – jars that are sold by Enea. Of the convent’s head gardener, Sister Ruth, Enea exclaims, “She’s wonderful. She’s my girlfriend.’
But signing the first 99-year lease required a leap of faith for Enea. “It was pretty much a swamp,” he recalls of the land he drained by planting trees — specifically Taxodium distichum, or bald cypress, a species native to the American South. “I invested and built, and I hoped and I prayed it would work.”
In it, Sister Andrea states that “Enea is a bit like a monk”, explaining that when the order of the Cistercians was founded in France in 1098, “the monks were very close to nature. They drained and worked wastelands, and they had methods of draining swamps.” Today, the 7.5-acre plot is approached via a driveway lined by the stately bald cypress trees, opening onto a lush landscape, supporting 3,300 trees and housing Enea’s workshops and design offices, clustered around a sleek, glass-clad showroom. Employing some 240 people, the team has built private gardens from Basel to Bogotá – for clients including the late Tina Turner and Sabeeka Bint Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, wife of the King of Bahrain – as well as hotel projects such as the Mandarin Oriental in Beverly Hills and the Peninsula properties in Istanbul and London.
Enea, who trained as an industrial designer before turning to gardens, is known for combining a flair for planting mature trees with engineering know-how, especially when tackling challenging garden spaces such as rooftops. However, other facets of the Enea universe are more personal. First, his collection of old pots. “Some are Roman, 2000 years old, others are Greek and Turkish. That’s a Medici original,” he points to two large outdoor storage racks. “They were all collected by my father in the 1960s and 1970s,” he continues, explaining how his father’s business of manufacturing, importing and trading outdoor plant pots in sandstone and terracotta was the starting point for his own landscaping career.
But perhaps most important of all is its treasure trove of “trees that people would have cut down and thrown away,” he says, pointing to a red-leaved Japanese maple rescued from a nearby construction project. “Replanting old trees is our specialty. It’s very hard to do. You have to dig by hand, so you can see exactly which root does what, and then cut it in a certain way.” His method is based on the bonsai technique, scaled up to mature trees and using a mycelium fungus to grow new networks between the roots. The motivation is ecological: “If you cut down a 200-year-old tree, you have to plant it again 2,000 new ones to produce the same amount of oxygen.”
Fifty of Enea’s finest rescue specimens, each at least 100 years old, are brought together in his Tree Museum – a separate room marked out with Palladian gateposts (rescued by his father) and hedges of yew. The latter is symbolic of Enea: “The Celts and the Romans wrapped the bodies of their kings in yew when they died, and it is also used in chemotherapy – it is a transitional plant between life and death.” It is a mirror of the current state of humanity, he says. “Here I show what can keep us alive. The most important is oxygen. I want to make people think about the nature we have lost and how we can get back into balance.”
This balance is partly quantifiable. “We’re also a laboratory here,” adds Enea, whose tree-populated estate has its own microclimate, recently measured by drone surveys in collaboration with the Eastern Switzerland University of Applied Sciences in the nearby town of Rapperswil to be four or five degrees cooler. to be than the environment. But the Tree Museum is also deeply poetic. “The first tree you see is the wild apple – it will blossom in a day, boom – and then the second is a wild cherry.” Some trees are “framed” with sandstone slabs (remnants of his father’s pottery workshop) and an orangery wall from a French chateau (courtesy of Sotheby’s) will bloom with roses this month.
Works of art are also scattered: three high-gloss mushroom sculptures by Swiss artists Sylvie Fleurie to brightly colored beehives by a German conceptual artist Olaf Nicolai, standing next to functioning beehives. “I’m looking for art that helps me enter into a dialogue with nature,” Enea explains. Ugo Rondinone’s pile of stone slabs of a sculpture, meanwhile, is a nod to its neighbors – one of a series titled nuns + monks. “He showed us a picture of the nun sculptures on his phone and asked us what we thought; whether he should buy one,” says Sister Andrea. “We said, ‘Why not!'”
In many ways crossing the road to the Kloster Mariazell is like stepping back in time. The building dates back to the 13th century and the sound of chiming bells fills the air – they are tied around the necks of a herd of goats. In the church, Sister Andrea begins to sing, demonstrating the room’s enviable acoustics. It gives me goosebumps. “Can you imagine nuns living here 800 years ago, surrounded only by forests and wolves?” Enea adds as an encore. “How they created this way of life in connection with nature, staying true to their beliefs until death. I see myself as an extension of some of their beliefs.”
But the sisters are far from isolated from the world. They post as @klostermariazell on Instagram, have just published the boOK Most du mich, Gott? (You mean me, God?) and running an online boutique. They also take in refugees from Ukraine and run what they call the Time Out program – a sort of work retreat for people who “need to take a moment to look at their lives and the direction they are going,” Abbess explains. Monica. “They can stay here for €100 a month; they pray with us and work three days a week,” continues Sister Andrea, adding that daily tasks include baking bread, making candles and gardening. “Working in nature, getting their hands dirty in the ground, it grounds them,” adds Abbess Monika. “The feedback we’re getting is that it really helps — that they’ve found their way.”
One of Enea’s team helps garden the program at the monastery. And at Enea’s headquarters, former Time Out participant Dominik now works in his practice. Enea is currently collaborating with its landladies to expand this holistic offering. “We don’t know exactly which way we’re going yet,” he says, referring to the fast-growing concept of setting up a Future Skills Academy.
“Enea is someone with a vision,” says Abbess Monika. “I admire his ability to go beyond the superficial and dig a little deeper into the meaning of things. This is something that connects the two of us.” Another connection is their trees; the Kloster Mariazell recently handed over an area of first accretion to the local forestry to create a nature reserve. “It is a scientific monitoring biodiversity project,” says Abbess Monika. “New mosses are growing, very rare lichens and insects are returning. They have discovered beetles that have never been seen in Switzerland before.”
Later this month, Enea will present its vision Art Basel (from 15 to 18 June), an installation of trees in the central courtyard of the fair. “We built Treetopia – a forest of the future and a vision of what could be,” he says. “It shows how green spaces can be integrated into the most urban design and argues that we must save trees to save ourselves.” Amidst the hubbub of the art world, it will be a space for quiet contemplation. Sister Andrea agrees: “Just taking your time, when everything is going so fast, clears the mind. It’s so important.”