FERNANDO WONG IS acutely aware of his surroundings at all times. He sees beauty and opportunity all around, and anything from a breathtaking ocean vista to a statement piece of jewelry can spark inspiration in him.
Already a living legend of landscape architecture, the Panama-born Wong has been creating glorious gardens and “civilized jungles” since he arrived in the United States in 2001, and his impressive roster of projects continues to flourish faster than wildflowers. The Institute of Contemporary Art Miami, which opened in December 2017, is home to Wong’s majestic 15,000-square-foot sculpture garden, which he designed in associated with Project-Space/Jonathan Caplan, that brings a peaceful energy to the dense urban area. He has worked alongside esteemed architect Richard Meier to transform the iconic Surf Club into the Four Seasons Hotel, one of the world’s most anticipated inaugurations of the past year. There, Wong fashioned a 9-acre oceanside refuge, complete with an intimate courtyard, and mélange of 500 palms and trees stretching between the property’s multiple pools and 800-foot expanse of beachfront. In his upcoming second endeavor for the prestigious brand, Four Seasons Hotel and Private Residences Fort Lauderdale, Wong will collaborate with top London design visionaries Tara Bernerd and Martin Brudnizki to channel nature into a vertical palette, extending from the ground to the third-floor pool deck, resulting in a private oasis that seamlessly connects the edifice to the adjacent seascape.
To the delight of Palm Beach dwellers, Wong finally brought his unparalleled talent here, opening a cozy and charming apartmentlike office atop a spiraling staircase on Seaview Avenue, and along with partner Tim Johnson, now divides his time between Palm Beach and Miami. Together with their valued staff, they work on a bevy of high-profile projects, the sum of which “would freak people out,” Wong adds, if they knew how many his firm juggles simultaneously.
“Sometimes it’s a fast process, and we are in and out. Others might take years. Some never end. But each project is our child,” says Wong lovingly of his body of work.
Initially lured by local celebrity interior designer Lillian Fernandez, Wong worked with her on his first Palm Beach venture, a sprawling oceanfront estate, and is now thrilled to be masterminding the landscape design of her personal residence. Also on the docket are two other landmark Palm Beach homes and a total renovation of the grounds of the Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach on Ocean Boulevard, currently in the rendering stage and slated to begin this summer.
While Wong is sincerely flattered by the adoration of his work, at the same time, he sees it as a large responsibility. “There’s so much that goes into a landscape that it’s important to educate the client and engage with them to deliver the best possible outcome,” he explains. “I have my own vision, but I also need to implement theirs.” Faced with the task of framing the most desirable vistas, or on other occasions, obscuring the undesirable, he likes it best when working in conjunction with a trained team of architects and designers who understand and appreciate his point of view. “When we all work together, the results are so gratifying,” he says.
He fondly recalls one of his earlier Palm Beach projects: Seaspray. It was a home for a couple whose children were already off to college. The wife wanted to live in Provence, France, while the husband fancied golfing—two things which, in Wong’s opinion, didn’t really go together. To negotiate the contrasting concepts, he sculpted a manicured landscape using varying tones of green, infusing lavender to impart the visual and aromatic appeal of the French countryside. “That was a fun one,” he reflects.
Realizing early that his capabilities included the realms of architecture, interior design and landscape, Wong honed his ability to combine the three under the tutelage of noted landscape architect Robert Parsley, whom he considers his mentor. “He taught me one of the most crucial facets of what I do, which is that the plants that are most thriving are the native ones, and they are the ones to pay attention to,” states Wong.
Gardening is one thing; Wong’s craft, landscape architecture, is quite another. He literally builds structures, using nature as his construction materials, and is essentially an architect, interior designer, builder and landscaper all rolled into one. “I try to create an architectural vision with vegetation. For instance, if I have a large green canopy, that can be my columns or ceiling,” he illustrates. “Light comes through, creating atmosphere. The foundation can be achieved with hardscape materials, as well as lawn, sand and other products. I use hedges to make walls, then add colors and forms to create my accents and accessories,” says Wong, drawing the parallel to decorating a room.
He welcomes the fact that his undertakings fluctuate between commercial and residential, simply for the fact that it keeps things challenging and interesting. He likens commercial work to solving a jigsaw puzzle with numerous pieces that need to be put together. “We get our marching orders and present a detailed conceptual design with mood boards, in which I need to demonstrate how the landscape will come to life. We must consider factors such as lighting, safety, how much shade is required, how many chaise lounges there will be. We go through the construction-documents phase, review final budgets, etcetera,” details Wong of the complex process. “There are many wrinkles to smooth out.” Conversely, residential is simpler, and as Wong admits, often more joyful: “You are helping someone realize their dream home, and in doing so, you become part of their family.”
Nevertheless, his residential work is accompanied by its own obstacles. “My first presentation is my first impression,” notes Wong. “It needs to be thoughtful and cohesive, and I must always know my audience.” In these cases, Wong will contemplate whether the client has a young family requiring large open lawn spaces for children to play, or for the mature couple, he might be asked to incorporate more layers or even strive to re-create themes that have appealed to them through their travels. “The main goal is for the client to perceive what I am trying to convey, with the images, vegetation, color, light, textures and materials that I’m proposing.”
No matter the scope of the job, two aspects remain constant for Wong. The first is keeping an open mind. “It’s OK to be eager to do amazing things, but beauty is subjective, and often you can learn from others’ perception of beauty, so you need to go with the flow,” he remarks. “With so many relevant architectural styles, you might learn a lot from other disciplines. Sometimes you are implementing someone else’s vision and you will learn from that. Conversely, when another person buys into your vision, they get to learn from you.”
The other component is time. “A more mature client is buying time,” he details. “Therefore, I need to design closer to maturity because they want to enjoy it now.” Wong will therefore determine how to fulfill their immediate needs. “Simplicity, color, fragrance… there’s so much that goes into it,” he says. He never loses sight of the fact that what he’s there to provide is a luxury item, and he takes that very seriously. “Even if the client doesn’t have the means to have everything they want all at once, we can pace the implementation of the garden with planting and plan ahead for the future.” Again, it’s all about timing, and to Wong, time is precious.
One of his greatest thrills is returning to spaces he’s created and observing how his clients are navigating and enjoying them. “I relish that sense of discovery, awe and contemplation,” ruminates Wong. “I love every minute of what I do.” 201 Seaview Ave., Ste. A2