Landscape architect Raymond Jungles brings out Miami's sheer beauty through his intricately conceived garden designs.
It’s not immediately clear why, but Raymond Jungles is talking to me about catching horny toad lizards.
On this late afternoon in June, we’re sitting in Jungles’s open-plan office in Coconut Grove.
This is supposedly official business. We’re here to establish exactly what Jungles, one of the top landscape architects in the country, is planning to do to Miami. But this tanned outdoorsman is wearing a short-sleeved linen shirt and salmon-colored shorts. And we’re talking about horny toads.
“Growing up in Southern California, my neighborhood had drainage canals with sand in the bottom." I used to go down there and catch horny toads,” he laughs, thoroughly enjoying my city slicker “um, what?” reaction. “They’re flat lizards, you know, that have horns? That was a lot of fun, because they’d bury in the sand and you could only see their eyes sticking out.”
I realize he’s begun the interview in earnest. This story isn’t arbitrary. It’s an anecdote about who he is and how he got here. His vocation reflects his passion for nature. “I’ve always loved wild places. Plants, animals, birds, lizards, frogs, you name it. I was always catching whatever I could,” he adds, chuckling and completely at ease.
Now in his late fifties, Jungles maintains playful curiosity as a primary strong suit.
It underpins his entire philosophy about human habitation. “We blur the boundaries between inside and outside, and use the entire environment,” he says, speaking about Raymond Jungles, Inc., which he founded in 1982.
More than 300 completed projects later, the award winning design firm is known for its encyclopedic knowledge of plants, which it uses to create vibrant, jungle-like landscapes, botanical gardens, and secret edens for private homes across the Americas.
In Miami, which is currently crowded with ritzy new high rises and glass tower condominiums, demand for Jungles’s expertise is higher than ever.
Despite his laid-back persona, a lot of would-be clients don’t get past Jungles’s Coconut Grove gates.
“I turn down a lot of outdated McMansions,” Jungles says. “Listen, growing gardens is all about time. So, I don’t want to waste it. I don’t want to work on projects I don’t really love. I call those ‘soul-killer projects.’”
Here again, Jungles inadvertently reveals a secret to his success. By establishing clear professional boundaries around what is and isn’t his style, he stays true to himself. As a result, his portfolio reflects a passion that simply cannot be manufactured.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Jungles fell in love with Miami’s subtropical climate on a spring break trip during his senior year of high school. By 18, he had picked up and moved, finding work as a landscape laborer. It was 1974. “I was digging holes to eat. But I was outside, at least,” he says. Soon after, he enrolled in Gainesville’s University of Florida to study landscape architecture. His first job out of college was in Key West, growing tropical gardens in a condo development called 1800 Atlantic.
“I had to plant gardens that would just grow [in Key West]. So, I fell in love with native plants, and trees especially. I worship trees,” says Jungles. This chapter of his life could be titled “Going Native.” He remained in the Keys for seven years. To some, that might sound like a beach bum’s dream vacation. For Jungles, this period was essential to his professional and personal development.
Jungles soon began studying with the late Brazilian landscape artist Roberto Burle Marx, who was known for rejecting the rules of colonial garden making. Instead, he created wild, organic landscapes by treating the nature and needs of plants as equal to the needs of man. His influence on Jungles was immeasurable. “It is a very humanist profession. We’re trying to help people improve their lives by strengthening their connection to the natural world,” says Jungles, pausing to reflect on his mentor. “Do what you like, he told me … which is pretty profound, when you think about it.”
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The truth is, the most exciting landscapes in Miami already have Jungles’s fingerprints all over them.
For starters, he led the city’s $1.2 million renovation of the Miami Beach Botanical Garden. Today, it is a meandering 2.6-acre retreat in the heart of South Beach featuring flowing fountains, winding paths, and ponds shaded by Sabal Palmetto palms and wild bunches of purple flowering sage. His garden at Miami’s Soho Beach House won an Award of Merit this year from the American Society of Landscape Architects. The hotel and private club is considered among the most fashionable hangouts in Miami Beach, in part because of its 100-foot-long mirror-like pool and open-air garden, both designed by Jungles.
Jungles also made his mark on Miami by redesigning the historic promenade and plaza at 1111 Lincoln Road, which leads up to Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron’s groundbreaking parking garage. Here, visitors and locals have a winding public piazza in which to mingle, gather, and simply be—sitting beside sculptural ponds, under a swaying canopy of cypress trees.
“What experience will people have? Great design makes you feel special,” Jungles says.
“You notice something different about the space. Whether it’s because of proportion, scale, rhythm, or texture, the space is affecting you.”
The sheer pleasure of simply being in, or moving through, one of Jungles’s gardens is something he attributes to principles learned from the famed 20th century Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi, who wrote: “If sculpture is the rock, it is also the space between rocks and between the rock and a man, and the communication and contemplation between.” Jungles, a voracious reader, keeps Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi on his bedside table.
With no plans to retire, Jungles is riding the wave of Miami’s luxury real estate boom. Having recently adorned the grounds of the Thompson Miami Beach hotel with sparkling water features and abundant native flowering plants, he was soon tapped by Mid-Beach’s most eccentric developer, Alan Faena, to create outdoor edens for the Faena Hotel—the most elaborate, over-the-top hothouse in South Beach.
Just a short drive south on Collins Avenue, Jungles is also currently collaborating with Tommy Hilfiger to renovate the mid-century classic Raleigh Hotel. The American clothing mogul reportedly bought the hotel for $70 million in 2014, and, inspired by Soho Beach House’s success, is converting it into a membership-based club, which is slated to open in 2017. Though there is no word yet on the design details, Jungles’s mischievous grin tells me he’ll have something special to unveil soon.
Despite the obvious commercial aspects of Jungles’ practice, it is difficult to stand in one of his landscapes and feel anything other than totally in awe of nature. “I like to think that we celebrate Mother Nature with every project that we do” he says.
If Jungles continues having his way, Miamians can expect parks and gardens instead of concrete canyons. Local flora and fauna will sprout up in even the most sterile of places. And wild ecologies, lizards included, will thrive.