Raymond Jungles’s renovation of the Miami Beach Botanical Garden favors organic lines over manicured prettiness

Dressed in white linen pants, a light brown shirt—untucked—and suede loafers, Raymond Jungles stops mid-sentence at a muted rumble of thunder. “We should sit over here so we can hear the rain,” he says, sliding open the glass door of his conference room at his office studio. The vista is a small garden at the edge of the Miami River, a profusion of native vegetation with the towers of downtown beyond. At a sudden crack of nearby lightning, Jungles exhales sharply. It’s an expression of his delight at nature’s show of force, and it’s a hint at what fuels his pursuit of the ideal “garden experience.”

Jungles is on a roll as one of the top landscape architects in the country. His recent projects include designing the rooftop garden of the New World Symphony’s new Miami Beach home (starchitect Frank Gehry’s first Florida commission) and transforming the blockfronting Herzog & de Meuron’s celebrated 1111 Lincoln Road parking garage from a double row of palm trees into an Everglades-inspired oasis. (The latter earned him an invitation from the Cultural Landscape Foundation to speak about urban renewal at its conference at the Museum of Modern Art.) He is currently working alongside Danish architect Bjarke Ingels on a residential tower called Grove at Grand Bay, which will replace the luxurious Grand Bay hotel in Coconut Grove.

The high-profile commissions are a triumph for a man who started his career in the dirt. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Jungles, 56, moved to Miami after high school and got a job as a landscape laborer, then as a Miami Beach lifeguard, before earning an associate’s degree from Miami Dade College and eventually enrolling in the University of Florida’s landscape architecture program. It was there that he encountered the work of Brazilian artist and landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, whose bold, modernist aesthetic impressed Jungles with the poetic possibilities of landscape design.

After graduation, Jungles, then in his mid-20s, met Burle Marx in Miami and made the first of several visits to the master’s exquisitely landscaped Rio de Janeiro home, now a national monument known as the Sítio and, by Jungles’s estimate, “the most beautiful garden on earth.” Says Jungles, “That was the best of times. It was like a dream. I just got to hang around and watch and converse with him. I was able to ask questions, and he was very generous.”

Burle Marx died in 1994, but Jungles got a chance to repay his mentor’s generosity when he designed an orchid show at the New York Botanical Garden in his honor. Perhaps a more intimate tribute is Jungles’s son’s middle name: Burle. Deeply impressed by the Brazilian’s striking colors, organic shapes, and devotion to native plants, Jungles has assimilated those characteristics into his own style—one that, he says, draws heavily on the environment of his adopted hometown.

“Miami hugely influences my work,” Jungles says. “The reason I came down here is that it triggered my sense of being closer to nature, going to the beach, being close to the Everglades, seeing this tremendous sky that we have here.” The influence permeates the Lincoln Road design, with its canopy of native trees—live oak, pond apple, red mangrove, bald cypress, lignum vitae—thick grass beds, silver saw palmettos, and teeming ponds. Jungles calls the space, which can accommodate large events and hundreds of people, an “urban glade,” a term that neatly balances two core tenets. “My philosophy is to [let nature] invade the city and take back what was once its own,” he says. “But make no [mistake]: I’m making spaces for people, not with the intent of making pure wildlife habitats.”

That philosophy is now guiding Jungles’s landscape design for the Grove Bay condo tower. He couldn’t provide a firm timetable but says it is a fast-moving project. “In a year,” he predicts, “you’ll see a lot.”

Although we’ve already seen plenty from Jungles, he is still not ready to retire to his own Sítio. Asked about his dream commission, he describes an urban waterfront park that turns into a pedestrian plaza and snakes all the way through the city. “That,” he says, “would be awesome.”

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