One of the first landscape architecture firms in the Middle East, Lebanon-based Francis Landscapes was established by Irmtraut Schoeber Francis in 1987, who inspired a deep love of both the profession and nature in her son, Frederic Francis. Francis is now taking the company forward, with projects in the Middle East, northern Africa and India.
When did you first decide to become a landscape architect?
It’s in my veins and my blood. I grew up in both Beirut and Vienna and throughout my childhood, I spent time in the gardens with my mother, which developed a love of nature and planted the desire to be a landscape architect. Although I formally trained in Europe, I have gained much of my knowledge about working in the Middle Eastern environment from my mother.
After training in Europe, why did you come back to the Middle East to work?
I grew up in both Lebanon and Austria; this helped me widen and diversify my cultural knowledge. Since there was no adequate training back then in landscape architecture in the MENA region, I studied in France and Belgium.
After graduating in 1993, I returned to Lebanon and took on the management of the firm with the plan to grow it nationally and internationally.
What are the main challenges of working in the Middle East?
The first one is the harsh climate, which makes things harder to grow than in Europe. Also we frequently build landscapes from scratch, where nothing exists other than barren, desert land.
Although there’s an ancient culture of gardening in the Middle East, in more recent times those skills have been lost and people generally have no idea what landscape architecture is.
It was challenging in the early days, as I needed to persuade people that they needed a landscape architect to conceive their outdoor spaces. It felt as though I was setting off on a pilgrimage.
I came back to this part of the world so that I could express myself. I’m constantly having to break new ground and discover new techniques. Each day that presents a new challenge is a happy day for me, because it gives me the chance to educate and inspire people. I like creating spaces where people meet and live and feel good.
You have worked extensively in northern Africa and India. How does it compare to the Middle East?
The culture of tending the land in India extends back to Mogul times, so generally the people relate to gardening. In Africa, you have to sensibilise people about the topic. In Egypt and Morocco the best hotels and resorts are based around luxury and outdoor living in beautiful gardens, so you have to fight against the climate to create an oasis.
However, even in difficult conditions, if you respect and work with nature, you will succeed. In a desert landscape you need minimum water in the beginning – just some localised water to help the plants stabilise and grow – and after a few years nature takes over. People are amazed by the results we can create.
What is your USP as a landscape architect?
Clients say we are profound in our approach. I do it out of passion and commitment: I believe gardens are where the soul rests and that they should awaken all of the senses. The places we create are strong and have their own personal identity. I would say I tend to have a rather minimalistic and pure approach – I listen to nature first as each project needs to be responsive to its environment, as well as the specifics of its location.
How do you approach a new project?
It’s very important to create a garden which meets the needs of the client and which has its own identity, philosophy and story.
First, I think about how to introduce a green approach, as landscape architects have a social responsibility to try to solve the environmental challenges presented by each project. I then think about how to connect the garden to its people.
What future plans or ambitions do you have?
I’d like to continue to push the limits of landscape architecture and to try and open more doors with my work. I’d love to have children so that I could pass my passion for gardening on to them, in the way my mother did for me. And I’d like to continue to work in wider geographical areas, such as Iran, which is a very interesting country.