von Stefan Leppert

Richard Bödeker – an orbituary

With the passing of Richard Bödeker, one of the most convincing personalities has left this world. He was always convinced that he was doing good: creating gardens, designing landscapes, greening cities. And he was good at convincing people. People, they were always the focus of his work as landscape architect. 

Born in 1934 as the son of a nursery gardener in Lehrte, he had a happy childhood in a surrounding of gardens and plants. It was here where something happened which would shape the rest of his life. When, at the age of 9, he found a wild orchid at the nursery, Wilhelm Hübotter happened to be visiting. In the first half of the 20th century Hübotter, Alwin Seifert, Heinrich Wiepking and Hermann Mattern were the four pillars of German garden architecture. It was reported that Hübotter said to the father: “Bödeker, take the boy to me”, and true enough since then Bödeker could not get away from the orchids or Hübotter. 

When his parents divorced in 1948 the nursery was closed. Nothing was left of his great-grandfather’s fortune. He had been one of the wealthiest men in the town at the time. The bipolar father took his oldest son out of school without giving him a perspective for his life. Richard Bödeker did not do very well at school, which was not due to lack of intelligence but he often found other things that were not taught at school more interesting. He was fearless and keen to discover new worlds, a “robust and strong fellow”, as he remembered himself not long ago. He tended to hoses and, educated by the former instructor of the Hanover Cavalry School, he was a good horse rider and could “even jump onto a horse’s back from behind like an Indian”! 

Through a transfer from the Mehrholz nursery in Sehnde near Hanover he came to Solingen, the “Bergisches Land”. Bödeker, who was a strong apprentice, had used his strength to explain to the gardener Mehrholz jr. that he expected a fair treatment. Following this Mehrholz jr. sent his apprentice to Solingen to work for his father. Here he shared a room with an amateur boxer who taught him how to “place his punches properly”. 

The first time he experienced fairer treatment was after his apprenticeship in Solingen, when he moved on to the Bühler nursery in the Canton of Aargau, Switzerland. He drove there on his Zündapp Bella motorbike. The nursery still exists. At the age of 20 he moved on to the Brugger nursery in Hunzenschwil, selling flowers on the weekly market and often working as a graveyard gardener. “As a grave digger I often had to dig through two layers of skeletons. I collected the best preserved skulls”, he told the author. 

After Switzerland he applied to go to England and his advertisement was soon answered. He ended up at the aristocratic estate of Barnhill in Devon and had the courage to show English gardeners garden design à la Bödeker. His first step was to have a one hundred years old alley of yews removed and the overgrown forest cleared. That was a bold decision because it was said that no one less than Capability Brown, the very best in garden architecture of all times in England, had been involved with the gardens of Barnhill. This meant nothing to the young gardener. He saw the design, not the name. For 9 o’clock tea he always changed his clothes because he was allowed to join Lady Corless in the hall and talk about garden design. In England he lost his interest in orchids. He liked the experience, he realised that he was able to design gardens. 

In 1956 he returned to Germany because he wanted to be more than a gardener. He wrote a short note to Wilhelm Hübotter:”I want to become a garden architect. Where can I learn this?” And because Hübotter suggested Geisenheim to him, - not as the best but as the nicest school -, he studied there. In 1959 he went to Hamburg, Germany’s gate to the world, looking for a good office. He found it, started with Gustav Lüttge, who had one of the three most significant offices in the Hanseatic City along with Karl Plomin and Günther Schulze. He was not scared of a rough education, he was keen to learn, on a friendly background. Richard Bödeker got on very well with Gustav Lüttge but always stayed in contact with Wilhelm Hübotter. In 1960 he took part in a competition together with Hübotter and three other young men and the group won. Although Bödeker had been looking for new challenges and had found a job in the USA, Hübotter convinced him to stay and founded an office together with him. In 1961, Bödeker was 26 years old, his future as a planner began. The workgroup Hübotter & Bödeker, the age difference between them was 40 years, took part in every possible competition and won every second one which was a surprisingly high quota. “Our office exploded with orders, we did not know where to start”. In 1971 after numerous large projects, Federal Garden Shows among others, the landscape architects Horst Wagenfeld, Armin Boyer and Vilmos Krén joined Bödeker and Wilhelm Hübotter who by now was well over 70 years old and retired from business. 

By coincidence – the building that housed his office in Bad Honnef was to be demolished – he moved to the Neandertal, to Wilhelm Hübotter’s cousin. “A wonderful woman who above all was an excellent cook”, Bödeker emphasized. Good food and sufficient portions were always extremely important to Richard Bödeker. “When I am hungry I become awkward. I was always like that”, often this was his introduction for inviting his guests for a midday meal. Soon after settling in his 35 sqm furnished lodgings with Emmi Sommer, he got an enquiry from the near-by Hochdahl. The task was to develop open spaces for the New Town of Hochdahl, an overflow city for Dusseldorf. 

From the middle of 1960, in a workgroup with Professor Hermann Birkigt, Bödeker led this project and attracted considerable attention. The Neandertal office was small and provisional and when the situation became impeding Richard Bödeker took a closer look at the Deutsche Bahn building straight across from the office. At the beginning of the 70s he had the opportunity to buy the toilet building, which was out of function since some time, for the price of 1000 German Marks and converted it into a residential building. In the years to come the property around it became a paradise-like garden which with its plants and decorations gives an impression of Bödeker’s travels. With this transformation Bödeker was once again putting his thoughts into reality. Most people would stop at the thinking stage, it would be discarded as an absurdity. 

Not long after this he was able to rent the partly ailing, yet valuable station building, set up office there and some 20 years later bought the listed building and refurbished it. Another 8000 sqm of land were added, most of it on a very steep slope, and with time developed by him. 

The move to the Neandertal and the property acquisition were possible for the man in the middle of his thirties because he had earned good money when he was young. Wilhelm Hübotter had offered a 50/50 distribution of profits which Richard Bödeker thought was very generous and he never forgot it. Thanks to Hübotter his name was soon widely remembered and his convincing way and his botanical and technical skills added to this. He was introduced to circles a young planner can usually not enter so easily. It was a fateful coincidence that towards the end of the sixties he met Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemiza who was able to buy a large area of land on Rhodos which Bödeker was asked to develop. It was not built, which Bödeker never regretted. “I always thought it to be unjust when foreigners can buy 500 hectares and the local population does not gain from it”, Bödeker said later. However, he had busied himself with arid areas and the spark turned into a flame which never died for the rest of his life. It was in 1973 when Rüdiger Thoma of the Dusseldorf Architects HPP approached Bödeker and asked him if he was interested in going to Saudi Arabia. There was no other country that he knew so little about as this backward desert country which was looking for connections. But no country could be foreign enough for Richard Bödeker, - he accepted. 

It is no coincidence that among experts the name Richard Bödeker is first and foremost connected with Saudi Arabia. When King Faisal and the architects called him to the Persian – or as he soon learned – the Arabian Gulf, Bödeker could not relate to experiences made by others. He started at zero. He had knowledge of the Greek vegetation and he could speak English, he had the gift of design and technical knowledge and not to be underestimated: he was fearless and was able to leave an impression without making fuss. “It often happened”, he admitted, “I stood somewhere and the other knew, I will not be able to get rid of him.” After shorter experiences in Lebanon, Japan, France, the Seychelles or Paraguay, he opened a big book which was closed when his heart stopped. His achievements and those of his comrades-in-arms are unique in the world of landscape architecture. A German goes to the birthplace of culture and garden architecture and shows them the way back to something long lost: gardens. But Richard Bödeker and all the people he found important to mention, too many to be named here, did more than create gardens and parks in Saudi Arabia and foremost in Riyadh. Starting with the Diplomatic Quarter in the eighties they contributed to Saudi City planning. They converted the light brown moonscape to a quarter with green axes and small and large parks which – much against the Royal principles – developed into a popular local recreation area in the City until 11 September 2001. Thumama Park on the edge of the City was turned into a useful nature reserve, the gardens at the Historic Museum became a meeting point in the City center, several wadis were turned into recreational areas, the sides of the bare multi-lane roads were complemented with parks and green objects, all for the benefit of the people. 

Richard Bödeker was a special person. All his colleagues and his team ungrudgingly confirm this. At the beginning many of them, those who spent many years in Riyadh, tried to find a way to be accepted by the Saudi society, find friends, meet the Saudis eye-to-eye. This is nearly impossible to achieve with the Saudi people, - nearly. Whatever led to him being so honored, Richard Bödeker shook the Kings hand when he was still the Governor of Riyadh. He was invited by princes, by sons and grandsons of the country’s founders, to visit them at their homes, he was called “friend”, he was more than an advisor for gardens. Some months, ago Prince Abdullah bin Faisal bin Turki Al Saud, one of those who called him “friend”, characterized Richard Bödeker casually in a conversation like this: “What I particularly appreciate about Richard are his very clear principles which he will not give up. And that he considers the average people in his planning and how “green” can make them happy.” 

With his steadyfastness, his iron will, and his perseverance, Richard Bödeker is not an easy contemporary. Hundreds of colleagues worked for his office, one of them his son Jens, who is the CEO of the office since a few years. None of them would maintain that working with Richard Bödeker has always been easy and pleasant. Without a doubt, creating gardens is a good thing. But green town planning – and that was Richard Bödeker’s aim from Hochdahl to Riyadh – meets resistance, is sometimes looked down on by other disciplines and is often ridiculed. Courage and perseverance, coupled with the readiness to discuss and, this might sound strange, charm, a strong build, a clear voice and a big grey beard must not be underestimated to achieve an aim. He succeeded with that.