EXPLORING the garden

by Linda Engstrom, APLD

As designers we need to understand what the abstract concept of space means on a human scale, and how it relates to designing successful gardens. Garden-making concerns the relationship of the human being to his natural environment and an awareness of the interplay between objects in space. Garrett Eckbo, the noted California designer, once said ....“It can be stated…on the basis of our experience of great architecture and great natural scenery, that the experience of being within three-dimensional spatial volumes is one of the great experiences of life”. Think about that…. perhaps you remember the feeling you had when you stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon or looked up at the ceiling of a grand cathedral? What about your feelings when hiking through a narrow stone canyon, along the edge of a rushing stream, or walking down Broadway in N.Y.C. or the narrow streets of Paris? How does the experience compare to a walk in the woods, or standing in the middle of a vast desert ?

How we deal with spatial concepts determines the style of a garden, as well as the strong psychological effect they will have on our feelings and behavior. We are attracted to those spaces that we feel are suited to our use. In garden history, the French preferred to have monumental spatial corridors radiating out from their grand chateaus. Formal geometric space with strong vertical accents and still water reflecting the sky and leading the eye upward, was often the skeleton holding the garden together. Man (in the guise of the King) was in control, with natural spaces made monumental in scale so that those experiencing the space would be in awe. Renaissance architects knew this when they built the great cathedrals of Europe. Italians were masters of sculpting exciting, more intimate garden spaces with plant forms that flowed directly out of the boxy villas. These spaces were often connected at various levels with broad stairs, accented with pergolas and statuary, and stitched together with the common thread of moving water. The English garden space is also broken up into more intimate garden rooms, romantic and human in scale, while the Japanese often manipulate space and scale to create an idealized miniaturization of the natural world.

There is an interesting exercise that will help you understand spaces and design more meaningful gardens. It involves thinking back to what you consider to be your favorite space, as a child, and now, as an adult. By discovering what spaces we (or our clients) are attracted to and why, we can design gardens that will be both comfortable to be in as well as suited to our (or our client’s) use.

The first step is to describe the characteristics of the space…was it enclosed or open?...light or dark?....did it contain water? ..movement? ...people? ...animals?...what was the temperature?...the sounds?...the smells?...elevation and contours?...was there a sense of time …old or new?...Was the surface hard or soft? The second step is to create a sketch of your favorite space, putting yourself into the picture. Some obvious favorite spaces that come to mind are: sitting in the crouch of an old apple tree, inside the’ tent’ made from a blanket and chairs, on a hill overlooking the ocean, or under a huge tree looking up into the branches.

When you walk through your next garden, think about how you are experiencing the spaces. Does the experience change how you move through the space? Does it make you feel comfortable? Why do you prefer one garden over another? We often think of the plants, but it could also be the spatial organization of the garden that attracts us. While a work of art, a book, or a musical piece may often inspire us to design a creative garden, it can also be as simple as the specific organization of outdoor space that inspires. We just need to know how to see it!

John Brookes has stated how important it is to ‘read the local landscape’. While traveling around the world designing gardens, he makes careful observations and takes pictures of the natural landscape in an effort to map out the context or regional character of each area. Every area in the world has distinct regional differences, and distinct ways of dealing with outdoor space. Documenting these landscape clues can help us determine how this space is organized. Feelings about space are also altered by light and how the volumes and forms are arranged. Gardens, we must remember, are not represented by the two dimensional landscape plan, but by the actual experience of walking through 3-dimensional space.

For books that will help you understand this process read:

  • Reading the Landscape of America, by May Theilgaard Watts
  • Reading the Landscape of Europe, by May Theilgaard Watts
  • Visual Notes, by Norman Crowe and Paul Laseau
  • Natural Landscapes, by John Brookes

  • Some very different spaces.....