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Design Under Sky discusses landscape architecture, the utilitarian but leaning towards the conceptual, thinking on modern occurrences and peripheral boundaries.  

DUS is the blog and personal design studio of Adam E. Anderson, a designer based out of the East Coast, currently a Critic at the Rhode Island School of Design, and a designer at Landworks Studio.

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Landscapes: Design Alternatives


Perusing the internet I was a bit overwhelmed by the influx of landscape companies offering "contemporary" and "modern" design/plans.  Reading some of the descriptive paragraphs of these said landscape plans it was clear that merely design process terms filled in the blanks and were not necessarily incorporated into the plans.  This concerns me on the behalf of  homeowners who simply "don't know what they don't know", and in some fashion being misled into believing what is good landscape design.  Perhaps I'm a being a bit egotistical to suppose that my ideas, experience, and education give me the authority to judge one design from another, but I believe in the examples shown below I'm just in my views, but by all means, I encourage different points of view.

One of the most frequented requests I receive from clients is a "natural" landscape, which to them refers to curvilinear.  Its hard for me to understand this obsession with forcing "natural" forms on a site.  You live in 30'x70' square foot lot in the cusp of an urban area and you want natural?  I suppose a more relevant unused term could be organic, but these curvilinear lines in confined, often odd-shaped lots subtract, not add to the space provided both visually and physically.

The Bad

Take the above landscape plan for example, given the odd-shaped lot, notice how the converging of curvilinear lines create acute angles and unusable spaces.  The center planter "island" does not define spaces but rather interrupts the larger grass area, rendering that space useless as well.  It may be argued that this space is purely visual and doesn't serve as a functioning space, and to that I have to ask why is turf, a maintenance, water, waste heavy material being used in the first place.

The second plan incorporates an abundant program, including spa, bbq, fountains and a patio, but the relationship between these program elements and forms are hodgepodged together in a way that shows zero clarity or spatial harmony with each other.

The Good

Enough with the bad stuff, now I want to show a few designs which exemplify the creation of quality and maximized spaces, and overall good landscape design.  The three designs below also have three different design intentions, but all are equipped with the same key items for spatial harmony.

The above plan shows what can be done with a confined space and zero lawn.  The modernistic garden designed by Stephen Woodhams, merges the inside with the out, and creates defined spaces using simple elements.  The variety of textures and colors of materials and planting categorize but do not subdivide the garden. 

Below is a softer approach, which uses program elements more commonly requested such as a small lawn area.  But in this design the spaces are clearly defined with lush, mass groupings of plantings.  A center axial reference directs the eye longitudinally, creating depth.  The mix of a variety of planting species and pea gravel and stone give the landscape the cottage garden feel.

The final landscape design above diverges away from convention creating a bold artistic expression in the landscape.  The mix of greens, blues, and greys with the planting and rockwork build a dynamic contrast in colors and textures.  The swirling, converging lines of the plan at first glance appear haphazard and chaotic, but further study shows rather an "organized chaos" relationship with each other.  The goal is to keep the eye moving and interested.

Rather then just my voice being heard as judge and jury by all means share your comments in discussion.  The fun part about design is that it is viewed differently with alternate perspectives individually.

All images from David Stearns book Small Space Gardens, highly recommended as a great source for small space ideas and materials.

Reader Comments (3)

People who want "natural" landscapes frequently want:
a landscape that is not formal,
a landscape that resembles the native countryside,
a landscape that utilizes native plants,
a landscape that contains elements of nature: water, fire, stone, earth, sky.
August 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRosewoodian

Thank you for your comment. I understand that this is what many people WANT. But what is the purpose of trying to fit a round peg into a square hole? Do you really believe that a .25 acre lot in an urban or even suburban setting can be designed in this way? "Native" countryside would contain weeds, tall growth understory, and wildlife widely considered a nuisance to suburban dwellers.

The point of the post is about understanding sense of place and responding to that. Understand that you live on a smaller property and a literal interpretation of a natural landscape more likely then not will not be best suited for creating functional space. What can be used is an abstraction of natural elements to suggest all of the things you mentioned and all more fitting to the actual surroundings.

August 18, 2008 | Registered CommenterAdam E. Anderson
The average person who wants a naturalistic landscape within the confines of their property lines probably has an idealistic vision of what they believe they want, but in most cases that idea seems to fall a bit short of reality.

Nature has set the standard for what open space is, but it's the job of the designer to mesh that desire for open space with the need for livable and useable spaces. I agree about the comments on the first two designs; they are a concoction of the clients wants, but with no direction and no foresight. Each element as a singular item may be a great idea and a well thought out design, but the execution of the overall plan falls short of what the client deserves. “You know what you know” is the knowledge type, of the three, that is the most concerning, and when you have the blind leading the blind, the final result leaves much to be desired. But then again, if the home owner never realizes what could have been, their ignorance will lead to bliss.

Design, in any sense, is about evoking emotion from the user. It’s how they respond, how they react, how they reflect upon the given design that makes it successful or not. In landscape design, more often than not, you won’t be able to recreate someone’s exact childhood home, or the oak grove they spent countless hours playing in as a kid, but through careful design and thought you can mimic elements of that, be it a certain plant palette, scent, sight or sound, you can evoke an emotion within them that brings them back to that time. It’s that blending of the desired nature and memory, along with a practical, intuitive design sense that leads to a successful finished product.

“Nature knows no indecencies; man invents them.” - Mark Twain
August 21, 2008 | Registered CommenterDanielMiller19

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