Monday, February 28, 2011

The Influence of Backgrounds

I often begin a landscape plan by standing back from the site and letting the surroundings tell me the setting in which the ideas will live.
Fire place and ledge island by North Star Stoneworks
I can do this even before I meet the prospective clients. This is the sort of ‘homework’ that enables me to later comment on the neighboring environment and its effect on what we are planning.
Painters often begin a painting by working on the background. This may be a practical approach as it is easier to paint a building, portrait or tree over a background than to paint the background around them. It also serves to tune the foreground objects to the color and texture of the background.
In landscape design it is doubly important because we can’t go in and move a mountain or building after the fact.
Chapel Fountain at Franklin Memorial Hospital by David Neufeld
Sculptors too must be aware of the surroundings their work will be placed in. A niche in a building is very different than a town square.
In some instances, the background becomes the heart of the plan and the materials and plantings are placed to enclose the landscape.  Fences, walls, and tall planting obscure whatever was formerly the background. Thus we create a new world within.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Positive and Negative Space

Perceiving an object requires that we distinguish it from its surroundings. The joke about a blank piece of paper being ‘a polar bear in a snowstorm’, applies to our perception.
Painters and sculptors refer to positive and negative space. Positive space is the object we are able to perceive. Negative space is the background that allows us to see that object. In landscapes, the tree is the positive and the sky is the negative.
'06 Bridgton Academy project by North Star Stoneworks
Applying this to landscape design, we may choose to remove masses of confused greenery in order to accentuate a specimen tree. We may also take advantage of a mass of greenery by planting or building a contrasting form in front of it. We might ‘cut’ a hole in the greenery to form a dark shadow. Each of these changes creates the negative space needed to bring the desired focus to the design.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Painting and Sculpting a Garden

Viewing a landscape as a painter or sculptor would gives us the ability to avoid confusion. Think of it this way. Any landscape painter looks at the subject (a big, big world) and must choose which of what he or she sees will get into the painting. It can fairly be said that a landscape painter doesn’t paint every tree leaf or blade of grass in view. The portion of the landscape captured must also be a deliberate choice.
Landscape design begins with choices. Out of all the elements in the existing plot of land prior to design, some must be kept and some removed. Very rare is the blank canvas of landscapes. Even rectangular flat plots of land are set in a neighborhood. In landscape design, the backdrop counts. We cannot ignore a distant mountain or a neighboring colossal oak.  Or the buildings.

What is your existing canvass? What will you add, paint over, or enhance?

Monday, February 21, 2011

To What Purpose?

We can imagine the visual equivalent of music when patterns repeat and shapes reappear.  In nature and in cultivation, our eye is drawn to repeating patterns, the layers of hills as they recede into the distance, a row of corn, an orchard. 

Each of these patterns initiates a response in us, very much like music, that often equates with an emotion or a state of consciousness. For instance, the repeating forms of hills in the distance relaxes me and also gives me a sense of the infinite.
Forms found in spider webs make me smile, wonder, perhaps even feel whimsical. Applying this recognition to landscape design lets me use familiar patterns to create gardens that feel original but have a solid base in our visual experience.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Themes and Variations

I am not a musician. However, when I hear music, I can identify the melody; it is what I hum to myself afterward.  If I am very familiar with the piece I may hear the layers of orchestration that give the music weight.  In a long piece of music such as a symphony, I can hear the theme reappear in the variations throughout the movements. I also know when one piece of music is over and another begins.  This begins to qualify me to see themes and variations in landscapes.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Artists and our Sensual Vocabulary

All humans are attuned to beauty. Whether we pursue lives immersed in art or not, we know when something is beautiful, when it moves us.  We understand the language of art even if we don’t speak it.  Music, Sculpture, Painting, Poetry, and Drama have their place in landscape design.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Temples and Chapels we love

When we think of holy places we most often picture temples and chapels dedicated to beliefs.  The inspiration for the building’s design and the purpose of these places originated in the belief of that people. What stays in our memory is the way that these places take on a spirit of their own over time.
Regardless of the history of any given religion, a building that has stood and sheltered worshipers for hundreds of years develops a presence of its own.
Observing the physical details of time that these buildings take on gives us a clue to designing places of meaning for ourselves.  Often, it is the place on the land where these buildings were built, that makes their presence so significant.
For me, a temple, church, or chapel in ruin speaks most eloquently. Buildings without roofs, with crumbled walls, with grass growing in the nave, allow me to focus on what is left of beliefs when the physical boundaries are gone.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Natural Holy Places

The are places we come upon which inspire a sense of the infinite. Other places are more intimate, shrine-like. The span of years that imbues a place with holiness is often far beyond the scope of our lifetimes, yet those places offer us a sense of timeless order that we can apply when creating intimate or grand designs in our landscapes.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

From the Sacred to the Vernacular

It has been said that we have our feet in the earth and our heads in the heavens.  We unconsciously seek to bring together our sense of the divine and the furniture of our everyday lives.  The result is most profoundly seen in gardens.  The plants we choose to inhabit our gardens reflect our own unique balance between heaven and earth.  Landscape designs that recognize the emotional significance of a hollyhock, an oak tree, or bed of moss succeed.  

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


When we name a place as many gardens and estates have been named, we not only lay claim to the work we do there but we extend our claim far into the future.  In New England, where I live, it is routine for a farmstead to be referred to by the name of a previous owner.  The current owner may even have to wait out their lifetime in order to have their place referred to by their name.   Family estates and large gardens often take on names ranging from whimsical to mythic.
Naming is an organizational tool.  A name like ‘Sunny Acres’ needs its fields to be kept mowed.  Dalton’s End’ better be private.  Single words have even more power. ‘Eden’ has a tradition to live up to.  ‘Serendipity’ begs to be let go a little.  Any name will place its influence on the developing landscape.   
Places within a garden can be named too.  I have named parts of gardens, ‘The Forgotten Garden’ for instance.  The name reminds me to allow the grass and plants a freer range of expression.  In this garden, the grass goes uncut, the rose sprawls, even a dead limb from the tree is left to imbue the space with forgotten-ness.  The bench has been purposely entwined with wisteria vines so that they may take over the support of the bench when the wood slats eventually give out.
'The Meditation Garden' likewise is at the farthest point removed from traffic and includes moving water, that most pleasant of all sounds. The names we give our place or our gardens need never be public. If they are well-given and well-attended to, anyone chancing upon the place will intuit the purpose and perhaps even guess the name.