As modern humans, we spend our days surrounded by solid, imposing “stuff”. We live in big brick and wood houses, drive two-ton steel vehicles to work on concrete and asphalt freeways, and go work in big concrete and steel buildings. It makes sense, then that we carry this through to the landscape. Need to block a view? Throw up a fence panel, or maybe a solid hedge of evergreens. Looking for shade? Build a pavilion with a big shingled roof.
I ran across an article the other day while catching up on my design blogs that got me thinking about transparency and visual weight (you can read it here). It features the church that’s pictured above. My first thought was “ok, it’s clearly built of steel, but other than that – what’s the big deal?”
Oh! That’s the big deal. The designers, Belgian architects Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout Van Vaerenbergh, kept the overall form of a church but created a large, sculptural space that looks like it’s trying to turn to smoke in front of us.
Not everything needs to be solid and expected. How does this translate to the landscape? Sometimes you just need to distract from a view rather than block it. That’s where a simple trellis can stand in for a fence panel, like in the photo below. Adding in a line of low boxwood and hydrangea leading towards the front of the house will be the finishing touch, using rhythm in the landscape to move the eye past the undesirable view.
The same idea holds true for plantings. I love this picture I took on the grounds of the sculpture garden at the National Gallery of Art in DC. They have subtly created defined exhibit spaces for the various pieces using the shapes of the pathways and the planting. In this one, you can see that the higher canopy of the crape myrtles and the lower ground plane plantings create gaps that you can see through yet you can clearly see the boundary of the space. That’s great.
Transparency can be used to great effect in the landscape, whether it’s with structure, sculpture, or plants. If you want to see a designer doing it beautifully with perennials, you need to check out Piet Oudolf’s work. It’s like I keep saying with all the different facets of landscape design: lighten up and have fun!