Transparency in the Landscape

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.

photo credit: Mine Daelemans

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?”

photo credit: Kristof Vrancken

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!

Landscape Design Lessons from a Newport Mansion

Several weeks ago MJ and I made the drive to Rhode Island for my niece’s high school graduation. We stayed an extra day so we could celebrate my mom’s birthday. Since everyone had to work during the daytime and we don’t get to RI very often, we made the trip to one of my favorite Newport Mansions, The Elms.

You would think that the grounds of a place like The Elms would be so far removed from reality that there’s nothing you could take back and use in your own space. Au contraire mon frere! Just like a catering recipe, you can totally reduce it down for home use (now I want cupcakes).

Lesson #1: A comfy place to sit in the shade is always a great idea.

Sometimes a bench is just to create a focal point, and sometimes it gives people a place to sit and chat. It should always be fabulous, though.

Lesson #2: Outbuildings deserve love too.

When I’m working with my clients to design screen houses, pool houses, or even sheds, I always try to pull architectural details from the house to tie everything together. This gate is on the carriage house behind the mansion. I doubt that Mr. and Mrs. Berwind or their friends ever had reason to see it, but the architect knew.

Lesson #3: Focal points are important.

This section of the garden is a really cool “hallway” of clipped evergreens that leads to a service drive. However, the fountain serves as a focal point that “stops” the eye. See how different the space would look without it?

Instead of stopping your eye, the rhythm of the landscape design leads you right out of the garden. No me gusta!

Lesson #4: Everyone loves a surprise.

I’m a huge fan of elements of a space revealing themselves to you a little at a time. It adds to the sense of wonder if we can move through a garden and periodically say “hey, what’s that? Cool!” Even in a manicured garden like that at The Elms there’s room for surprises.

Lesson #5: The lawn is a design element.

There are a lot of lawn-haters out there. I’m not one of them. Sometimes you need lawn area for practical reasons (kids, dogs, lawn darts) but other times the lawn can make the design by acting as negative space. This allows individual elements to pop in ways they otherwise wouldn’t.

Look at that awesome weeping beech on the right side of the photo. Forget the architectural elements in this shot, losing the punch of this tree would be a shame. Sitting on the broad flat plane of the lawn as it does, the tree makes a strong statement.

If you’ve never been to The Elms, I strongly encourage you to go. Why is it my favorite “summer cottage”? Mr. Berwind believed that a proper house should run as if by magic, with guests never seeing the utilitarian aspects. It’s pretty amazing.

Do you have a favorite Newport Mansion?

Elements of Design: Shape or Form

We often think of shapes as two-dimensional: squares, rectangles, circles, and triangles. This isn’t how we perceive them in the landscape, however. We see them in three dimensions, like cubes, spheres, and cones. Shape (or form) in the landscape can even dictate how a space feels.

This is a backyard I did for a client in Phoenix, Arizona (sorry, pygmy date palms aren’t going to work in your McLean landscape design). As you can see the shapes are all sinuous curves with nary a straight line in sight. This gives the yard a much more casual, relaxed feel.

Here, you see a lot more angularity of design. This house is a very dominating, simple, rectangular shape, so it made sense to carry those lines all the way to the street. In so doing, you can see we also used the principle of unity (part of harmony). It all ties together!

Part of the reason that I think it’s important to discuss shape in the landscape is that I see a lot of folks forgetting that the shape of their home is a dominant part of the design. Everyone wants flowing curves on everything. Well, I wish I could wear a paisley suit jacket, but I’ll never be able to rock that look. Such is life.

Unless your home was designed by Frank Gehry (or you live in an igloo), your home is a box. Or it’s a grouping of a few boxes. Regardless, the dominant form is rectilinear. That doesn’t mean that you’re limited to a simple rectangular patio, for example.

In the photo above, the house is a massive, two and a half story brick edifice. The client initially wanted big sweeping curves on the patio. I tried, but nothing worked. It was as wrong as sticking a trucker cap on the Queen of England’s head. So, we did a stepped edge on the patio to break up the profile and allowed all the plant beds to swoop and curve and blend the landscape design into the woods. The design finally worked, and what’s even better – the client loves it.

Shape’s fun to play with. It’s one of my favorite parts of landscape design.

Next up: Mass!

Principles of Design: Harmony in the Landscape

As a band geek , I’m going to work the music I love into any post I can.  Anyhow, harmony is what happens when you combine all your architectural elements, furnishings, and design elements into a successful, pleasing whole. The shorter definition is “when everything works together and makes you nod your head and say yeah.” Harmony relies on two subordinate principles, unity and variety.

Unity means a single, cohesive identity. This can be established with color, or by keeping all the furniture styles consistent in an interior space. Outdoors, it can be a continuity of materials. For example, in designing the wedding arbor for the grounds at Old House Vineyards I used the same white oak that was used on the pavilion.

If, like me, you’re a Project Runway fan then you’ve probably heard Michael Kors call out designers for being too “matchy-matchy.” Too much unity can result in a very matchy-matchy landscape. It’s why you rarely see a large brick home with a brick patio, brick columns, and brick pathways. Even overuse of a plant can spoil an otherwise good design. This photo is from a greenhouse at Wollom Gardens in Culpeper, but I’ve seen monoculture landscape plantings like this too.

The other essential part of harmony is variety. Variety brings in different colors, textures, and materials, and adds interest to the space. However, variety on its own is also undesirable. Without unity to pull everything together, the design can be chaotic and displeasing. In the photo below, you can see that the stone veneer on the home is echoed in the stone on the columns and the step risers by the curb, creating unity; the brick on the home and the flagstone walk are of a similar character yet still provide interest and variety.

It’s easy to create a landscape design where everything is exactly the same. It’s also easy to create a design where everything is different. The value of taking the time to create a landscape plan is that you’re better able to combine unity and variety to get a beautiful, satisfying landscape.

Next up: the elements of design!

Principles of Design: Emphasis in the Landscape

Emphasis is all about focal points – a space or object important enough (visually speaking) that it captures your attention. A great view can be a focal point, as can the front door, a fireplace, a water feature, a specimen planting, a piece of furniture, even a sculpture. In the pictures below, can you pick out the focal points?




Principles of Design: Rhythm in the Landscape

You’ve heard designers talk about “moving the eye through the space.” That’s what rhythm does. Human beings, by our very nature, look for patterns. Rhythm sets up those patterns, leading the eye to the next point, and the next, and the next. There are five flavors of rhythm:

  1. Repetition and alternation
  2. Progression or gradation
  3. Transition
  4. Opposition or contrast
  5. Radiation


Repetition is a common means of creating rhythm and moving the eye through a space. Look at the columns supporting the aqueduct, below. Your eye immediately scans down to the arch at the very end.

See? You can’t even fight it. Colonnades, fenceposts, even an allée of trees coming down the driveway, all employ rhythm to move the eye along.

Alternation is a repeating sequence of two or more things, from which the eye will discern a pattern and follow along. This is another technique that has been used for centuries, as you can see in this reproduction of an egg-and-dart moulding.

Progression or Gradation

The most common use of progression is in the use of shapes progressing from smallest to largest, or vice versa. A really simple example of this is “wedding cake” or “hatbox” steps:

credit: everything about concrete

Please note that this is not an endorsement of wedding cake steps – see how easy it would be to miss the first step coming down and break a leg? – but you can see how it does lead your eye to the door. Again, it’s setting something up in such a way that your eye wants to follow it.

You can also achieve this effect with color, progressing from light to dark or dark to light, although you’re more likely to see this type of color progression used in interior design.


Transition leads the eye from point A to point B with no interruption. Look at the top photo of the aqueduct. The trough atop the columns helps lead the eye in this way, as would a beam on a trellis as shown below.

You don’t necessarily need structure to pull this off, however. The purple grasses in the planter below act as a backdrop to the golden perennials, but they also serve to draw the eye across the planting bed.

Opposition or Contrast

Opposition uses abrupt changes to create rhythm and interest. A common example of this is repetitive 90 degree angles, like in grids or rectilinear designs. I know, you’ve seen this patio in my portfolio, but I like it and it illustrates the concept beautifully.

Opposition is also found in patterns where stark opposites are next to one another – light and dark, or angular and soft, for example. I haven’t done it, but I think a really cool application of this would be clipped boxwood alternating with angular hunks of polished granite. How cool would that be on a big estate property?


Radiation + spiders will give angsty young men the ability to crawl up walls. Radiation in design creates a lot of visual movement through the use of concentric circles or spokelike forms. Radiation is really cool when used in a single plane, like the flooring in a lobby or even the entrance of a Target store. When taken into all three dimensions and terra-formed, it’s exceptional. Amphitheaters are pretty neat; this is flat out wild:

credit: Dave Lindoo in Peru

So there you have it: five ways that rhythm can be used in landscape design to move the eye through the space. Up next: emphasis!

Principles of Design: Balance in the Landscape

I’ve been excited about writing this post. Balance is really important to design, yet it’s often misunderstood. The two main kinds of balance in design are symmetrical and asymmetrical balance.

Symmetrical balance is easy. Take a picture and divide it down the middle. Are both sides the same, or darn close? That’s symmetrical balance, also called formal or passive balance. Why passive? Because it’s very explicit what’s going on and it requires no judgment or interpretation. Historical designs often rely very heavily on symmetry, as you can see in the photo of Mount Vernon above. For this reason symmetrically balanced gardens can evoke that feel, even in spaces that are relatively new. The photo below is of the formal garden at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. It’s less than 20 years old, in a very different style, yet it still has that sense of timeless design that comes with symmetry.

Asymmetrical balance is a different animal. Think of the idea of balance as it relates to a seesaw (or teeter-totter, if that’s your thing). With symmetrical balance you have 60 pound Suzie on one side of the fulcrum, and her perfectly identical clone Suzie v 2.0 the same distance on the other side of the fulcrum. Again, passive balance – you can look at this and you “know” that it’s balanced.

Now Big Bad Bob comes along and decides he wants to play. For him to balance on one side, Suzie and two of her clones have to be on the other side of the fulcrum to maintain equilibrium. If you look at the kids on the seesaw, you can see that there’s equilibrium even though they’re different kids and different sizes and shapes. The visual weight balances out.

The same idea comes into play in the landscape. We can achieve the same sort of balance by contrasting the visual “weight” of a tall tree with three hefty shrubs.

Asymmetrical balance is called “active” balance because it requires a little more work on the part of the viewer to understand that there is, in fact, balance. It’s also sometimes called “occult” balance. Put away your Ouija board; it’s called occult balance because there are no set rules defining what the right way is to achieve it – it’s a mystery! Woooooo. It’s also really cool and really powerful because of that. I love designs where they just feel right. Asymmetrical balance can do that, because you have to be actively seeking it out to know it’s happening.

So… who cares, right? If you want balance, just mirror the left side onto the right side and call it done. That’s an option, I suppose, but every space is different and lends itself to a different approach. Maybe you’re looking for a more Asian-inspired design, which means that you should consider asymmetrical balance. Or, you could have something in the space – a tree, a boulder, a structure – that is so visually massive that it’s hard to mirror. The way you counteract that effect is with asymmetrical balance.

The more tools you have in your toolbox, the more cool stuff you can build. Isn’t design awesome?

Next up: rhythm!

Principles of Design: Proportion in the Landscape

Proportion and scale are two related design principles. Proportion refers to the size relationship that parts of the design have to each other and to the design as a whole. On a small scale, an example of proportion is the size of a chair’s legs to its back or seat. On a bigger scale, an example of proportion may be the size of a pergola’s posts in relationship to its beam. If the relationship of the parts is pleasing, we consider it to be well-proportioned.

As with many things, the ancient Greeks had this one under control. They referred to a concept known as the golden mean, an imaginary line that divides an object into unequal yet harmonious portions, somewhere between 1/2 and 1/3. It’s easy to see this at work in interior design; think of tiebacks on curtains, or where a chair rail is located.

There’s also the golden section, a mathematical statement of proportions. This uses a progression of numbers – 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34… – that relate to one another in a pleasing way. For instance, a patio 5′ wide by 8′ long is considered pleasing. Want it bigger? Multiply both sides by the same number. Using the number 3, that gives us a patio 15′ wide by 24′ long. Theoretically, a room or space created using the golden section should be the easiest to furnish and work with.

Proportion is important in the landscape because we’re dealing with so many large items, and all too often people are afraid to go big. Here are a few examples:

When it comes to pergolas proportion makes a world of difference. Bigger is, quite often, better. Compare the proportions of the pergola that was there (top) to the one we replaced it with (bottom).

This custom arbor I designed is one of my favorite pieces. The house it belongs to is in the 9,000 sq ft range and it sits on 75 acres. The existing arbor was a run-of-the-mill garden center piece of junk that looked like paperclips on a basketball court. This one has the “oomph” to have some presence.

I’ve also talked about picking plants that suit your home and site. Again, proportion is so important! The trick is to find a plant that’s not too big for your lot (especially a smaller city lot) but is big enough to stand up to your house. Not sure? That’s what professional landscape designers (like me!) are for.

Next up: balance!

Principles of Design: Scale in the Landscape

Scale, in the design sense, deals with two things: size (actual and relative) and visual weight. Scale is something I talk about a lot with my clients because it can have such a dramatic impact on how we enjoy the space.

Let’s look at two extremes of scale, a townhouse backyard and an estate property. A townhouse backyard is a small space, so the natural instinct is to use small plants and furnishings to make the space “feel” bigger. This can throw off the human scale of a space, because if we’re using all low and dwarf plantings and underscaled furnishings, we can end up feeling like giants. In this example, a great way to keep things at a human scale without making the yard feel tiny would be to reduce the visual weight of what’s in it. A glass-top table with slender metal legs and matching chairs could be the exact same size as a chunky teak table, but it won’t dominate the space as much because it has less visual weight. With plants, you can use lighter, more transparent plants that feel lighter. Examples of these are grasses, nandina, and pieris.

If you want to see great examples of tight backyards designed brilliantly, you really need to check out British garden designers. Designer Matt James had a program on BBC called The City Gardener, which is the video embedded above. One of my favorite parts of this design is that he didn’t just shove everything up against the perimeter of the space. There’s plenty of room, but there are still layers of interest. Brilliant. Matt also has some great books, like The City Gardener: Urban Oasis (Amazon affiliate link)

At the other end of the spectrum is the estate property. Vast fields and rolling hills are beautiful to look at, but this vastness of scale doesn’t always feel comfortable to just hang out in. It helps to have something to shrink the space a little. That something could be a low wall at the edge of a patio, or a few small groves of trees to break up the size of the space.  It’s a delicate balancing act. In the photo below, the pergola at the far right is definitely at human scale. It also looks like toothpicks and a Kleenex next to the imposing event hall next to it.

Once you have an understanding of scale, it can be a lot of fun to play with. A really common mistake that I see homeowners make in their landscapes is to go with too small a scale. I get it. That overstuffed leather chair-and-a-half that looked so cool at Ethan Allen ended up dominating your den and your spouse has never let you live it down. Guess what? Outside, we have bigger spaces and a 70,000 foot ceiling. It’s possible to go too big for the space, but you have to work at it.That’s why I like sculptures that play with scale, like this one:


Next up: proportion!