There was a guy at one of the gyms at which I worked out who had a T-shirt that said “don’t be passive, be massive.” He was definitely the latter; you kind of have to be to pull off such a shirt.
Mass in the landscape is the same way – it has to be right if you’re going to pull it off. Mass is very closely related to shape and form. Actual density occurs when the shape is filled in. Optical density is when the piece in question is not completely solid. In terms of interior pieces (a common reference point), think of a couch that has a skirt all the way to the floor versus a couch of the same size with no skirt and tapered legs. The skirted couch appears to have more mass, even though it’s not solid all the way through.
How the heck does this relate to landscape design? It’s important to consider the effect that mass has on the pverall feel of a space. Obviously the bigger the space, the more mass it can handle. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that a heavy mass can “stop” the eye and make the space feel smaller.
This pergola is a good example of playing with mass. It’s a big site, and the large house is just out of frame – this needed to be a beefy structure. At the same time, the openings provide a little transparency and lighten things up a bit. You know it’s a focal point, but you can still see through it to the vineyard view beyond.
Plants can play a role in this as well. If we keep the plants behind the structure pruned even with the top of the fence, we’ve preserved the view to the vines and maintained a lighter mass. If we allow the plants to fill the space between the columns, it’ll have the same effect as if we had built a solid wood screen panel between them.
Because plants grow, you have to think about the effects of mass throughout the life of the landscape. It’s one more reason why working with a landscape designer can make a big difference in the overall look of your landscape.