Elements of Design: Space

Space is a funny concept in design, especially landscape design. Space is an abstract concept that can’t really be described until it’s defined by walls or boundaries. It’s a crucial part of design, as evidenced by the fact that a large part of design is space planning.

When working with space, we’re trying to balance two conflicting human needs. The first is the need to feel enclosed, sheltered, and protected. This is achieved with smaller spaces – think of when you were little and made a fort from blankets and couch cushions. In the landscape we can make a space feel smaller with walls, railings, fences, hedges – any number of visual tricks. However, if we make the space too small it feels confining and constricting.

On the flip side, we also have a need to feel a sense of freedom, to take in the vastness of a space. Think of a deck or patio overlooking the mountains in the northwestern corner of Virginia, where you can survey the entire landscape spread out below you. There still needs to be a means of creating human scale (see how it all relates?), or a huge outdoor space can feel uncomfortable, even a little unsettling.

The photo below is from one of our trips to the Charlottesville area. From the patio, you have views of forever that could feel a little overwhelming. The pergola helps to “lower the sky,” in a sense, and as the shrubs at the edge of the patio grow and fill in they’ll provide a little enclosure.

Designers have a lot of fun playing with space. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright used small entry doors and low-ceilinged hallways that open into large, high-ceilinged living spaces to create a sense of excitement, even tension and release. Outside, you could get the same effect with a narrow walkway between tall hedges that opens out into a bigger space. This photo from the Winery at La Grange shows that really well. The patio at the other end feels twice as large as it is, just because of the “compressed” feeling you get coming down the walk:

credit: DCFoodies.com

As you can probably tell, I love playing with space. There’s the functional part of space planning and circulation that I enjoy, but playing with the edges of an abstraction is pretty cool.

Next up: shape and form!

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