Are We There Yet? Designing Gardens that Move and Arrive

By: Iain Robertson

Iain M Robertson has taught at the University of Washington for over twenty years. His interests include plants as a…

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Here, the mind is restrained by precise planting and formality in a crisply defined garden room at Kew Palace, Kew Gardens. Author’s photographs

Here, the mind is restrained by precise planting and formality in a crisply defined garden room at Kew Palace, Kew Gardens. Author’s photographs

This article has been adapted from one of a pair of garden design talks presented at the 2005 San Francisco Flower Show. The first talk explored the relationship between the design of garden spaces and the kinds of behavior and movement patterns that different spaces are likely to promote. The second, a subject for a later article, considered how we might design gardens to evoke particular emotional responses. Both talks were intended to provide useful guidelines for garden design but were not meant to offer a foolproof and definitive design process that—if slavishly followed—would guarantee satisfaction. Design—and I suspect life—is just not like that.

Nearly seventy years after Gertrude Stein stingingly rebuked Oakland by asserting “There is no there there,” we find this observation widely applicable. There seems to be no “there” everywhere, and the “thereness” of many destinations seems to elude our arrival. Our mobile mass society has rendered us rootless; our connections to place are loosened; and places are increasingly placeless.

Rooms of different scales and different purposes, but each clearly a destination

Rooms of different scales and different purposes,…

It is important to understand the influence of placelessness on the way we design and build gardens. Stein’s observation now holds true not just for every commercial strip in every “edge city,” but also for far too many gardens. Gardens ought, it seems to me, to be rooted places, perhaps the last refuges of “thereness” in our mobile society. Well-designed gardens should express the places in which they are rooted, and we should consciously design them as antidotes to the modern malaise of placelessness. The guidelines I offer here focus on movement through and arrival in garden places. They provide a brief road map, which, if it does not get us “there,” will at least head us in the right direction. If your garden becomes a delightful journey and destination that expresses your life and interests, along with the soil, plants, and climate of your distinct place, then this map will have served its purpose.

Rooms of different scales and different purposes, but each clearly a destination

… but each clearly a destination

Gardens should not be places with indistinct and unmemorable destinations, full of paths where we are perpetually in danger of getting lost. They should provide interesting journeys and delightful arrivals. Gardens succeed when their journeys, however short or long, are purposeful. They also succeed when visitors reach their heart, instinctively sense that they have arrived, and feel inclined to sit and savor the incomparable charms of the moment and the scene. How can we shape garden spaces and design sequences to create legible and lovely experiences? If our gardens need “you are here” signs, we have failed. Successful gardens convey their messages in spatial language, not verbally. How can we shape space to say “slow down,” “stop,” or “keep going?” How can we create places that say “Welcome! You’ve arrived. Make yourself at home.”

I contend that all of us possess a spatial vocabulary and a grammar for understanding spatial perception. Although we may be only partly or occasionally conscious of our “spatial intelligence,” we do know when a space feels too small, too large, or just right. Our goal is to learn how to use this intelligence when we design our gardens. If you still doubt that you possess spatial intelligence, ask yourself whether, in daily life, you repeatedly bump into objects or people. Most unlikely. “Oops. Excuse me, please,” we say when we inadvertently jostle someone, indicating that our spatial intelligence is not merely physical, but social and behavioral as well.

Although there are many factors to consider in garden design, and although many of these are only partially under our control, the fundamental spatial design concepts are relatively straightforward. Start with the simple observation that we can divide garden spaces into those that are room-like and those that are corridor-like—each surrounded by solids (enclosing elements) such as hedges and other plants, walls and fences, and steep slopes. Our first spatial rule is simple, yet many gardens seem to ignore it: rooms are for arrival, corridors are to keep one moving. I suggest that gardens need at least one room-like space (possibly more depending on their size and complexity) that is clearly a destination. These are places where we know instinctively or intuitively—but unequivocally—that we have arrived.

The tiny garden of an urban apartment—spatially restricted, but the mind roams freely

The tiny garden of an urban apartment—spatially restricted, but the mind roams freely

Guidelines for Designing Garden Rooms

Destination spaces should be shaped to “feel” like rooms not corridors. They should not be long and narrow, because our spatial intelligence tells us such spaces are for moving through. Destination spaces might be roundish or squarish in shape or, if the site and plants warrant, more amorphous; but, they should feel static and centered rather than active and directional.

Shape destination rooms simply. This does not mean rooms have to be geometric, but their shapes should be simple enough to be easily comprehended. To achieve this, it is the designer’s job to contribute clarity and simplicity, and the plants’ job to add richness and complexity. Do not get in each other’s way.

Avoid filling rooms with plants. Restrain yourself! Leave room for people. Large trees are the only exception to this rule, since we can use the canopied space beneath them.

There are no “right” sizes or shapes for destination rooms. The size will depend on the size of your garden, the number of visitors, the types of activity you wish to accommodate, and your ability to restrain your plant-acquisition habit.

Although there is no right or wrong size for garden rooms, a golden rule is: do not scrimp—be generous! Make spaces larger than the minimum you think you can get away with. (Ignore this guideline, and you will be hacking plants back for the next twenty years or more.)

These are relatively simple, two-dimensional considerations. Spatial considerations become more complex in the garden when we add the third dimension (ie, the height of the enclosure) but this is crucial, as gardens cannot be designed solely in plan view. The third dimension introduces considerations of scale and proportions. Scale describes the perceived size of a space in relation to the human body; proportion describes the relationships between the horizontal dimensions of the space and the heights of enclosing masses and objects. There are no right or wrong sizes or proportions applicable to all situations. The proportions of the “golden section,” beloved by architects and mathematicians, are irrelevant in the growing, changing, organic world of gardens, because the size, scale, and proportions of garden spaces change dramatically as plants grow. Room proportions that would be insignificant or oppressive if defined by building walls are frequently quite acceptable when defined by plants. As we consider the scale and proportions of garden spaces, we are really considering spatial experiences and, again, must draw on our spatial intelligence for guidance. (For example, is our goal to create spaces that feel intimate or expansive?)

The larger the ratio of height to width in a garden space, the greater will be the feeling of containment. Too small a ratio, and spaces lose their sense of definition. Too large a ratio, and spaces become confining or oppressive.

These three gardens show  a range of possibilities for striking balances between containment and openness, and between too much and too little furniture

These three gardens show  a range of possibilities for striking balances between containment and openness, and between too much and too little furniture

These three gardens show a range of possibilities for striking balances between containment and openness, and between too much and too little furniture

These three gardens show a range of possibilities for striking balances between containment and openness, and between too much and too little furniture

Destination spaces should have clearly defined boundaries, including not only surrounding masses but also overhead tree canopies. A lack of spatial enclosure means no spatial differentiation from the surrounds, which means no perception of a separate space, which means no experience of a room, which means…where are we? The possibilities are limitless for how enclosed and defined we wish to make garden spaces. The choice is yours, but destination spaces should have discernible edges—even if these are only semi-transparent veils of plants.

Make destination spaces comfortable to occupy. Climatic conditions are not totally controllable, but they can be moderated and adjusted. We cannot, for instance, control the sun’s direction, height, presence or absence, or intensity, but we can adjust how it impacts garden rooms. Hence, a garden’s shape, proportions, and orientation (relative to the sun) are important considerations, as are the sizes and shapes of surrounding masses. Garden space and plant mass may be designed to provide shelter and shade, to block or welcome sun, to control cold winds, or to encourage gentle cooling breezes.

Destinations must consider their entrances. How wide or narrow, how easily traversed, how welcoming or intimidating do we wish these to be? These spatial decisions influence expectations as visitors move from a corridor journey to a room destination, and provide cues and clues for how to behave. Rooms may need windows to frame desirable outward views, whereas incompatible surroundings may suggest rooms that look inward.

Destination spaces should be distinct from other parts of the garden—but not too much so. While their identities should differentiate them, they also need continuities that unite them with the rest of the garden. Differences may be expressed in a myriad of ways. For example, changes in the ground plane materials, from a gravel path to a paved patio or manicured lawn, will emphasize arrival. Differences could take the form of changes in plants in the surrounding beds; a pocket of shade might contrast with surrounding sunlit openness. We might think of the character of the space in terms of color, texture, and patterns—attributes that can be expressed so well with plants.

To reward visitors for spending time in them, we might make the character of destination spaces richer and more complex than the corridors the visitors passed through to reach them. Rewards should not be limited to the sense of sight but should include smell, taste, and touch.

Finally, if we wish visitors to rest in our gardens, then destination rooms need seats and possibly shelters.

This is no time to sit down, however, for now we must consider guidelines for the garden journey. The following are applicable to long garden journeys through grand estates, as well as to journeys of a single step, perhaps from a living room onto a garden deck or lawn. While the former may allow us to build anticipation slowly but inexorably, the precipitous fast-forward of the latter journey requires our close attention to avoid tripping over the step.

Garden paths are about delightful journeys, whether they be straight and narrow (and thus goal oriented), as seen above…

Garden paths are about delightful journeys, whether they be straight and narrow (and thus goal oriented), as seen above…

… or curvilinear  (and thus engaging with the surroundings), as shown here.

… or curvilinear (and thus engaging with the surroundings), as shown here.

Guidelines for Designing Garden Journeys

The experience of traveling through gardens should, like garden destinations, be delightful and rewarding. Travel routes may be complex and convoluted or simple and clear, but the fundamental point is that each path should know where it is going and how it plans to get there.

In contrast to the design of garden rooms, travel routes should be thought of as sequential experiences. Paths take time to walk along and are experienced in a predetermined order or sequence. (We can’t see what’s around the bend till we get there.) Paths are spatial palindromes: sequences must also work in reverse order. Sequences imply a larger design question: how do we wish to relate the journey to the destination?

Paths may be uniform along their entire length or divided into a sequence of subspaces with differing characteristics. The former emphasizes the corridor’s continuity and connectivity; the latter emphasizes the distinctive parts of the journey. Uniform paths suggest that we walk along them at a uniform pace. Sequential variety may encourage us to slow or pause before continuing our journey.

The entire path experience should be a coherent story. The journey should be logical and legible. Sequences in which we become lost may be acceptable in some situations, but even these should provide assurances that they are leading to a destination.

Corridors are linear spaces; narrower proportions of width to length and higher proportions of enclosing walls to width emphasize that linear character. Taller walls focus attention along the length of a path. A six-foot-wide path through sixty-foot-tall trees is a different experience from a six-foot-wide path through six-inch-tall grass. To encourage users to look to either side, enclosing walls can be angled into and away from paths.

Straight paths reveal destinations, whereas those that curve conceal conclusions coyly. Straight and narrow paths are unambiguous; their destination is their destiny. Meandering or curvilinear paths are more likely to engage our attention by offering enticements along the way. Curvilinear paths invite participation with their surroundings. They may be great conversationalists, or they may babble incoherently.

The primary requirements of paths are that they should know where they are going and why. These clueless paths know neither.

The primary requirements of paths are that they should know where they are going and why. These clueless paths know neither.

Beware of wiggly, inconclusive paths—they break the fundamental rule that paths should know where they are going. Avoid paths that look lost, confused, uncertain, ambivalent, or vacillating!

The goals for most contemporary garden paths should be to slow us down and make us more observant of our surroundings. To do so, they should engage all the senses. We typically slow when a path widens and speed up when it narrows; thus, an effective way to control a visitor’s speed is to vary the width of the path and the spaces it passes through.

If paths need to branch, provide spatial cues about the options; don’t let choices become dilemmas.

Path design should reward not punish users. Paths should take us in hand, not prod us onward. Good designs intrigue and lead us on. Poor designs that lead us down the garden path had better know what they intend to do with us when they get us there, wherever that may be.

For better or worse, path surfaces may play elaborate tricks on our feet and our minds, but should avoid unnecessary complexity. When in doubt, keep it simple.

Conclusion

All design is an exploration, and garden design differs only in that the exploration is lifelong. These guidelines offer concepts to consider when designing garden journeys and destinations, in order to create gardens that move and arrive. Like all design rules, they are principles that must be reinterpreted for each garden design exploration—followed, adjusted, or broken, according to the genius loci of each site, by the genius of the gardener.

The world, if not our oyster, is always a laboratory in which we may find pearls of wisdom. From our everyday environments we may draw profound spatial and sequential design lessons. (Bank teller lines and IRS income tax forms, for example, provide endless lessons in what to avoid.) Where there is space, there are lessons.

Let me conclude with a long-overdue explanation of the title. Who of us has not suffered through innumerable reiterations of the traveler’s refrain “Are we there yet?”—usually voiced shrilly from the back seat of a hot car, generally when we are unsure of where we are, or while we are stuck in traffic. It is a compelling question that garden designers should keep perpetually in mind. If we do so, our garden designs are sure to be wonderful places with presence and thereness. Places in which visitors, as they move along delightful garden paths and arrive at its heart, will never think, far less whisper, “Are we there yet?”