By Elinor Bennett Markle
It has happened many times — the client stands with me on the porch of her home and without any opening discussion about her project, throws her arms wide, asks me “What do you see?” or “What should I do?”
Many clients rely on their designer to direct and decide the eventual character of their new or renovated landscape. When, in the past, I encountered such a responsibility, I worried that I would not be able to please someone who left everything up to me. I often struggled with designer’s block until I learned to embrace that freedom. Rather than become dismayed by the lack of direction I received, I began to look to the architecture of the project house or building for my inspiration.
Each house conveys a feeling or character — whether that is formal or informal, contemporary or historic, or, in some cases, bland and lacking detail or interest. Whatever the architectural character, the house design will probably suggest some design solutions. You can safely assume, unless told otherwise, that the client likes the visual appearance, including detailing and proportions, of the building in which he or she lives or owns. To carry that style into the landscape would be a logical direction to focus your efforts.
Observe the building’s significant features
Bubble diagram: Before committing initial plan inspirations to the client, lay out the floor plan of the building, and, on tracing paper laid over the plan, make a functional diagram for the spaces you are charged with creating.
Illustrations by Elinor Bennett MarkleStart your analysis of the building by observing the significant features such as the roofline and materials, window shape and size, number and arrangement of mullions, front and garage door details, existing railings or fencing, columns or arches, hardscape patterns, or brick and stone detailing. I record these in my photographs, which I print, so that I can review them continually throughout the project. The features of the building will suggest to me which form theme is appropriate in order to carry the style of the house into the landscape. For example, a contemporary style house is likely to feel at home in a diagonal or curvilinear themed landscape, whereas the Georgian style of the house in the photo suggests a rectangular theme.
However, before committing initial plan inspirations to the client, get back to your design studio, lay out the floor plan of the building, and on tracing paper laid over the plan, make a functional diagram for the spaces you are charged with creating. Landscape architects call these functional diagrams “bubble diagrams”, because the shape for each function (cooking, eating, swimming, lawn, garden, etc.) is circular, amorphous; like a bubble, its shape can be squeezed and changed as pressure from other bubbles (functions) impacts it. Assign to the bubble the approximate square footage needed for entertainment areas, private lounging areas, recreational space, and service areas, and give these functions a general place in the landscape relative to the access points of the house. You learned from your client how much area they need or want for each activity, and start with their idea of which activity should be adjacent to which. Like everything else about designing, it may change before you reach your final product, so keep an open mind as you continue the process. When complete, remove the bubble diagram and set it aside for the time being.
Choose a compositional theme
The second step of design development is choosing a compositional theme based on the visual clues that the existing architecture presents. The forms of the theme — rectangular, diagonal, arc and tangent, curvilinear, circular — organize the masses and voids of the plan. Choosing a theme should be a thoughtful process, and not the result of drawing random, or merely pretty, forms. The considerations include whether the geometry you favor is consistent with that of the architecture and with the desired feeling or character of the overall design. Equally important is whether the function of the spaces can be supported by the plan-view form, and whether the theme forms can achieve a respectful relationship between the form and existing topography and structures.
Review the first-floor plan
Grid: Draw a grid out from the sides of the building on the base floor plan to indicate “lines of force”. The grid can be in a diagonal, or right angle configuration, depending on the architecture of the house, and existing views from the doors and windows.Third, review the first-floor plan and note the hierarchy of points and edges of exterior walls. This approach helps me visually unify my proposed landscape with its building and surrounds. Exterior corners of the building walls are the most important. Second in importance are the doorways and vertical lines created by changes in materials. Third are the windows. I will be directing attention to, diverting attention from, or visually connecting to these points and edges as I draw my themed forms in the plan.
I draw a grid out from the sides of the building on the base floor plan to indicate these “lines of force.” The grid can be in a diagonal, or right angle configuration, depending on the architecture of the house, and existing views from the doors and windows. For example, if the best view from the front door was not straight out the front door, but off to the left by 30 or more degrees, then I would align my grid in that direction and carry it through the plan. If the front and rear yards required different grids, then the overlap area would become the transition area, which I call “grid meld.”
I use purple for the exterior wall and corner grid lines, the doorways grid extends in orange, and the windows in blue. This color system keeps me aware of the importance of each as I work thorough the next step. If I ultimately choose a curvilinear theme, the grid is of less importance than for rectangular, diagonal and arc-and-tangent themes. The use of the grid does keep me aware of the need to connect form lines to others at right angles, and to avoid the acute angle, which creates a landscape element — be it bed, paving or lawn — that is hard to maintain and usually visually awkward.
Any two designers may place a different grid on any given project, and the grids are only there to spark and guide form composition — not to confuse or squelch your creativity. In any case, the importance of the lines of force expressed by the grid is highest immediately adjacent to the house or building. The farther you are from the house and other structures or features, the less obvious or important is a coordinated alignment between the house, other structures and the site.
Place the bubble diagram over the grid
Site plan: In the schematic site plan, note how the form of the bubble/functional diagrams changed to fit better the grid. The apportioned square feet per function remains nearly the same.Fourth, I place the tracing of the functional/bubble diagram over the grid tracings on the base floor plan, and a clean tracing sheet on top of that. Now I am ready to start generating my theme forms to create the spaces required by the client’s program. My goal is to attach a theme form to the functions, and I may try several plans before I find one that strikes me as the best. Often, my first attempt seems good, but usually I find that the second or third configuration is better than the first. My overlay process ultimately will yield a plan that is functional and attractive.
The client will never know how difficult or easy the process was, because the final design will look as if it was obviously the only plan that would do the job. I will tell her that I saw her home as the impetus for the design, and that I worked from the beautiful lines, materials and proportions found there. Under the table, where she cannot see, my fingers are crossed in hopes that she can now see what I see — a landscape plan that fits her home, her taste and her life to a T.
Elinor Bennett Markle, RLA, ASLA, is a landscape architect practicing in Kentucky and Tennessee. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org