Create visual order by coordinating the forms of the landscape

By Elinor Bennett Markle

Organization smoothes and improves every venture. In a good design, organization is expressed by the relationships between each element within the landscape, regardless of the scale of the project. All the features relate functionally and aesthetically to one another so that the plan works for the uses intended and makes visual sense; not by accident, but because we meant for it to achieve those goals. We design a purposeful arrangement of landscape features and elements to create a space and view that interests us and appeals to humans’ instinctive, if subconscious, sense of proportion and scale.

We create this organization and visual order by coordinating the forms of the landscape beds; the terraces, decks or patios; and the lawn. The forms we choose for the ground plane are our tools for organizing and ordering the areas that we are planning. This is a design basic that relies on continuity and repetition of a few essential shapes. Like a recurrent melody in the theme song for a movie, the organizational shape recurs continually throughout the ground plane of the design.

There are two essential shapes from which all other shapes are derived — the circle and the square. The perfect circle is often thought of as the “perfect shape” and a natural one, as it is found endlessly in every component of plants, animals and the universe. The perfect square is a human-made shape, which is also a marvelous form, but does not occur in nature. In this comparison of the two essential shapes, we have a yin and a yang balance: the natural shape versus the human-made shape. Using these shapes alone, or in combination with each other gives us the patterns of form that contribute order to our designs.

We use two methods to order a space using only circles: overlapping circles, and concentric circles. Concentric circles make an extremely strong composition and focus attention to the center of the space. They are used most effectively to highlight an extremely important feature within the landscape, such as a podium in a major gathering space for people, or a fountain or statue. The object in the center is the “thing,” and the space around it is used simply to focus attention on the “thing.”

Overlapping circles give the feeling of many directions of orientation in the plan, or of many nearly equal features of importance. For example, a circular lawn and circular terrace, if overlapped, tells users that each is of strong importance. To be successful in using overlapping circles, you must use variety in circle sizes, so that a hierarchy of spaces is apparent and there is one dominant space. This means that one feature of the landscape, be it the lawn, a pool or an entertainment area, will become the dominant feature of the plan, yet the others are also important to the space. Draw the circumference of one circle through the center of another. If you choose to ignore this rule, the clear identity of each circle will be lost, resulting in a weak identity for that space.

 Photo 1

Squares are strong forms used to order space, and are easily expanded to create rectangular forms. Both squares and rectangles create right-angle relationships between all elements in the design. These shapes are helpful for organizing narrow and small spaces, and are very efficient at creating spaces within spaces. The square and rectangle work well when we design outdoor rooms that adjoin a rectangular house, because their right angles reinforce the lines of the house. Squares and rectangles are useful for establishing formal landscapes but they can also organize informal and asymmetrically balanced spaces. The photo of a courtyard in the Alhambra is an example of formal square/rectangular order (see Photo 1).

Squares may be placed within circles, and circles within squares. Another combination of these two essential forms is the arc and tangent theme, and both forms are expressed in the photo of fountains at Longwood Gardens (see Photo 2). In fact, the arc and tangent fountains at the sides of the space create more interest for the entire area than the central circle-within-a-square alone. However, they are an embellishment and the

 Photo 2central fountain is still the “thing” for which the entire space was made.

The arc and tangent form is developed from rounding out a plan that was initially conceived of as rectangular. It is best used on level or near level ground to full effect, because the relationships between the forms can get lost on rolling topography. In this example, the space is large enough for the form to be repeated many times, all the while reinforcing the importance of the center of the circle.

Using the square and the circle as our basic forms, we can create curvilinear and diagonal themes of organization. We do this by using combinations of only parts of the circle and some of the square’s straight lines. In the photo of Bouchard Gardens, you can see a combination of diagonal and curvilinear organization (see Photo 3). The flowerbeds in this area direct visitors toward the entryway to the next garden (the twin pyramidal evergreens) with curvilinear forms that are arranged diagonally. The pathway is curvilinear as well, although not diagonally

 Photo 3placed.

Do not mistake curvilinear for “freeform” or “natural.” It is not a random/free form, and it is not natural. It is a regular and repeatable shape that is created by humans. The curvilinear form is drawn using parts of several circles that transition from one to another in smooth curves. Use bold and generous curves in combination with smaller and shaper curves to give variety to the tempo of the composition. Too much of the wide sweeps and the viewer becomes bored. Too many small curves and the design seems busy and annoying. The curvilinear theme is meant to be relaxing. It is useful for large spaces where the smooth transitions have ample room to be expressed, and it is usually not an efficient use of space.

Curvilinear ordering of space is also apparent in the landscape shown with the swimming pool (See Photo 4). The pool shape could have been improved by making one smaller and sharper curve, or one larger and bolder curve at the far end, rather than the two small and ineffectual curves. However, I like that the grass panel behind the pool reinforces the curving theme and since it is smaller, it shows that the pool is the dominant feature within this space. Beyond the grass panel is a curving wall that is also in

 Photo 4keeping with the curvilinear theme of the space.

Organizing the entire landscape by choosing a theme based on ground plane form is critical to creating a cohesive space that maintains physical function and aesthetic balance, unity, and rhythm in the design. It does not mean that we exclude spontaneity or kitsch as we proceed to flesh out the specific features of the project, but that we satisfy our instructive need to understand and predict our surroundings. That instinctive understanding causes our client to feel good about viewing or being in the space, and to feel an emotional attraction for it. Client satisfaction is a great measure of design success.

Elinor Bennett Markle, RLA, ASLA, is a landscape architect practicing in Kentucky and Tennessee. She can be reached via e-mail at

Photos1, 2 and 4 by Elinor Bennett Markle. Photo 3 by R. Darwin Shockley

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