When designing a building, the context and surrounding landscape are often the greatest considerations in positioning a building on its site. The landscape can drive a structural form, suggest a palette of materials, and root a building to its unique place and time. This is why, as architects, it is important to consider landscape design and the outdoor rooms just as we might consider the structure of the building or the indoor spaces.
An outdoor room can be many things. It may be a transitional space to move from inside to out, a refuge from the daily grind, a point of prospect over a broader view, or a productive garden overflowing with vegetables. Whatever form your yard may take, it should be an extension of the home, and as the full swing of summer approaches we would like to offer some helpful design guidelines to create enjoyable outdoor spaces.
A refuge is a place where one wants to linger, entertain, recharge, or any combination thereof. It is often a protected area on the edge of where the action is taking place. This location preserves the sense of shelter, but also allows one to continue to engage and reflect. A refuge can range from an elegantly simple area, such as a modest bench placed under a tree, to a more developed project (think gazebo-covered patio speckled with cushions and ensconced by hedges), to extraordinarily elaborate designs pulled from the furthest reaches of your imagination. In any case, an easy guideline to follow is to make a sheltered place to sit with a ratio of floor space to enclosure that is greater than 1:2 and less than 1:4 where the boundary begins to fall apart (4 square feet of area for every 1 foot of surrounding vertical height). Paley Park in New York City is one such refuge. It is a small contemplative plaza in the urban center of Midtown Manhattan. Paley Park contains many principles of design that help separate the occupants from the hubbub of the busy city. One such element is the elegant waterfall that lines the back wall of the plaza. The sound of rushing water creates a sense of acoustic privacy from the street as well as from conversations at adjacent tables.
The Prospect Point
The prospect point is an area in the landscape which aims to promote perspective and create a place where one is able to appreciate the integration of one’s immediate environment into the surrounding geography. In concrete terms, the prospect point is usually a high point in the land that allows one to survey a greater view, is never entirely enclosed, and often uses plants to frame borrowed scenery from distant environs. More abstractly, it allows access to the metaphorical frontier, a representational archetype that generates a sense of freedom and awe within the human psyche that would otherwise require exploration or travel to achieve. Frank Lloyd Wright was a champion of this idea and built his own home, Taliesin (Welsh for shining brow), on the brow of a hill overlooking the Wisconsin prairie. Interestingly, he reserved the ridge of the hill for a grassy spot to enjoy an afternoon picnic.
A transitional or motive space is essentially a place that imparts a sense of motion, where one does not feel immediately comfortable lingering. It may seem counterintuitive to design a place where one feels uncomfortable, but motive spaces can be useful in creating an isolated private space. A good guideline to forming a pathway is simply a ratio of height to width given to us by landscape architect Nick Robinson in his Planting Design Handbook. Robinson describes the motive sweet spot ratio as 1:1-1:2.5 (1 ft. of width to 1 ft. of height up to 1 foot of width to 2 ½ feet of height). A great example of transitional space is illustrated in Bernard Maybeck’s Rose Walk, a small craftsman development in Berkeley, California. This public garden winds through the grouping of eight homes (also designed by Maybeck). The path was once an old access point for the neighborhood residents to a trolley line. Now, the trolley is gone, but the garden remains as a connector through the hillside neighborhood supporting the beauty and walkability of the area.