Drinking from an empty cup

June 24, 2009 Landscape Design

We design space.

When I first heard that, it sounded like one of those Japanese koans about drinking from an empty cup or one hand clapping, rather than how to design a garden. Most people think landscape architects or garden designers dress up existing spaces with plants. I call that ornamentation. It has its place, but at the end; not the beginning.

If you want those cozy nooks, the secluded seats, the entrancing views, the surprise of a secret path that opens up into a wide, sunny outdoor room, you must call us in at the beginning.

We design hallways and rooms outside like architects design them inside. We too use walls and ceilings, doors and windows. We use (among other things) wood and brick, trees and shrubs, to define those spaces. It is the solidity or transparency of the walls, the glimpses from the pathway into the next space, the sound of water and the use of light, that create the delight of those spaces.

We think about how you would like to use your outdoor spaces, how you might move from one place to another, how the light, wind, and water moves across it, what the views and sounds are — good and bad. We must consider the architecture of the house, its relationship to the neighborhood, the existing and historic vegetation, and what styles you, the client, like.

We then consider what building materials and groups of plants — and the qualities of those plants — can be used to solidly construct or suggest those spaces. Artists learn to draw by looking at the space around objects and then drawing it. By concentrating on the space and not their preconceived ideas about the object, they more faithfully represent the object. The space around the object is called negative space.

When we enclose the space mindfully, we are creating a positive space out of what was once empty. That space is then ready to be filled — not with a tree in the middle — but with light, rain, the seasons and the lives of those who live there.

Perhaps we are learning to drink from an empty cup.