As we move into a discussion on the aesthetic functions of landscapes, we begin a more intuitive conversation of plant functions that are more familiar. Unlike the architectural functions and engineering functions that we discussed before, the aesthetic functions of landscapes are primarily pleasing to the eye. This is the beauty aspect of landscape architecture.
Aesthetic Functions of Landscapes
Creating an aesthetically pleasing landscape is anything but simple and straightforward. When we design outdoor spaces, there are many elements that we use to create aesthetically pleasing people places. Ranging from plant material to water, pavement, and site furnishings (benches, trash receptacles, drinking fountains, etc.), these elements make it possible to enhance architecture, contrast colors and textures and create focal points.
Enhancing and Softening Architecture
Often when we are designing a landscape for a new commercial building, the building is designed to have a focal point. Sometimes that is an attractive design feature. Other times, the focal point is the business’ sign. Either way, it would be a faux pas to specify plants that would block this focal point. Rather, we design the landscape to enhance that particular feature. This typically looks like using the landscape to frame the focal point to draw attention to it.
At the new Delta Dental headquarters building in Okemos, we saw a great example of this principle. The building was designed to have pillars spaced equally around the exterior with large windows in between. The landscape architect who designed this space did an excellent job of highlighting these focal points. By extending a band of concrete from the base of the pillar to the sidewalk and planting low, uniform plants in between the concrete bands, the designer used the landscape to emphasize the architecture and create an aesthetically pleasing space.
Likewise, we designed an outdoor worship patio for a church in Traverse City to replace a degrading patio that the church had used for many years. The existing patio extended all the way to the base of the building’s wall of windows. The extensive hardscape from the concrete patio to the wall of windows was harsh and didn’t celebrate the beauty of the windows.
During the redesign, we knew that it was important to soften the architecture of the windows and we knew that we could effectively do this with a combination of shrubs, perennials and grasses. The planting area against the building took away some space from the patio, but the aesthetic function that was achieved was well worth it. The plants create a break in your view with their change in color and texture and allow you to appreciate the beauty of the patio space and the architecture of the church building.
Contrast Colors and Textures
Because we love the many unique characteristics of plants, we enjoy mixing and matching varying colors and textures to create attractive landscapes. As I described in a previous post, we installed a landscape at our home this year and our intent in designing it was to try out new plants and plant combinations. One area where we mixed plants to maximize their all-season color and textures was along our front walk.
Contrasting Plants in Sun
Because this particular space is fairly small, it’s mainly perennials with only a few shrubs. With the perennials we mixed Salvia for early color, Echinacea, Geranium (perennial), and Liatris for summer color, and Sedum, Seslaria and Sporobolus for fall color. Some of the plants are upright, shooting blooms toward the sky, while others are mounding, covering the ground with their beauty. The wide, grey-green leaves of the Sedum with the narrow, yellow-green grass blades of the Seslaria create variation in color and texture of the plants.
Contrasting Plants in Shade
In more shady situations, there are even more options when it comes to foliage color and texture. In this small space each plant needed to have characteristics that maximize their aesthetic appeal. The aesthetic function of this landscape was the main function that we were trying to achieve with this design.
The purple to red leaves of Heuchera contrast off of the greens of boxwood and a weeping redbud. Bright yellow-green Hakonechloa grass adds a pop of color that lights up the shady space. The fine, ferny texture of the Astilbe and Cimicifuga contrast with the broad textures of the Heuchera and Hosta.
Creating a Focal Point
The aesthetic function of landscapes is also demonstrated through the creation of a focal point. This can be done with plants or any other element in the landscape.
Plants as a Focal Point
Plants, specifically trees and evergreen shrubs, are often used as focal points in the landscape. This can be as simple as placing an ornamental tree at the corner of a house where the bedline curves. Or it can be more complex.
At this home, the circular driveway which enables guests to easily arrive and leave without turning their car around, had the potential to create a large, unsightly expanse of asphalt right at the front door. Instead of allowing that to happen, the landscape designer created a focal point using plants, bermed soil and ledgerock.
This landscape island blocks your view of the house as you initially approach the home. However, it more importantly breaks up your view of the pavement in front of the house. As you drive around the circle, your view opens up and you can easily see the front door. The variations in colors and textures in this planting add to the effectiveness of this focal point’s aesthetic value.
Site Furnishings as a Focal Point
At the McLaren Healing Garden in Clarkston, MI there are many semi-private seating areas for patients and their loved ones to be able to find peace and rest despite the challenges of being in the hospital. Many of these seating areas look on focal points of plants, kinetic art, and stationary sculptures. And yet there was one seating area that particularly caught my eye. This seating area was the focal point itself.
These red benches are a focal point due to their bright color and they draw visitors into this space. Don’t miss the other aesthetic functions of this landscape, though! Once you’re seated on the bench on the right you can enjoy the simple focal point of the large rock where other guests have created cairns (stacks of rocks) on top of it. And notice the variety of colors and textures of the plants with the purple-leafed Japanese Maple to the Hostas and the Ferns. This space maximizes the aesthetic functions of landscapes, but it is the focal point that draws you in to be able to fully appreciate it.
Water as a Focal Point
In London, Ontario, there is a river running through the city. The river, aptly named the Thames River, splits in the center of the city. The Forks of the Thames River is the location of a focal point fountain that celebrates this key location in London’s downtown. The fountain catches your attention from the city center and draws visitors to the riverfront to appreciate the natural beauty of the area.
Interestingly, the creation of this fountain as a focal point for the city, has been a jumping off point for other public spaces. Nearby there are many seating areas for friends, couples and families to enjoy the fountain and the river, as well as an amphitheater and splash pad.
Growing the Design Toolbox
The aesthetic functions of landscape elements enhance architecture, contrast colors and textures and create focal points. Ultimately, it is this function that creates the beauty that we all associate with the landscape. Aesthetically pleasing landscapes are why we visit botanical gardens, go to national parks and even just enjoy gardening as a national pastime.
Interested to hear more about the other functions of landscapes? Read about the architectural functions of landscapes, engineering functions of landscapes and ecosystem service functions of landscapes!