We’ve discussed the value of placemaking and creating people places before, but not based on the values that landscape elements provide. The functional uses of landscapes fall into 4 categories: Architectural, Engineering, Aesthetic, and Ecosystem Services. I find the nuances of each of these functions to be very intriguing. When I see landscape elements in my day-to-day life serving these functions, I am like a kid in a candy store. The camera comes out and the next 5 minutes are gone. (All the pictures in this post are from these sorts of experiences; not from projects that we’ve designed.) Let’s start by taking a look at the architectural functions of landscapes.
Architectural Functions of Landscapes
It seems counterintuitive to say that there are architectural functions of landscapes. After all, architecture is by definition a built structure; the antithesis of a living landscape. However, there are several ways that landscape elements (trees, shrubs, perennials, etc.) act like structures. Landscape elements define space, screen undesirable views and gradually reveal desirable views.
Anyone who has ever been in a building knows that there are rooms within that structure. These rooms, which are defined by walls, ceilings, floors, closed and open doorways, will have a different feeling based on the scale of these architectural elements. For example, when you sit in a 10’ x 10’ room with an 8’ ceiling it feels intimate, especially if there is more than one other person in the room with you. On the other hand when you walk into an expansive train station with its glass ceiling soaring more than 100’ above your head and a large rectangular patterned floor beneath your feet it feels monumental. You are in an impressive place and you are a small piece of the puzzle.
The same architectural relationships exist when you exit these buildings, only now it’s the trees and shrubs that are defining space and either make you feel comfy-cozy or let you know that you’re in a place of significance. The Chicago Botanic Garden demonstrates this with an allée of Linden Trees trimmed into boxes. The square tree canopy forms a ceiling and the dense shade under the trees creates a wall that makes you want to move right on through this “hallway”.
Elsewhere in the garden is a seating area with plants enclosing one side. The shrubs closest to the seating wall are human-scaled, with a second row of shrubs stepping back at about 15’ tall. This two-tiered wall encloses the room by stopping views beyond the room, yet doesn’t overwhelm the visitor by giving them ample space at head height. Unlike the dense Linden hallway, this space is enclosed on only one side. This gives the person sitting on the bench sightlines into the middle of the garden room.
Similar to the 15’ hedge wall in Chicago, Olbrich Botanical Garden in Madison, WI uses a row of Arborvitae shrubs to define space. Here they interspersed a limestone column to create a rhythmic pattern, which mixes architectural and aesthetic landscape functions. From this aerial view, you can see the value of this hedge separating two different rooms within the garden, making the most of the available space.
Screening Undesirable Views
Getting away from the botanic garden examples, screening undesirable views is a common program element for commercial landscape designs. Undesirable views range from trash enclosures to utilities to messy neighbors, and for each of these problems, there are plants that can block those views. Often, screening is required by a municipality’s zoning ordinance, but even when it’s not, creating desirable people places calls for blocking undesirable views.
This shopping center is using a three-layered screen to make this space feel more comfortable for shoppers. First, a concrete block wall was constructed to keep guests from seeing their dumpsters and delivery area. Next, upright shrubs block views of the wall. Finally, an ornamental grass steps your view down to the sidewalk level. What could have been an unsightly view has been turned into a pleasant walkway.
Back at Olbrich, these Western Red Cedar evergreen trees stop your view all season long. Want to know what’s on the other side? Unfortunately, I can’t tell you. The screen was too effective!
Gradually Revealing Desirable Views
We’ll come back to Michigan for this fun one. When you experience this, it feels like a surprise. Like a happy accident. But gradually revealing a surprising view is anything but an accident. First you have to screen the desirable view so as to not ruin the surprise. Then at just the right time you clear the view so that your site visitor sees the focal point full on.
We experienced this walking along the path to visit the new Japanese Garden at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, MI. The beautifully defined tree lined path moved us toward our destination, completely blocking our views to the rest of the garden on our left. All of a sudden the view cleared and we could appreciate The American Horse, towering 24’ tall over the gardens and sculpture park. The breathtaking view was carefully framed by canopy trees in the foreground and evergreens in the mid-ground. The unexpected view felt like a secret that only we knew.
Growing the Design Toolbox
The architectural functions of landscape elements define space, screen undesirable views and gradually reveal desirable views. Using landscape in addition to architectural structures to achieve these goals leads to more creative and successful people places.