Bowles & Wyer

Are we just making Pretty shapes?

Written by John Wyer

Strong forms can be a good thing and geometry need not be all right angles - but do we sometimes let shapes drive the design rather than vice versa? See for more details on this project.

One of the things that sets garden design apart from landscape design in general is the greater emphasis on form. And I am a big believer in form, especially in the strong geometry that underlines strong forms in design. By ‘underlying geometry’ I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I am referring merely to some Orthographic strict approach. It is just that in the constricted spaces that are most gardens, the elements work better if they have some underlying relationship with each other. This relationship is essentially a geometric one, although it may frequently be based on curves or odd angles. However, the over reliance on this sort of geometrical approach is dangerous. It stifles creativity and leads to a ‘sameness’ in designs from site to site.

Figs 2-117 'Circles on circles theme' and 2-118 'Circles and radii theme' from Grant Reid's 'From Concept to Form in Landscape Design' (2nd Edition)

This was very well summed up recently in an article by Tim Waterman on the landscape Institute website: “Begin with a circle (or a hexagon, or even an irregular polygon), click and place it around in CAD a bit, and presto, a garden design that functions only in plan and which stylistically evokes the golden year of 1985.” 
I always think of a design for a site being based on a triangular set of influences – site, client and designer (probably in that order of importance). This is not always an equilateral triangle in the sense that sometimes one of the three influences may exert more or less pressure. You can tell the designers who exert a strong influence on their designs and ignore the other two – their schemes all look pretty similar – ‘a very strong house style’ is how it is often described. The one advantage to clients is at least they know what they are going to get, although there is little of their own character in the finished design. My real problem with this is that it not only ignores the client (although some clients seem OK with that) but it also ignores the unique properties of the site – see my previous blog on this subject – ‘Why are Landscape Designers different?’ Of course, that doesn’t stop most of us becoming obsessed with form and ‘shape-making’, myself included on some occasions. And strong forms are the most obvious and instant manifestation of a strong sense of design. They add the wow-factor and are quickly and easily digestible. That doesn’t mean they are good design per se, just that they get the design noticed.
John Wyer

February 20, 2012