Friday, May 20, 2011
On Design I: Skyscrapers in the City
Of course, skyscrapers are not always to be confused with urban vitality. Viet and I often comment as we approach Wilmington from the south on I-95 that it "looks like a city, but just isn't." [In Wilmington's defense, I will say that it really is trying, and the recent opening of World Cafe Live at The Queen is adding a vibrancy to downtown that it previously lacked.]
Many cities no doubt capitalize on space and manage territorial constraints by expanding not horizontally but vertically. But horizontality and verticality produce the same unwanted effect: pockets of isolation engendered by the private spaces of work-life within skyscrapers (those with badges need not enter), or by the multiplicity of "city-centers" linked together by invariably clogged arteries. Compare, for instance, the borough of Manhattan with the city of Houston. The verticality of the former creates an aerial third dimension of urbanity, the effect of which is to heighten anticipation and expectation. But verticality also produces urban discontinuities between those micro-spaces we call offices or condos in the sky. The horizontality of Houston, conversely or similarly, in its mimetic attempt to re-produce the multiplicity of small-towns linked together by highways, only multiplies exponentially feelings of disconnect.
The gardener, too, must manage spatial constraints by considering expansion in both its horizontal and its vertical dimensions. And nowhere is this more true than for the city (or small space) gardener who is confronted with the confines of space.
My front garden is, partially, an experiment in verticality. It measures 25 feet in width, which is broken by a front walkway, and 14 feet in depth. The space is split into two levels. The space may sound large, but when viewed as an empty container (compared to some neighbors who lack gardens, or a neighbor who uses only one kind of plant), the space is, well, small. It feels and looks confining.
I have thus designed my front garden with five principles in mind (tromp l'oeil) to liberate myself from the smallness of space.
Third: Verticality. To achieve such diversity, I need space, but clearly I cannot buy more space. So, I have selected many plants with more or less compact, upright growing habits. The slender irises and the Nandina, the cascading habit of Lena Scotch Broom, and the extending-towards-heaven Penstemon are accented by more compact lower growing plants such as the Festuca grasses and the groundcovers (Blue Star Lithodora, Lysmachia, Emerald Creeping Phlox, and Lemon Thyme).
Fourth: Mountains and Valleys. Even before my 12 years in Colorado, I think I always drew parallels between gardens and mountain ranges. The beauty and drama of a mountain range lies not simply in its high points but with the juxtaposition of the highs and lows. Lest the garden appear as one mass of vertical plants, I have interspersed lower growing plants to achieve a mountain and valley effect. I may do this only because of the uniqueness afforded to my garden space....
Fifth: Capitalize on visual entrances. Usually, gardens are constructed against walls or fences or houses or in corners, the effect of which is to limit the number of "visual entrances" into the garden, or vantage points from which the garden may be seen. My city-scape permits visual entrances on either side, in front, within the garden, behind (on the porch), and even from above (whether on the porch or peering down at it from inside the house). Thus I was able to shed the shackles of an old rule of garden design: tallest plants in the back and descending to the lowest groundcovers in front. Ha! Liberation! Because of these multiple visual entrances, I could frame distinct views in and through the garden by arranging peaks in front, and valleys within. As one moves about or within the garden, some plants are obscured while others are revealed.
So for small-space gardeners, think beyond the (literal planting) box and the one-dimensionality of conventional garden rules (which should generally be regarded, but sometimes must be disposed of), and capitalize on the opportunities that await you!