Friday, May 20, 2011

On Design I: Skyscrapers in the City

We do not find find anything unusual about skyscrapers in the city. Indeed, we come to expect their soaring presence. To some, they are magnificence ascending, to be caught a glimpse of by coy (more sophisticated?) tourists who only occasionally glance, not gawk, so as not to appear to be the unchristened, naive visitor. When we encounter a small city sans skyscrapers, we may even comment on the "quaintness" of the urban space, and deem it a product of another time, a "nice place" to visit for a "mini-get-away," which is usually code for "you need not spend more than 2 or 3 days" in that particular location.

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.

First: Diversity. Every city thrives on diversity--and thus every garden thrives on diversity. I have in the front garden alone 65 varietals of 57 different kinds of plants. Of irises, I have 3 sorts (bearded, Siberian--one of which is a variegated leaf, and Japanese) in 3 color schemes (yellows--both pale and deep; purples--both deep/technicolor and pale; and white). Of tulips, I have 6; of grasses, I have 3 (Norther Sea Oats, Festuca, and Fountain). By emphasizing diversity, you magnify the visual impact of the space. But one must be careful; diversity of plant material alone will not enure a positive visual impact. There must be some coherence between the plants, whether through foliage type or color, flower color, or form. I ensure continuity and cohesion by what I call (Second) color echoes--achieved not simply by replicating the same color, say, of different yellow flowers the bloom simultaneously, but selecting plants that provide hints of a dominant color. Thus, for instance, the flowers on my Lena Scotch Broom, which are predominantly orange, have interior lemon yellow centers, which thus echo the vibrant yellow of the Corydalis lutea and the pale yellows of the bearded irises, the tones of which are ultimately picked up by the Carolina Moonlight Baptisia and, ultimately, the Lysimachia's foliage.  On the other side of the garden, I introduce burgundy via the leaves of Hypericum (St. Johns Wort) to yellow (its flowers), and extend burgundy up into the garden to the pinks of rhododendron.

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!

No comments:

Post a Comment