THE TAO OF GARDEN: SUNLIGHT

The image of water is the primary Taoist allegory, but imagery of light runs a close second.  In addition to being aesthetically potent design aids, these are both sources of energy and, as such, can also be practical design aids.  As I discussed in the first of this series, The Tao of Garden: Water, my pathways are often inspired by evidence left in the land itself from these two forms of chi.  In the Water path, inspiration came from the literal tracks left alongside my client’s house after a hard rain; that became the sister walkway of my very first project, whose design arrived on a literal ray of light.  Here’s how I described the process for the article From Image to Idea:

One of the best walkways I’ve ever designed began life as a shadow pattern made by the client’s house sometime along mid-afternoon. This shadow was fascinating. The line it created off the roof of the garage fell just at that place on the edge of the lawn where you would expect someone to step off the driveway and proceed toward the front door. Another transition point occurred where garage met house and shadow met shadow; a third hit precisely in line with the edge of the entrance. A turn at that spot would angle the visitor toward the door, just a few paces away.

I followed those lines and edges, walking back and forth a dozen times. I measured and marked the outline before I lost the pattern; fifteen minutes later, the shape had changed so completely it held no interest for me at all.

Both of these walkways are examples of the design opportunity presented by timely observation, by understanding the potential that each of these energies affords the designer who actively seeks them.  There’s a pre-class assignment I give students enrolled in my six-week landscape design course: to photograph their properties in morning, afternoon and evening light from the eight compass points (N, S, E, W, NE, SE, SW, NW), which is the very assignment I give myself when I take on a new property.  Those twenty-four shots, taken in those three different lighting atmospheres, will give you much of the practical information you need to understand the way sun moves through a site.  This information can be separated into two categories, those of direct light and ambient light.  The first is more important to the nuts-and-bolts of material selection, but the design spark is often found in the ambient part of the equation, so don’t miss the chance to grab those design cues, as well.

My shadow-line pathway was as direct as it gets, though, a pure product of the sun’s position relative to the house and my good fortune to be there when the lines were cast.  Those shadows helped me realize another goal for this property’s redesign, which was to rebalance the visual weight of the garage.  To avoid the ledge which comprises most of the front yard, the house sits some distance from the road; in addition to creating a very long driveway, it focuses the eye on the (seemingly huge) garage.  Running the walkway along the shadow lines and using the intervening space as the main garden has the effect of ‘pulling’ the house forward, giving it visual parity with the garage.  Both of these design resolutions are the product of that one well-timed visit, and it was a good early lesson for me about creating the opportunities for design to catch fire by watching the property as it goes about its day.

There’s another reason for observing the sun, and that’s to avoid the fate of a client who was building a house but sought my advice about two months too late.  Too late because the pipes had been laid and the pad poured by the time I got there; too late because of the three gentlemen involved ~ an architect, a builder and a real estate broker ~ not one had looked at the house’s orientation to the sun prior to the pipes and the concrete.  The result?  The cars occupy the warm, sunny south and east sections and the humans occupy the rest.  Need I tell you that, in addition to being unnecessary and really, really dumb, this is also more costly?  Heat and light, both of which would have been at least partially supplied by natural means had the house plans simply been flipped, are now the product of utilities.  I have no idea how much of a difference this makes to the annual total for those bills, but over the life of the house I imagine it will be significant.  I also imagine that, over the course of a winter, having virtually no interior sunlight will make a great deal of difference to the ambience of the house and the mood of the occupants.  All this because nobody bothered to say, Hey, where’s east, again? 

This will also have an impact on the kinds of plants the owner will be able to choose for the finished landscape; although he certainly can install a garden along the garage to grow sun-lovers, that space will not be part of the daily visual.  The house’s orientation confines material selection to the cold- and shade-tolerant column, and also limits the stone options for hardscaping.  Not that I’m a fan of using brick in the primary, year-round stonescape anyway, but this rules it out even for secondary or summer-use paths.  The simple equation is shade = damp = potential slip & fall.  Moss-covered brick may look charming, but bruises don’t.  Broken bones don’t.  Lawsuits don’t.  ‘Nuff said?

Finally, let’s talk about opening light patterns through trees by thinning the canopy.  I talk about my favorite example of this in the syllabus for my six-week design course, Mindful Landscape Design:

The one thing I can say that was absolutely fabulous about the course at Harvard was the opportunity to hear a lecture by Edward Larrabee Barnes, a landscape architect whose work is as close to perfection as anyone is likely to come. In his presentation were two slides of the same stand of trees. Same season, same time of day. What’s different? he asked. About five trees, as I recall. Their removal subtly changed the quality of light within the stand, and changed our ability to see the individual trees within the grouping.

When you alter the light, you alter the viewer’s perception of the scene.  In many cases, you alter the plant materials which can be used; by increasing the amount of sun filtration, you increase your options.  Light also alters color perception; pale, cool tones tend to ‘pop’ in reduced light, but while you’d think that the deep hues are perfect for full sun, many of those tend to wash out.  Understanding the totality of light conditions on the property will enable you to make the right design choices, but you’ll also want to take advantage of staff knowledge at your local nursery.  The plant tag may not tell you ‘washes out in bright light’ but a fellow gardener will!

I’ll talk about using moonlight in the next of this series.  Until then, follow the light…

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