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. The shadow gave me the basic flow of the design, and I got lucky again when I found three pallets of the most gorgeous bluestone you’ve ever seen. Thirty-by-thirty select blue, on sale. The sheer size, two-and-a-half-foot square, meant I could do a bold bit of walkable sculpture; the unified color of the “select” grade meant I could have a smooth visual field. I confess I became slightly obsessive when I decided to do the whole installation without cutting the stones; okay, ridiculously obsessive, but I’m convinced it can be a good trait when harnessed for peaceful purposes. It was like a Rubik’s Cube from Hell, and all I’ll tell you is this: forty stones, three cuts, don’t try this at home.

Had this been my house, I would not have chosen bluestone and would have been spared this bit of existential torture. It did add a formality appropriate to the owner, though, and made the selection of plant materials a breeze (see From Black & White to Color). Laying the stones along the shadow line also corrected an imbalance between the house and the garage, which was visually dominant. The bold geometry of the design pulled the front entrance nearly twenty feet out; it also created an extraordinary garden space between the walkway and the house, which I used to bolster the effect.

So what if the shadow line of your roof doesn’t do it for you? I guarantee you there’s something. Something intriguing in the splendid roundness of the magnolia over there. Something about the sweep of the trees, the lay of the land. Some architectural feature of the house, some incline, some plane. Some way the light hits at a certain time of day, in the way the water flows when it rains. Wait for it. Watch for it. See the pattern, not the object.

I remember standing outside a Thai restaurant years ago with an artist, a shy man who created wild, abstract oil paintings. I asked him how he did it, and he told me to look back into the restaurant, through the windows. What do you see? he asked. I see the edge of the door to the kitchen, I said, and the soffit over the bar. What do you see? I see a triangle, he replied, and a rectangle over there.

See the pattern, not the object. Design happens when you recognize pattern, and do one of two things: follow it, or move in counterpoint to it. A curve here can be met with a corresponding curve there, or an elongation of the curve, or a reversal of it to send the flow in the opposite direction. A curve can be countered by a square, or an angle, or bisected by a simple line vanishing at the far edge. Play with it. Have some fun. In this case, folks, it really isn’t rocket science, and the only rule is balance.

Here’s where most people get stuck; they think of balance as weights and measures, one left, one right. Pure symmetry, and nothing more. Balance is, according to Webster’s, an esthetically pleasing integration of elements or, my favorite, equipoise between contrasting, opposing, or interacting elements. Don’t you love that word, equipoise? It connotes tranquility, harmony, and there’s where I get my definition of balance: harmonious interaction. Not one to one, not this for that, not even necessarily equal. Just poised somewhere between all and nothing.

What creates design is the interplay between opposing forces: public and private, light and shadow, circle and square. What creates design is the advantage of necessity; this space, this much money, this material. What creates design is the spark of happenstance, that electric moment of ingenuity when a mistake transforms the original into something better.

I designed a walkway last year that was so small I treated it like an overgrown canvas, but in this case I was painting with stone. There were five slabs of granite, each five feet long and eighteen inches wide, that had been sitting on a lot for years. I got them for a song, which meant that I could splurge on some fancy river jacks to create “dry water” channels on either side. This is an Asian technique of using pebbles or gravel to simulate the flow of water; in this case, it had the advantage of draining rainwater away from the walkway itself.

Well, somewhere in my little head, the 7’9” width of the design became transposed with the 9’ length; came the day of installation, I was sixteen inches short. I had pictured this perfect field of granite flanked by these two sinuous, stony rivers, and I was distraught at the idea of not being able to reproduce that image. But there was more than my ego on the line; there were four men, each getting $45 an hour and each expecting a decision.

The solution was a quick purchase of landscapers’ cobblestones, and a change in the design. The central three slabs of granite are now separated from the ones at either end by a course of cobblestones that fit into the space as though they were meant to be there. More importantly, they fit into the design; in fact, they improve it. A bit humbling to think that chance could be a better designer than I am, but it’s applied chance, really, and there’s an art to that, too.

See the pattern, not the object, and take a chance on chance.
c.2004

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