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Principles and Elements of Design Theory

by Marilyn Scott

The first lessons one learns in landscape design theory are basic to all design: balance (equalizing weight of elements), contrast (variation of elements), unity (proper balance of all elements for a pleasing result), rhythm (variety, repetition), proportion, harmony, dominance (within each element: e.g., focal point), gradation.

The elements are: point, line, shape (naturalistic, geometric; create a sense of movement with repeated shapes, etc.), space / size (proportion, scale, perspective; size relationships can be used to create depth), value (light, dark), color (hue, tone, chroma, value), texture.

Applying any or all of them in a range of compositions--repeating forms and shapes, juxtaposing for asymmetrical balance, creating focal points, using and balancing positive and negative space, and so on--exercises these design basics to create outdoor "rooms." Visits to arboreta, parks, formal gardens and sites landscaped by prominent designers all help to anchor theory to application.

The ancient Greeks hit upon the concept of the Golden Mean, part of which roughly translates into a ratio for that space in which a human finds his comfort level in proportion to his own height. The Golden Mean has been a technique rulers and governments have employed in their designs to put the individual in his proper place. Those in power who sought to inspire awe for institutions such as law or religion, for example, designed the architecture on a massive scale so that the human must feel appropriately dwarfed by the building's size and scale.

A civilization's perspective is the eye with which the world is designed. The traditional use of strong geometrical shapes, forms placed in symmetrical lines, and so on, for example, suggested a comfortable, well-ordered universe back when the world was a fully explained place.

Not until civilization spawned a culture that could be comfortable with the individual as the focus was it possible for a Frederick Law Olmsted to develop and revolutionize its civilization's designs for living. Man didn't have to be the center of the universe, but instead could see himself as a natural part of the larger whole. America had expanded outward as far as the continent (and various of Europe's colonial powers) would allow; it was time to look inward, go from macro to micro. Social beings that we are, we stopped slaughtering only "the others" and started slaughtering ourselves. Inward, Americans, navel-HO! (Where is Firesign Theatre when you need them?)

Emerson, Darwin, and Thoreau were Olmsted contemporaries, all of whose works resulted from as well as helped further the loosening of Western Civilization's arse.

But Walt Whitman is the Olmsted contemporary who first springs to my mind.

When Walt published his revolutionary and enduring work of poetry in 1856, he was thirty-six, Olmsted was thirty-three. He would eventually be known as the father of modern American poetry, just as Olmsted became the father of American landscape design. Whitman considered himself a public poet. Olmsted considered himself the designer of the public's parks, from Central Park to Yosemite. Both of them wrote; both served the war effort to help alleviate the plight of the Civil War's soldiers; both searched for the key to the song of themselves.

Still, these are not the reasons why Olmsted and Whitman enter my mind simultaneously (I do actually envision a whispy version of the latter reading his poetry at various locations throughout those grounds landscaped by the former)--and I readily admit that I had to ponder this for a while.

The design basics mentioned are important to note because they are conspicuously absent in the landscaping of the majority of lower- and middle-class Americans' homes, the very classes whom Olmsted made it a point to consider in the landscapes and communities he designed. What did spring forth from Olmsted's designs was the lawn--and, apparently, the dominant philosophy of landscape design in our culture has since been, "Let them eat lawn."

And that was it. When I think of Olmsted, I think of Leaves of Grass.

(Click here to return to "One Small, American Landscape.")


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