Drawing is thinking: how plan and section drawings work together

Landscape design is a concert of three distinct processes: site response (a.k.a. site analysis), pattern making (the plan view), and experience making (the section or elevation).  Although I’m not getting into the drawings and diagrams that bring site analysis to life, the other two processes are deeply furthered by the kind of thinking that specific types of drawing capitalize on.

Site Response

sunken track between to hedgerow banks in Normandy FranceA landscape design project never begins with a tabula rasa, even if it’s a green field (something not built upon in known history) being developed.  Everything comes with a climate (wind, sun, rain), and an ecology (soil, vegetation, critters).   Every design project happens within a social culture: the designer brings certain mental cultural habits to their process, the client and intended program (use) of the site bring their own baggage, and basic social customs / regulations already exist too.

Pattern Making through Planametric Drawings

plan view drawings in landscape architecture designPattern making is about the plan view (the bird’s eye view) of the design.  The floor plan of your house organizes traffic flow, tries to dictate where people will gather.  Garden design plans are working on similar issues.  The pattern on the ground of a site includes pathways, utilitarian areas (laundry lines, trashbins, compost piles), and gathering spots.

In very formal French gardens, these patterns are called parterres and went through an era near fetish status.  Shrubbery was harassed in very exacting patterns and herbaceous plants arranged such that the very best view of the garden was often not in the garden itself but rather looking down from an elevated window or balcony.

Pattern making works intricately with both site response and experience making.  Any rills, any bed edges, any pathways, these are all patterning elements that occur along the ground plane, organizing space with visual cues and guiding long term interactions.

Experience Making through Sectional Drawings

section cut view drawing landscape architecture designExperience making happens in the section and elevation, the drawings in which the people look like people and the larger patterning on ground plane is hard see: you’ve  trimmed down to focusing on one moment.  Experience is about contrast, and the convergence or divergence of visual and bodily experience.

Contrast: experience is most notable when it’s distinct from what you had been experiencing.  A low, shady, cool path around the side of the house makes the shift into the bright, open back yard more exciting.  Find the small spaces in your yard, feel free to make them smaller, denser.  Similarly, a wide open swath of lawn can gain low garden beds at the far end without losing the sense of a sweeping expanse by keeping a wide belt of lawn well into the garden area and keeping the garden plantings short (ie: focusing on pattern making).

Sightlines and body movement: basically this is asking if your eyes and your body take the same path to get somewhere.  The other side of a garden with a center medallion will be visible, but it will take longer to get there because the medallion must be circumscribed.  In too small a space, this can backfire and lead to a sense of clutter, not calm, but in many yards, this tactic makes the space feel larger.

If a garden has a real focal point of activity, something that will absolutely pull people to inhabit that space, and the eyes cannot quite see it, or can’t see it right away, that will make a smaller space feel quite a bit larger.  A path between two large conifers that points you directly at the vegetable beds you were aiming for is purely utilitarian.

The same path slightly skewed to point you to a large flowering shrub while hiding the vegetable beds from instant view will retain its complete functionality but serve through form to heighten the experience of the transition from one space to another.  The garden develops depth and intrigue.

The final variant on this body / eye interplay concept involves one of the most common tricks in landscape design in the past 300 years: “borrowed scenery”.  The picturesque steeple in the distance is not at all on your land, let alone within your garden space, but you carefully frame that view and presto!  It’s now part of the experience of your garden, making the whole thing feel bigger.  (An intriguing counterpoint to this is arising in urban gardens, that of “subtracted scenery”, where you conveniently cannot see the trash bins behind that bit of shrubbery.)

Order of Operations: the Design Process

The design process is never, ever linear, nor should it be.  Although site analysis is clearly required before one can have a site response, the patterning and experience-making are integral to that response and integral to each other. It is paramount that designers shift from working in plan to working in section to working in plan to working in section, ad infinitum.

It comes down to this: Drawing is a way of thinking, and different drawings exercise different modes of thought.

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