The first of the four landscape design laws

artist Toni Hafkenscheid 'father and son'
artist Toni Hafkenscheid ‘father and son’


Although I have not yet reached a senior level in design experience – I believe that I am still junior with my 22 year involvement in this field, there are a few rules that seem to apply again and again. I even dare to lecture them to my students, although they are not in current text books on landscape design. ‘Hold on!’, a voice inside me rejects, ‘textbooks are made by previous people that were not al-knowledgeable, al-mighty and completely to the point’. I have somehow reached an age and position, at which I have to believe myself and risk influencing my environment, beyond the help of my predecessors.

There are four aspects in design that are both cliché and powerful in addressing the mind-body as it wanders through landscapes and gardens. I will describe one of them in this monthly entry, since it coincides with my current teaching to freshmen students. Next week, on an excursion to the eco-cathedral by the recently deceased Louis Le Roy, the students will need a design law, that they can cling to while being in a very strange landscape that is actually rather chaotic and alien. During the same excursion we will also visit a delicate romantic nineteenth century estate garden ‘Oranjewoud’, as well as a fashionable architectural interpretation of this estate garden by landscape architect Michael van Gessel and INBO architects and their ‘Belvedere Museum’. And finally the fantastic urban creations by Ashok Bhalotra and ‘his’ ‘Skoatterwald’ city extension.

How to digest this diversity of landscape designs?

The assignment for the students is to make photographs, drawings and notes of what they see and experience to have material for a large artistic collage (A2-size). The theme of the collage is ‘to fit in the landscape’. All of the different designs we will visit somehow ‘fit’ in the landscape, yet they are different. The differences need to be articulated and this can be done according to ‘the first law of landscape design’. The law states that every fitting landscape design is valued by an instinctive judgement between three juxtapositions* (see below). The juxtaposition themselves can be categorized by three dominant concepts: camouflage, contrast, accents.

Example one: in a white draped snow laden landscape, most of the normal contrasts are camouflaged by the snow. This enables a heightened sense of very subtle accents that are present. This combination is frequently tested in landscape photography and some landscape paintings. The same is true for landscapes as deserts, oceans, jungles, sandy shores and heathlands.

Example two: a design that contains explicit architectural accents is only possible when the contrasts are undeniable and all the background is inconspicuously camouflaged in almost dull appearance by a short clipped lawn, tapestry of gray pavement, still water surface, persistent stone wall, … .

Example three: a design that is intended to contrast the environment, needs either to camouflage the environment completely (by a fence, a hedge, trees, a building) or compete with the environment by explicit and dominant accents.

There is an additional rule that applies to this law that states that any camouflage is mostly tranquilizing to the mind-body, accents are challenging to the mind and memory and contrasts are needed to create a sense of space and realism. A last rule of thumb is that most landscape designs are meant to have a tranquilizing effect on the otherwise busy urban mind and therefore need a composition that allows camouflage to be dominant. In most cases this means that the amount of accents and contrasts should not exceed what we cannot grasp without complex calculations. We can easily differentiate between 3, 5 and 7 different juxtaposed items, above 9 items this is far too demanding. This last rule of thumb was developed by the Dutch Benedict Architect Dom Hans van der Laan and his ‘plastisch getal’.

Now you too, can experiment with this first law of landscape design. I would be happy to comment on your experiences. Enjoy!

* = A juxtaposition is a placement of two or more different items that by their proximity to each other will be compared, even if they are not intended to be compared or have nothing in common. This way an apple and a pear may not be similar, nevertheless enable a juxtaposed relationship. In their proximity they create an undeniable appeal to human interpretation. For example, an apple and a pair of scissors create a different juxtaposed interpretation than an apple and a pear. Juxtapositions are dominant in any landscape design because (1) landscapes are rarely the product of one design effort and therefore consist of various elements that have not been conceived intentionally. Even the trees of the neighboring land are included in the experience of your own land. (2) Landscapes contain vegetation, build elements, animal influences, seasonal changes and so on, that by their sheer diversity offer a multitude of juxtaposed relationships and (3) the dynamic experience of landscape by walking, on the back of a horse, from a care, offer a variation of viewpoints, allowing numerous different and compositions of what can be seen in proximity to each other.