Sunday Opinion: A Sense Of Balance

The idea of balance in design is intimately related to our physical understanding of balance.  At the conclusion of an event some years ago, I stupidly decided to avoid the long route to my car via the lighted sidewalk, and cut through an intervening landscape bed.  In the dark,  I stepped directly into an unexpected drainage ditch set 18 inches below grade.  Loosing my balance, I went down hard and sideways-my unfortunately high heeled  foot hit the steel drainhole cover at an impossible angle, and I crashed to the ground.  The stress of the bad landing left me with a broken leg.  Every day for the ensuing ten weeks I had every reason to think about the importance of balance.  I never did master the art of dragging the hose weighty with water up the two steps to my upper deck-while on crutches.  I could not balance my cup full of coffee in my hand, and still hold the crutch-I did not have enough fingers.  I had to move my coffee pot from the kitchen to my desk.  As my house sits up high, negotiating the stairs while on crutches proved particularly nerve wracking; no doubt I was unstable on my feet, and fearful of falling.  It was not until I was able to ditch the crutches that I regained my sense of equilibrium; my bilateral symmetry was restored.  This is a fancy way of saying I had back a functional leg on each side of me, and my center of gravity.   The day that I was again securely balanced was a very good day.  I still loose my balance on occasion; I cannot focus on anything up close without my reading glasses.  When I forget I am wearing them, and start to walk somewhere, my inner sense of balance vanishes; this is not a pleasant sensation. 

The idea of balance in design falls into two broad categories.  Symmetrical design, in which every element left of center is matched equally with identical and  corresponding elements right of center, is visually very stable.  Of course landscape is a sculpture one views in the round, so the symmetry always applies to a particular view.  Choosing which view will be the dominant view should come early in the design process.  It is just as important to identify the center of any given view.  The degree to which a design is symmetrical, and therefore completely stable, determines its formality.  A composition symmetrical from every view is very formal. Very formal landscapes laid out on visual axis have an equilibrium such that your eye moves around the composition, and eventually comes to rest. Those clients for whom an atmosphere that is serene is important usually gravitate towards formally balanced landscapes.  

As people are visually completely familiar with the appearances of the human figure and face, a symmetrical arrangement that is out of square, or balance, can be spotted instantly.  I have installed formal landscapes where I have had a surveyor lay out a swimming pool, or landscape beds in an effort to be sure every line perpendicular to a residence is as perfectly perpendicular as possible, and likewise every horizontal line is as closely horizontal as one could manage.  The science of generating these lines involves checking and rechecking one’s measurements.  A tree planted out of vertical is instantly apparent as such.  If it is not the deliberate intent of the design to introduce a skewed line, then the appearance of that tree will always be irritating.  A swimming pool installed out of square is a problem not easy to solve.

Landscapes can just as easily be asymetrically balanced, but this is more complicated, and requires more skill.  Asymmetrical compositions are not at rest; angled lines are very active visually.  The excitement of it all asks for a keen sense of balance.  As Vita de Sackville West is reputed to have said, “It isn’t that I don’t like sweet disorder,. but it has to be judiciously arranged.”  The relationship of a massive evergreen to the shape and size of the groundcover bed underneath it speaks to establishing a sense of visual balance.  The placement of one large element can be balanced by a number of smaller elements placed elsewhere in such a way that a pleasing relationship is made. A diagonally planted mass of light colored foliage plants in the horizontal plane can be balanced by a single tall dark vertical plant. Asymmetrically curving beds relate to each other via the shape of the lawn, walk, or path between them. A driveway approaching a house on an angle needs a balancing counterpart to provide the eye with the directions about where to go next, or that eye will fall off the edge of the composition.  Some visually compelling element placed to direct the eye from one place to the next provides an active view with a stable rhythm. I like a good beat.  A driveway with a giant landscape bed on one side, and lawn on the other appears lopsided. A house placed asymetrically on a piece of land asks for a landscape to balance all that visual weight concentrated off kilter; properly done, the relationship of house to landscape can be as pleasing as it is exciting. 

An informal landscape is not a justification for a landscape lacking design. Once while installing a landscape, I had a chance to observe an identical activity taking place across the street.  Trucks arrived with plants, the plants were placed in order as they came off the truck, and planted.  At the last, beds were cut around the plants.  Some curving lines had glaringly flat spots.  Some beds curved inward too close to the trunk of a tree, and then curved outward where no plants were planted-resulting in big barked areas. I saw no one checking any views; I did see trees placed dead center on windows. I have seen other very informal landscapes perfectly balanced in its color, texture, proportion and mass; it was clear a very skilled person was driving the design process.

The choice one makes as to the formality and symmetry of a landscape design is just that-a choice.  I like them both, equally.  My landscape at home is very formal and bilaterally symmetrical, as that is what gives me what I need, and what pleases me.  This does not prevent me from admiring other differently designed spaces, or designing informally for a client whose love of line is anything but horizontal and vertical.  I just like to see that moves in a landscape get made deliberately and thoughtfully.  By design. 

However,  I am also exposed to plenty of landscapes where I cannot sense the design idea behind it, but the plants are lovingly cared for.  Some might lack for plants, but the lawn is mowed and the yard neat.  There are others in which the gardens are weeded, the trash is picked up, the garbage cans, lawnmowers, rowboats, children’s toys and bikes are not part of the public view. There are flowers at the door-though that door might be painted lavender to match a set of lavender shutters. Neat, clean, and well-tended,  on purpose.  These landscapes balance me; they help keep me from tripping, and falling over from my own design obsessed foolishness.