The charm of water in the design of the garden and parks

All the great gardens of the world have used water in one form or another, and its use has been adapted in each country according to needs and climate. Water exerts an immense charm, focusing attention on itself as few other characteristics of the garden. Water games are the only element, next to birds and humans, to bring life and movement in the garden, while a stretch of stagnant water gives an incomparable sense of space and unity. It makes a project clear, accentuating the fundamental level to which everything else refers. In the landscaped parks the lakes represent the reference plane on which the design of the morphology of the land and the trees is built. Any opportunity to use water must be exploited, provided it is suitable for particular circumstances. On the practical side, one wonders if there is adequate supply and if the water can be kept clean. For private gardens, electric pumps are used that circulate a small amount of water and do many things. It is also possible to create a natural balance of aquatic life as long as the water is properly conserved and left to mature. If water is available and desirable, there are many factors that influence the form to be taken. It is useless to recreate in a damp London courtyard a dripping water motif that had been designed to provide refreshment from the Spanish sun; but in the same courtyard it might be possible to design a pool that reflects the low light of the sky like a bright mirror. In a hot climate, water is never too much. The Generalife and the Villa d’Este play there giving life to every conceivable form. The water splashes and drips, flows into waterfalls and flickers in the air, drawing intertwined jets. The sound, the sight, the smell of the air sprayed with humidity are all a refreshment from the heat; but in a cool and humid climate this enveloping copiousness could be depressing and the humid air give a feeling of cold. Perhaps it is for this reason that the traditional use of water in England is the still and still lake, rather than the exuberant inventiveness that Italians demonstrate in water games and the joy of these sensations.

 Villa d'Este fountain and design of the garden

The stream of the Villa Lante gives this impression of joy in the touch and shape of the water. The torrent gushes from the mouth of a dolphin and swirls along a long depression, which in turn is carved into a series of reels rippled like petrified water; while on the side a flight of stairs echoes the ripples in a more sober form. The atmospheres that water can awaken are as varied as human temperaments. It can be a dark serenity. It can be joie de vivre, with copious long-range jets; or frivolity, demonstrated in the most crude way in the water jokes favored by the late baroque and, more delicately, in the intermittent jets of the Villa d’Este, with their fascinating rhythm of one … two … three …, Plunk; contentment is the note of the gurgling fountains of the Tivoli; inspiration in the jets thrown from the star at the apex of the fountain of the parterre to the Villa Lante; majesty in the formidable waterfall of the organ at the Villa d’Este. The voluptuous pleasure given by the freshness of the water in a dry climate is translated into the dull thud of the water that falls in large drops in a tank and in the waters that flow continuously to the Generalife. In recent years, water has been used as an important element in civil planning, even in the cold climates of Northern Europe. On the move, he added life and interest, and quietly provided a beautiful setting for the buildings. The splendid water jets of Tapiola, in Finland, rise against the backdrop of architecture and forest like large sculpted columns, and this strong sculptural quality seems more appropriate to the cold and dark climate than the subtle and sparkling jets of the South can be.

In the Tivoli gardens in Copenhagen, water builds a sculptural form of bubbling compost in the basins. In Great Britain, in the most recent uses, water is poured on smooth or rippled surfaces to reflect the sober light or flows into large clusters, dense enough to form a sculptural design. The water gardens in the Sussex Gardens of London show how water can be used to give not only form and interest but also a greater sense of space because here the backyard is made of water, plants, and containers that arise as islands, while access roads and places to sit form bridges and platforms. This concept makes a virtue of necessity since the underlying construction could not support a soil deep enough to make plants grow. The simple lotus ponds of the Orient, as well as the statues in the fountains, the molded cymas of the basins and the gushing beasts of Europe, have given us some of the most beautiful features of the gardens of the past.

The Villa Lante shows enchanting examples of these quirks. The fiery horse that rises from the water of the basin near the entrance; the undulations of the stone that echo the ripples of the stream towards the center of the garden; the magnificent central motif of the lower parterre, with the water gushing from the raised star, each element gives a special character to the water that plays around it.

Villa Lante fountain and design of the garden

Even the humblest country fountain in a French place or in an Italian square is beautiful in itself, even without considering the water. It is as if water, the main necessity of life, gave itself a suitable setting second only to the church as a center of community life. The current cost of the equivalent of the worked stone of the Villa Lante could be prohibitive even for a public park. The small community and the private citizen at least can look for something much simpler. But it is significant that the wooden bowls of Tivoli in Copenhagen, which constitute such an attractive and peculiar part of the structure, were made of wood only because the war had made other materials untraceable, and there are equally good solutions to be found for the shortcomings to which we also go to meet. If it is water and not the container that constitutes the main object, it is possible to reduce the construction of a formal tank to an evanescent simplicity, using a metal container and bringing the grassy clods to the edge of the water. Concrete is often used for tanks and is able to give special effects that must be exploited, renouncing any attempt to imitate the stone. While the beauty of the stone lies in the moldings and in the carvings, the beauty of the concrete lies in the defined lines and the free forms it can take. The pools designed by Thomas Church in California and by Lawrence Halprin take their effect from the interesting shape of the water, where a Renaissance fountain would rely on the beauty of the container.

The main joy of water may be its movement, or its power of reflection, or sometimes a clever combination of the two when a placid surface is crossed by dark ripples. If the water has to serve as a pool of light to attract the sky over itself, then it must be motionless and open to the sky, almost like a mirror. The water must fill the container to the brim, or be enclosed by very sweet sides. The artificial pond on the Downs is not the obvious prototype. The upper Belvedere basin in Vienna has the same effect on a large scale; attracting the sky and the distant horizon on its surface, it becomes the focal point of the surrounding landscape and the skyline of Vienna. The effectiveness of the reflection depends on the correct location and on the water level in relation to the object to be reflected and on the observer’s eye, a question that can be treated in sections, reminding that the angle at which the visual meets the ‘water is equal to the angle of reflection. The care with which Le Nòtre ensured a correct reflection in the Vaux-le-Vicomte pool was mentioned on page 69, while Repton demonstrated equal skill in his informal lakes.

All the art and science of reflecting water are exhibited in his classic work The Art of Landscape Gardening. In England, stagnant water reveals all its merits. In climes with more constant light, the vast bodies of water may be lifeless or too dazzling, but in England, there is no need for water to move. The still surface reflects instead the changing lights of the sky and the different seasons of the trees. It can be beautiful in the rain and even more beautiful in the fog than under the sun. Therefore, although in the English gardens one can find water in all forms, the truly memorable examples consist of placid water: the lakes of Stoprhead and Blenheim; the tranquil Wilton River and the waning Cambridge Backs reflecting the pale green spring of weeping willows. The waters par excellence suited to the English climate are the placid lakes that mysteriously unravel in foggy inlets, reflecting the rich but tenuous color of the trees through the constant change of lights and seasons. This was the type of water exploited by the landscape architects of the eighteenth century.

The smaller watercourses were dammed to form lakes and give the appearance of winding rivers. Their apparent extension and their sense of mystery were increased by the water disappearing from view snaking around a sweet promontory or getting lost in a grove. If the effect of a slow-flowing river could not be achieved on one level, the intermediate cascade between one level and another could be hidden in a forest, and apparently, the same stretch of river, now wider, returned to see each other later. The dramatic effect of a waterfall was sacrificed to the appearance of space and tranquility since these were the particular virtues that water had to provide.

In many of Repton’s sketches, the transformation includes one of these placid pools of water set beneath a gentle grassy slope surmounted by the castle, with the reflection of groups of trees and peaceful cattle grazing. It was the sweetness of these artificial rivers that was criticized by the proponents of the picturesque, since for them a preferable use of water consisted of the waterfall and the bumpy stream of water; they are two emanations of the northern forest, equally suited to the English climate and territory, and have been used with good results in many gardens. Sometimes you can look for a particularly dramatic effect, darkness or color intensity. Sir George Sitwell, in his On the Making of Gardens, offers a comprehensive exposition of the art of using shadow over water, emphasizes the value of dark-colored evergreens as a background for water, and explains how to exclude rays side of the sun focus the reflection on the dark blue of the zenith. On the contrary, Repton shows how a river with gently sloping banks appears wider than with steep banks because the shadow is reduced and a larger surface of the water reflects the sky. If reflections are desired, most of the water should be kept free of aquatic plants, which should be used only with great discernment and to give a definite contribution to the composition. For example, a still and dark basin located in a forest, or surrounded by evergreens, can be embellished with the flat structure of the water lily leaves and the white star of its flowers; or the calm surface of a large lake can be underlined by the stems of the reeds that pierce it, but often a body of water becomes not very different from the mainland due to the covering of aquatic plants. The delight that can be added to a garden even with the smallest watercourse is expressed in the book Wall and Water Garden by Gertrude Jekyll. A small stream running through a garden can be dammed to form a series of pools and waterfalls and swampy areas. In a large informal lake, you can create coverings with natural banks of grass and water-loving plants. This was the method used by Brown and Repton, but is now largely replaced by the use of plastic sheets.

Where a concrete construction is used, there is the problem of not offering the unpleasant edge of concrete to the eye. Attempts to hide it by balancing rock pieces or using an irregular mosaic pavement are worse than useless. In a fairly large lake, the edge can be hidden by gently sloping the soil towards the water and into the lake, forming a natural beach that covers the concrete. In a small pond there is not enough space to perform this work without reducing the water depth to a simple puddle, but the same principle can be applied to building a platform in the concrete wall just below the water level with a rising front to retain soil or pebbles, and the concrete that retains the water is transported backwards. Next, to the water, you can plant grass or vegetation, with the added advantage of providing a wet place in which to plant the water-loving vegetation, which is now often laid out outside the concrete, where it does not get any benefit from the water. There are cases in which, although the basin is informal, nothing prevents you from leaving a clear edge in sight. The fences along the banks of the rivers, for example, are pleasant to see, and the gardens on the banks of the Thames are delightful with their shaved lawns ending just above the table of the bank, or in some cases on a white-painted concrete wall.

Two opposite examples of this treatment can be found in the English village pond with the wooden or masonry fence that supports the bank forming a straight line or a slight curve, and in the sophisticated Japanese pond with fences that follow a rigid convention. Perhaps the most important point in the design of informal basins is to ensure that the water enters naturally into the morphology of the ground and takes the shape dictated by the configuration of the ground. Some modern examples of tubs of abstract form seem to make fun of this rule, but in fact they are not designed to appear natural and must be judged according to the criterion that applies to all abstract forms: if they have a design pleasing to the eye, without taking into account the reference to natural objects. The location of water at the lowest level in relation to its immediate vicinity is a general rule almost inviolable in the case of natural ponds and usually desires bile in the formal ones, but there are occasions when the water placed higher up is dramatic and gives special effects thanks to reflections. It excludes every reflection except that of the sky so that the water looks like a mirror of polished steel. In whatever form it is used, water must be treated with respect, as an important part of the general project. The small muddy pond relegated to a corner takes on a depressing air, which is the exact opposite of the reflections of light and of the irresistible interest that are its true characteristics.

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