PHYLLIS ODESSEY

Does Height Matter?

Maybe, it does.

I was asked to remove 400 juniperus conferta ‘blue pacific’ planted at ground level, from a 50 ft. diameter circle, increase the height of the mound to two and half feet and put back the 500 junipers.

My initial reaction: one of the more boring pedestrian tasks.

And it was. The actual doing of the project was uninspired drudgery.

Surprisingly, the result was not.

I have held tight to the position that landscape architects and garden designers, who change existing topography do so, because they were self-indulgent narcissists: bending nature to their will.

Changing the topography of this mediocre planting did make a difference,
a significant difference.

This was the situation:

  • gas station plants
  • traffic circle in front of a prefab building
  • existing soil more rock than earth.

A little bit of grade turned a inferior design into something slightly better.

And slightly better turned my mind to those famous practitioners, who exploited sloped topography: the Italians of the 16th century, especially Vignola at Villa Lante. This guy knew the secret of using what you have to create scale, perspective and symbolism.

When I thought about the Villa Lante and all those gardens throughout Italy that are built on hillsides, I knew that the innocuous traffic circle owed a debt to something much greater. Elizabeth Barlow Rogers in her essay about “Garden as Theater,” says… the topography throughout much of Italy is hilly, thereby promoting greater opportunity visually for spatial enclosure than for spatial extension.”

I am not certain that the designer of this prosaic, second-rate planting ever considered the importance of topographical features in the landscape: the fact is I learned an important lesson.

No matter its origins, in this little circle height does matter.

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