Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Architectural Mini-Tutorial: 'Capturing a View Alive'

Inspired by my good friend Michael Newberry, from whose mini-tutorials on art I've learned so much, I've decided to post regular mini-tutorials on architecture to help interested readers learn a little of the elements of honest architecture.

I'm starting my first mini-tut by looking outside - which is is in fact the essence of good architecture: to link inside and outside. The very best demonstration of that principle at work is in traditional Japanese garden design, where it is considered essential to make the viewer part of the landscape.

The starting point with Japanese garden design (and in fact all good garden design), is to start from inside looking out. The main methods used to "capture a view alive" are either to link foreground and background with a middle ground, or by dynamic lines and forms leading the eye out into the landscape to capture it alive and make it part of your own space. In the words of one Japanese garden designer, the scene must lose its "thereness" so as to put the viewer into the frame.

These methods have been formalised under the principle of shakkei, or the art of using "borrowed scenery." These are some of the main elements used:

Trimming of the view eliminates non-essentials, allowing one to focus on the essence, ie., the distant view. It is traditionally common to use low clay walls, pruned hedges or low hills or embankments, but the same principle can be utilised with any material, or even (as Frank Lloyd Wright so often does) with a house ...

Capture with tree trunks. This is the most common method of linking intermediary objects -- the aim is neither to obscure the landscape nor to frame it, but to slow the eye's movement across the landscape ...
Capture with a woods. The woods itself can be a trimming line ...

Capture with the sky. Often with the sky reflected in water, or with the sky assymetrically related to a large element in teh composition, such as a mountain or, as here, a tree. The effect is much like the famous Japanese prints of Mt Fuji, where a part of the mountain sits at one side of the frame, with one side trimmed to give a thrust into empty sky (and often, as below, with the distant view trimmed by the low plantings) ...

Capture with an eaves. Often used as the culmination of an entrance progressional, in which the psychological feeling of containment is instilled in the processional, then release is suddenly discovered, attained at the discovery of the open vista. The broad eaves trim the sky from the composition -- often parallel to a hedge as a trimming line (or here, at Fallingwater's guest house, trimmed by the walkway canopy leading to the main house below). The essence is the broad eaves thrusting out into the landscape, stressing the horizontal open vista.Capture with a 'stone lantern.' The lantern itself is optional, but when faced with very simple scenery, with the foregrund of a moderately complex garden, the link can be made by placing an object such as a stone lantern in the foreground, and also amidst the distant scenery -- due to the simplicity, the lantern stands out, and the two objects unite foreground and background. Look closely, and you'll see it ...

You will notice that 'capturing with a picture window'does not feature here, and with good reason: In Japanese garden design, this method is considered rather vulgar.

I hope this discussion of the elements of 'capturing a view alive' has been helpful.


  1. Fascinating, PC. How often will you be posting these?
    I'm just beginning to get an understanding of line and form Japanese style after years of messing around with bonsai, and their views on architecture don't seem so very different. The way they use "empty" space is a revelation to most Westerners, I suspect.
    And if that's all too obvious and basic--well, I have no training at all in art.

  2. Just to back up KG. I don't often comment on the architectural posts, because there's often no reason to say anything, but I love them. Always interesting.

  3. Exactly my thought: fascinating.

  4. Notice how these houses all "look into" the garden and the view.
    Sadly our fixation with cinerama views means that many people "look over" their garden to focus on the view.
    I like to look for a section shaped like a cupped hand with the fingers pointing up. Drive down the thumb build the house in the palm look over the edge of your hand to the view but look into the curled fingers at your garden.
    Simple model – but effective. Views are often static while your garden is changing every day. Garden to the north on an upwards slope and view to the west - for the sundowner.

  5. KG: As often as I'm able. Look out for another one this week. :-)

    Mark & Jeff: Thanks. Nice to hear.

    Owen: "... many people "look over" their garden to focus on the view..," and for the most part their gardens are intended to be seen from the outside, especially by passersby, while the garden's owners are tucked up inside behind their net curtains.


    Your point is well made. Claude Megson used to insist that every house have two views with two contrasting qualities, one distant and one closer, with the contrast making each much richer.

  6. Hi Peter, this is a great idea! I hope to see many more to come. Sadly Michael has been slacking off-- maybe he exhausted his cache of knowledge? haha, not likely :)


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