Insight, Landscape Design, Outdoor Living, Swimming Pool Design

What’s the Point?

April 27, 2011, Author: bianchi
For those of you who think all this artsy talk about space and shape is a bit superfluous or philosophical for your taste, I have a couple of questions: * What is the difference between a professional building painter and a muralist? They both paint walls. * What is the difference between a professional horticulturist and a knowledgeable landscape architect? They both specify planting details. The professionals in the first group have chosen to focus their expertise to the technical and mechanical side of their chosen fields. Those in the second group, on the other hand, have chosen to increase their skills in the art of “why.” Both are essential to the process, but bring different things to the table. Which are you? The more you understand both sides, the more sophisticated and professional you will become. That is why the ultimate pool designers are not only schooling themselves in the structural and technical know-how of what they do; they want to know the art and architectural theory behind what they do as well. I believe that pool designers need to think more like landscape architects in order to create better pool designs. Landscape design and pool design are both very specialized fields, but they’re also very integrated. The best designers know a little bit about both, so they can bridge the two.

Two sides, same coin

Years ago, some senior pool contractors I know asked me why I was spending so much time considering the areas around the pools I had been designing. “We’re in the business to sell just the pool. Why waste your time on all the peripheral stuff when you could be seeing more pool customers?” That day I realized that these associates of mine were in a different business than I. True, we both used the same media of expression to achieve our finished objective – building a swimming pool. But while their goals were to build pools at a profit, I seek to build art at a profit. Big difference. It often surprises my clients when I ask them what they will be doing with the rest of the yard before I even ask about the pool itself. They even poke fun at me – “We thought you were a pool designer”! “The pool will design itself,” I tell them, “if we first consider all that will be going on around it”. The best pools do not stand alone. They have impact because they are meaningfully integrated with, and are a natural part of, their surroundings. Customers face a dilemma in the pool business. They can either call a pool company or a landscape company first, and there’s no way to know if either one will have the foresight to plan the entire yard. Most people call the pool guy first, thinking about how the pool construction will tear up the yard the most. But if the builder is the type to leave out the surrounding areas, when landscapers finally do get called to the site they may say, “If you had just put the pool 5 feet farther that way, we could have put a tree here so you’re not stuck looking at this ugly, two-story building next door.” Case in point: Have you ever spent time on a design, only to have the customer say for the first time, “We need a wrought-iron fence separating the house from the pool, and we need a bigger lawn so we can set up a volleyball net?” Back to the drawing board you go! Information such as this is critical up front, because the pool is subordinate to what goes around it.

In its place

Addressing the backyard design is really not all that time consuming. The first step of any landscape designer is what they call the massing and the hardscape design. You’re not really getting specific on the materials, but you at least know, “I need a tree here; I need lawn here; I need a planter here for a focal point at the end of the walkway.” If you at least do that much, the pool design will relate to everything else. Design the pool from there. Remember: The water is just a mirror! Ask yourself what this body of water will be reflecting or calling attention to? How well will it showcase what is around the pool? This is critical to its contribution to the scene and its impact on the viewer. Water is also fluid. Its shape or orientation conforms and is subordinate to the influence of the factors around it. A pool shape should not be arbitrary, nor should it impose itself on the scene. Even if a rectangular pool is desired, its orientation will respond either to the topography of the yard or to other architectural features in the landscape. After you’ve done these things, you can present the finished design to a landscaper to take it to the next level and detail what plants will go where. Or you could bring a landscape designer on board from the start to layout the backyard.

More to learn

Reading articles such as “Shaping Space” can be a starting point for positioning yourself to take a broader approach to pool design. But beyond this, I recommend that pool builders further their design education with formal study of art and architectural history. It can yield a deeper sense of why people perceive an artifact or place as beautiful, and another not so. Study the psychology behind design. Learn about proportion, scale, balance, symmetry, asymmetry, additive forms and subtractive forms, texture, color theory, and the use of light and shadow. Find out how people respond to these different factors. If you take the time to study, the sophistication of your design work will grow respectively, and so will your rapport with clients. Most of the material in this and the adjoining articles can be referenced in one book. It is a must have for those interested in the elements of architectural design: Architecture: Form, Space, & Order by Francis O.K. Ching (Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York; 1996, Second Edition; $34.95). It has lots of diagrams and sketches of architecture throughout the world that illustrate the fundamental principles of design. I use it constantly. Enjoy!