Rethinking the fence within landscape design
08 May Rethinking the fence within landscape design
Once an afterthought at best, gate and fence treatments have become key elements in the finely crafted projects of Phoenix-area designer/builder Roger Soares, owner of Hydroscapes, a firm specializing in highly customized aquatic environments. Here he demonstrates in words and images just how dynamic and important these peripheral structures can be when treated with care and creativity.
In our work designing and building pools, spas and other aquatic features, it can be easy to focus entirely on what’s happening inside the property lines. In our work at Hydroscapes (Scottsdale, Ariz.), we’ve discovered there’s tremendous value in considering the structures that define the boundaries of the space and provide points of entry.
Specifically, we’ve learned through years of design exploration and first-hand experience that designing and building custom gates and fences can present a tremendous opportunity to add creative and functional elements to a project – if you take the time to step back and look at these structures through fresh eyes.
Certainly, in many situations, the fences and gates already exist and the client may not have any need or interest in changing them. In our work, however, we’ve found numerous situations where gate and fence treatments become an extremely important part of the overall design scheme and become a point of tremendous interest and enthusiasm for the client.
For example, when the pool area is located in a front yard (something we see more and more of these days) the gates and fences involve a range of critical issues including the appearance of the property’s frontage and the ability to block and reveal views of the pool area, not to mention defining the initial experience of entering the property.
In other situations where you have large properties, gates and fences can be used to define the pool area within the property. And there are many situations where clients realize it only makes sense to do something creative or stylish on the perimeter as a way to accentuate the work being done within their yards. If safety is a concern, for example, why not make those barriers as attractive as possible rather than consigning yourself to the notion that fences present some sort of visual compromise.
Overall, it’s fair to say that gate and fence work represents an opportunity to add tremendous visual interest to a property, yet it’s something that many people in our industry barely consider or even completely ignore. I think that’s a mistake because when you step back and think about it, these are tremendously important structures that define access, frame views, can make dramatic or subtle stylistic statements, define visual boundaries and, of course, add measures of safety and security depending on the situation.
Years ago, we started working with fence treatments due to our clients’ maintenance concerns. Here in Arizona’s Valley of the Sun, the elements can be extremely tough on certain materials, such as the wood used in many common types of fencing. We started designing fences using metal as a way to relieve those issues and to give the clients something more visually interesting compared to an ordinary plank or picket fence.
With that modest start, it wasn’t long before we became more and more involved in gates and fences from a far more ambitious design standpoint. These days it’s something we bring up with the vast majority of our clients and we’ve found that they often become extremely excited knowing that they’re going to have something beautiful to look at.
It’s become another element we can use to give the clients something no one else has.
What’s so neat about these kinds of additional features is seeing how the outcome plays out with each client. Oftentimes, doing something creative with a fence or gate adds very little, if any, cost to the project. It’s simply a matter of looking for alternative materials or design treatments. If you’re building a large masonry wall finished in stucco, for example, the wall has to be some kind of color, so why not make use of the color palette you’re already using on the project? Or perhaps finish different sections of the wall in different colors to add interest, or use different textures in various places to create visual variety.
By simply varying texture and color on these vertical elements, you gain a wide range of design options that can be used in all sorts of interesting ways and, again, often with very little or even no impact on budget.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are situations where clients will opt for expensive treatments that become spectacular design elements. For example, we’ve worked with various metal and glass craftsmen who collaborate on intricate designs that become works of art themselves.
We’ve done large wooden gates that have windows and various types of apertures that serve the dual purpose of making a powerful aesthetic statement while also giving visitors glimpses of the garden spaces on the other side. We’ve created custom gate designs that are sculptural in nature and impress visitors from the moment they approach the property.
When such clients want their doors or gates to make a statement, to have them stand out amongst their neighbors, it becomes an extremely exciting part of the discussion. In many cases, it’s because they’ve seen other treatments that impress them and they want the same thing for themselves. Oftentimes, we amplify that excitement by showing them designs we’ve done in our own work and in many of the places we seen throughout our travels.
It’s one of those tangential discussions that can become as interesting and dynamic as any other element of the project.
In many settings, transparent fence and gate treatments can be used to both frame the space with stylistic elements, and minimize visual distractions.
POWER OF INFLUENCE
Without question, travel and research into design traditions can pay tremendous dividends as you develop concepts for use in projects. As one smallish example, my wife, Sheri, and I recently visited New Orleans for the 2012 PSP show. We took time out to tour the legendary Garden District, a neighborhood chock full of beautiful homes designed in an array of great traditions such as antebellum, French provincial, Greek revival, Italianate and Victorian, among others.
The tree-lined streets are like a living design museum. Common to many of these spectacular homes are fences and gates that define the properties’ frontages. You can partially see beyond the property line into all sorts of beautiful gardens and courtyards. Some of these gate and fencing designs are extremely simple, other far more elaborate, but in almost all cases they entice you to stop and peek into the property. It’s all part of this fantastic pageant where you’re separated from the homes while at the same time visually invited to stop and take in the highly personalized landscapes and magnificent architecture.
Another huge and entirely different set of examples can be found in the traditions of Asian design. I’m a huge fan of Japanese design and greatly admire Japanese architecture and landscaping. One of the hallmarks of that ancient design tradition is the use of fences and gates to partially conceal and reveal garden spaces, to provide a sense of discovery as you move through the landscape. The structures themselves are often rendered with simple, yet beautiful wooden structures that both contrast and yet seamlessly blend with natural forms.
Chinese design, on the other hand, is much different. There you tend to find fences and gates used as imposing barriers where there is a far more pronounced feeling of separation within the landscape. These structures can be beautiful in their own ways, no question, but they are also often quite monolithic and imposing.
Although I personally prefer the more seductive approach found in Japanese design, there are useful lessons to be gleaned from both traditions in that they demonstrate how the structures that both prevent and provide access can tell you something about the people on the other side.
And, of course, there are almost infinite examples of vastly differing design styles to be found throughout Europe. From the great Italian villas to French gardens and the Moorish designs of Spain, as you travel and actively pay attention to the structures and their detailing, you can find volumes of different ideas that can be repurposed in our work back at home.
Here a beautifully simple gate frames both the entrance to this contemporary yard and the stunning distant mountain vista.
Even if you don’t specifically use design details from those types of explorations, the principles used in the modalities of great design can still be applied on conceptual basis. A prime example would be the conceal/reveal techniques in Japanese design. Regardless of the stylistic palette, you can always apply the concept as a way to generate interest, even mystery in the work through transparent elements such latticework, windows or apertures.
In the greater Phoenix area, where we do the majority of our projects, we’re often working in either contemporary or Spanish colonial settings, which you can see in the images on these pages.
Everything I’ve said above applies to those projects and hopefully you can see the numerous ways that the gate and fence treatments are used to introduce, frame and elaborate on the various design programs within the properties.
In some cases, you’ll see how we’ve used fencing structures to open up views to the dramatic surroundings of the Sonora Desert with the use of highly transparent structures. In other situations, we’ve used monolithic walls to conceal unwanted views and create areas that feel extremely private and intimate. In other situations, we’ve used combinations of the two to generate variety and spatial definition between different areas within the landscape.
Likewise, the gates cover a variety of concepts, some being magnificent works of architectural art that make bold statements about the homeowners’ tastes, and in other, the gates are far subtler, and all sorts of designs that fall somewhere between those two extremes.
Across the boards, these gates and fences are all designed and built to add value to the setting and serve as surprising points of pride for our clients. All in all, working creatively with these peripheral features is a great way to step outside the proverbial box.