Rhythm in the Landscape
By Brad Priest, Landscape Designer
Repetition, patterns, movement – these words help describe the concept of rhythm, which can exist at all sorts of scales and via many different mediums. It is found in the beat of a song and the ebb and flow of the ocean tides. It happens in micro-seconds and over eons. It lies in the spaces between, creating a dynamic tension leading to the anticipation of something more.
The human experience as it relates to rhythm (at least in the context of this topic) is all about perception and the ways that it can create automatic responses of pleasure, satisfaction or interest. Well-designed landscapes often exude some sort of sensorial rhythm that instantly clicks in the brains of their patrons, much like a beautifully composed song would. One of the most effective ways to introduce rhythm into a designed space is through the principle of repetition.
The use of repetition to create rhythm in an outdoor space can be something very simple such as a regularly spaced row of trees, or it can be something complex, such as using sun/shade cycles to create patterns on the ground plane in an intentional manner. The same ideas can be applied through the implementation of the other elements of design such as color, shape, texture, etc. in repetitive ways. The goal is to create movement through space, providing users with a sense of structure that gives them the clarity to comprehend their surroundings and the curiosity to explore them.
When designing with repetition in the landscape it is important to think about rhythm in the context of the emotional or psychological impacts that may be evoked. This can be compared to rhythms in music, art, and even nature. The rhythms found in different styles of music are myriad – from the simple beats of pop music to those more complex and heavy in hip-hop, to the intricate, waiting-to-be-discovered rhythms of jazz music. These musical styles have vastly different impacts on listeners’ mood and psyche. The same can be said for art and its varied styles, from classical to contemporary to abstract. This concept applies just as strongly in nature through the earth’s natural processes and its intrinsic natural beauty. The view of crashing waves on a beach elicits quite a different response in beach-goers than does the sight of an annual migration of stinging jellyfish coming their way!
Expanding upon the idea of thinking of rhythm in consideration of a user’s potential emotional and psychological reaction, it helps to keep in mind that rhythm is not necessarily a completely tangible or concrete concept. Often rhythm is interpreted as a feeling more than a direct response to a specific visual or audible cue; as in a space might “feel” relaxing and fun, or cold and intimidating. This can be the result of the way repetition is implemented.
For example, here is a comparison of two contrasting public plaza spaces. The first is a flat, modern rectilinear space lined with tall, sleek LED light posts and angular steel benches. Repeating dark and light surfaces glisten and fade among the columns of bright white light. A row of slim trees sit opposite the marching light posts and the rest is a sea of concrete. The second plaza is an organically shaped space with gentle grassy knolls dotting the side of the main thoroughfare. A low, curving seat wall made of stacked stone weaves in and out of a quaint planting bed filled with a variety of colors and textures.
Objectively, each of these two spaces seems to have implemented the principle of repetition to create rhythm to great effect and in very similar ways. However, the feeling of the rhythms in each of these spaces is most definitely very different.
It’s clear that rhythm is a common thread that can bind people, places and time. When emphasized in the landscape by means of repetition it can provide a profound experience and can be the difference between a successful and a failed design. Consideration for how common rhythms found in everyday life affect you personally can help guide the design process to ensure that the end result has the rhythm and the feel that keeps people movin’.