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Unit 2. The Language of Form

Hieros October 21, 2022

Every garden has a shape or pattern that tells a story or conveys a mood. So in this unit we are going to explore the formal aspect of garden design, again looking at examples from various cultures, comparing and contrasting different modes: the straight line and the curve, the rectangle and the circle, the symmetrical and the unsymmetrical, the formal and the informal, the divisions within a space or the absence thereof. Let’s start with a couple of examples of ultra-formal gardens.

This is part of the garden of Hampton Court Palace on the outskirts of London. As you can see, it is almost entirely composed of squares and rectangles, except for the pond in the middle. It speaks of an ordered world, a society where everyone knew their place in the hierarchy from the King to the gardener.

Next we go to the Islamic world, where a garden is typically conceived as a foretaste of paradise. The Bible tells us that Eden, the original paradise, had four rivers, of wine, water, milk and honey, going out from the centre. Here is the Lion Court in the Alhambra at Granada, Spain, with four water channels emanating from the central basin to represent the four rivers. Like the European formal gardens it is very regular and symmetrical.

Now, as a complete contrast, here is a plan of the park at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, England, a stately home built in the 18th century by Lord Cobham and now the home of a famous boarding school. There are almost no straight lines, and it’s all made to look like a natural landscape with meandering paths, groves of trees dotted about haphazardly, and a lake with a very irregular shape.

And now to China. Here’s a garden in Suzhou where we see the influence of the Taoist tradition. The word Tao means roughly the way or the essential flow of all things. Taoism merged with an even older tradition, that of feng-shui, the Chinese art of geomancy, which involves the concept of ch’i, a universal vital energy, often symbolized as a dragon. It has two aspects: yin, feminine and yang, masculine. Yin is curves and irregularity. Yang is straight lines and regularity.

This garden has some typical features. It’s broken up into compartments with straight walls (yang), entered through circular moon gates (yin). Different elements (water, stone, vegetation), representing vital energies, come together in a seemingly random arrangement that seeks to suggest the natural flow of the ch’i and the oneness of all things.

The design of Japanese gardens – like this one, the Ten Ryu-ji in Kyoto – owes much to Chinese concepts such as yin and yang and the flow of the ch’i, but is also influenced by the Shinto religion, in which everything in nature is believed to have a gender, and great care is taken to balance the two. Here the upright stone in the foreground is male, while the lower, rounded one beside it is feminine. The whole arrangement of the garden is intended to convey the impression of a totally natural landscape, but in fact it is very carefully composed and rigorously tended, as you can see from the perfect grassy bank in the foreground and the beautifully clipped bushes in front of the temple in the background.

Getting the ch’i right

Now let’s see if we can apply in practice what we have learned about form and the flow of the ch’i. Let me take as a test case a garden in Bremen which my wife Donate and I used to own. When we took it over, it was basically a rectangle about 40 feet long with straight flower beds on either side, so the energy simply shot through it in a straight line. In the middle was a rectangular lawn in very bad condition, which we almost never used. We replaced the lawn with a paved area, changed the shape and size of the beds and added some features to create visual variety. The following two sketches show the garden before and after the re-modelling.

Here (top) is the garden being re-worked and (bottom) with the transformation complete

Marking the Centre

By placing some object in the centre of a garden we mark the centre of our own mini-world and thus symbolically the centre of the greater world. The builders of Islamic gardens often marked the centre with a fountain, a pool (as in the Taj Mahal garden) or simply a point where four paths come together to form a cross. In the photograph of our Bremen garden you will see that the centre is marked by a sundial. In fact it’s not in the exact geometrical centre but more the intuitive centre, which I determined by dowsing with a pendulum. Of course not all gardens lend themselves to having the centre precisely marked, but usually – even in the most informal garden – one can find the spot that intuitively feels like the centre.


1. Looking purely at the form and shape, say which of the gardens described so far appeal to you most, and why.

2. Imagining you have an empty plot of land behind your house, measuring 25 by 50 feet, where you are going to create a garden. Describe what shape you would give it, how you would divide up the space, and how you would optimize the energy flow.

3. Think about whether you would want to mark the centre and how you would do it. 4. Do a similar exercise imagining you have a property of several acres and unlimited resources.