Carlo GabrieleHow to design an interesting and elegant symmetrical garden

Symmetry in a garden design can look perfect and is easy to achieve. But the downside is that symmetry can also look boring and predictable. However there is a secret, used by all great garden designers that’s the basis of designing a breathtakingly beautiful symmetrical garden that will not ever make you bored, and now I’m going to explore it with you.

If, like me, you consider a symmetrical garden to be the quintessence of perfection, and the synonym of timeless elegance, I have got something to share with you. It doesn’t matter if you are a landscape designer or a beginner: you can improve your design skills by following these 7 rules to master symmetry in garden design.

 

1. How to achieve the perfect proportion

Sometimes – too often – gardens don’t look proportional because the elements of the projects are unbalanced: the pergola is too big, the pool is too small, or that hedge is not tall enough. How can we relate all the elements of our design so that together they express an exquisite perfection?

Use the Golden Ratio as much as you can!

Also called Sectio Aurea, it’s a special number found by dividing a line into two parts so that the longer part, divided by the smaller part, is also equal to the whole length divided by the longer part.

The Golden Ratio, Sectio aurea

The Golden Ratio, Sectio Aurea

 

This number, approximately 1.618, has been used to design many masterpieces from the Parthenon to the Mies van der Rohe houses. It is considered the most satisfying of all the geometric proportions and it appears in all forms of nature and science.

Parthenon with Golden ratio

Parthenon with superimposed Golden Ratio

 

Let’s say that you want to design the perfect rectangle that has a 1 meter side: the other side should be 1.6 metres. You can apply this rule to every element of your project: the height of a pergola compared to its length, the width of a pathway compared to the width of the lawn next to it, etc.

Prominent lines in the design are aligned with those reflecting the Golden Ratio.

Golden ratio Carlo Gabriele Akehurst

Golden ratio Carlo Gabriele Akehurst

 

2. How to avoid stillness (aka boredom)

Symmetrical gardens often look very static: one half is exactly the same as the other and the only thing that seems to be happening is NOTHING!

To avoid this problem, you can use a simple and powerful trick that I have learned by the multi-award winning Italian Garden Designer Luciano Giubbilei: in strategic points of your project, to highlight the transition to an area to the next one for example, you can rotate the symmetry by 90 degrees along the longitudinal axis, so that the garden keeps its symmetrical look without being static and predictable.

Design Luciano Giubbilei picture by Andrew Wilson. The highlighted area shows where symmetry is rotated

Design Luciano Giubbilei picture by Andrew Wilson. The highlighted area shows where symmetry is rotated

 

3. Succession for succeeding

All the great gardens share a quality in common: they ignite the curiosity of the visitors; they want to walk through every inch of the garden and discover every possible point of view.

This only happens when the garden has been designed in a way that the more you walk into it, the more it unveils new and exciting details.

For example the garden of Vaux-le-Vicomte looks beautiful at a first sight, but it seems that all that there is to see already stands in front of you: a beautiful parterre and a large rectangular pond.

If you walk from the castle towards the end of the park opposite to it, where a majestic sculpture is situated on the top of a slope, you discover a large basin that you couldn’t see before because it’s at a lower elevation. The retaining walls are wonderfully decorated with fountains but if you keep walking it’s only when you get to the top of the slope that the magic happens: looking back at the castle you can admire its breathtaking reflection in the large rectangular pond due to an accurate optical calculation.

This succession of events that end in a most dramatic one is called ‘climax’; use it if you want to make your garden a magnet for curious people.

Vaux le Vicomte reflection in the basin

Vaux le Vicomte reflection in the basin

 

4. Rock with asymmetry

When I first watched the Beyoncé video ‘Single Ladies’ I was hypnotized: three girls with similar clothes dance in a black and white video, doing the same choreography. But, HEY! I couldn’t take my eyes off Beyoncé, always in the middle.

While the two support dancers are dressed exactly in the same way, wearing a symmetrical bodysuit, Beyoncé wears an asymmetrical one.

So why is that?

I did some research and here is the explanation: in a uniform pattern the eyes keep moving from left to right with no rest because the two halves of the scene are identical. But if you introduce a variation, a focal point that breaks the perfect symmetry, BOOM!

All eyes will be glued on it. Guaranteed.

Beyonce copyright Sony Music

Beyoncé, copyright Sony Music

 

5. More (detail) is less.

Details are never enough for me probably because I am a bit of a weirdo and a control freak.

‘God is in details’, Mies van der Rohe said. Probably he was a weirdo too but he was right: details make perfection and perfection is not a detail. It’s a fact.

When I design symmetric gardens I like to keep the material palette very simple, so that details are brought by the vegetation: small flowers and leaves, textured foliage, different varieties of the same species etc. help your design to become more interesting through the seasons.

Small Details - vegetation. design Carlo Gabriele, Akehurst

Small Details – vegetation. design Carlo Gabriele, Akehurst

 

6. Symmetry is truly interesting only when it’s almost crazy.

One of the problems with symmetry is that it has been so used and abused, and many times a symmetrical design will have that ‘already seen’ aspect. If you really want to create something outstanding, you have to push the symmetry further until it gets almost ‘bizarre’, experimenting for example with other patterns like in the Noailles garden designed by Gabriel Guevrekian or in Escher’s paintings.

Villa Noailles

Villa Noailles

Escher Fish and birds

Escher Fish and birds

 

7. Break all the preceeding rules

What the …??

Yes that’s right: once you master the rules you have to break them. This is the most important of the 7 rules because when you feel ready for experimenting with new things it means that your skills are in the next level. The level where you can finally say something new and magic happens.

Now, I hope you have enjoyed the article so far; for you it’s time to take action and leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts.

[BTW, I am sorry I have been missing all this time, but I have been busy with the launch of my own brand, Carlo Gabriele Gardens.]
Ciao!

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Carlo Gabriele

About Carlo Gabriele

Carlo Gabriele is a landscape designer from Milan, Italy, with formal qualifications in Agronomy and Landscape Design. After completing his schooling he worked with notable Italian designer Niccolo Grassi on many high profile projects within Italy and abroad which have received a lot of media attention in Marie Claire, Maison, Elle Decoration, Vanity Fair, Gardenia and Home Beautiful. In 2010 Carlo started his own design firm, Carlo Gabriele Architettura dei Giardini, designing outdoor spaces from tiny intimate courtyards to entire city parks. He has also designed striking outdoor furniture and exquisite pots; the latter have been produced and sold by the Italian company Laboratorio San Rocco. Most recently Carlo moved to Melbourne Australia where he has established his design company Carlo Gabriele Gardens.

8 thoughts on “How to design an interesting and elegant symmetrical garden

  1. This is SO worth reading – and re-reading – and thinking about. Thanks Carlo!!

  2. carlogabriele on said:

    You’re too kind Anne!

  3. I agree with Anne. I’ve often looked at formal gardens that I liked and ones I did not but struggled to identify why some appealed and some didn’t it all. You’ve come up with some very good design analysis tools that will be valuable to both professional designers and home gardeners.
    More please!

    • Carlo on said:

      Thank you Catherine! It’s very important to me to share what I know: I have made many mistakes during my career and if I can help people to avoid them I am more than happy

  4. Deb Davey on said:

    Fantastic article, Carlo!
    I think my brain must be trying to re-work and understand that Golden Ratio for garden designs, when i’ve only ever considered it for fashion and proportion of the body/face.
    Love it! Thanks!

    • Carlo on said:

      Thank very much Deb! I think that the Golden Ratio can be applied anytime a proportion is involved. But it’s more a matter of shperning the eye: once you get used to it, it becomes automatic.
      Let me know!
      C

  5. Helen Young on said:

    Great story Carlo. You’ve made the complicated simple and given me a lot to think about. Thank you.

    • Carlo on said:

      Thank you very much Helen.
      I have spent so much time trying to understand the rules of composition and the qualities that a well designed garden should have, and I want to share what I have learned so far.
      Things are simple, beauty is simple. But simple doesn’t mean easy unfortunately.
      Well, if I can make easier for somebody, my mission is accomplished!

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