Is a focal point essential?

inkognitoApril 29, 2010

Is the notion of a focal point an overrated concept? There seems to be a commonly held belief that the eye needs to be lead around or directed where to focus but is this true? In garden design a focal point has its place but I donÂt think it is an essential element and a garden could be quite happy without one.

There is no doubt that a monotonous landscape like the desert or a seascape like, well, the sea is depressing, a palm tree or a whale will provide relief but what you are chasing may be a mirage. To me the idea of a focal point is a borrowed concept that would be better translated as emphasis for use in garden design. I question the need to lead the eye and would suggest that simplicity, variety,balance (harmony) and emphasis that leads to some kind of unity would be a better guide.

At the link below you will find some different opinions than mine.

Here is a link that might be useful: focal point

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I agree with you. To me, they often take on the aspect of an accent wall. Well, done, they are delightful but not every garden needs a focal point just like every great room doesn't need an accent wall.

Also, too often, they are shortcuts to make a garden look good or flashy instead of using good design.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2010 at 5:51PM
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My opinion:
A focal point can be planned or unplanned, present or not present, it can work for you or it can work against you. It is not always essential.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2010 at 5:53PM
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How can a focal point work against you laag?

    Bookmark   April 29, 2010 at 6:09PM
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Have you ever driven through central Maine and seen a washing machine in the yard? It works against you.

.... just kidding.

If a focal point is a distraction from an activity or a certain experience that is desired, it is working against you.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2010 at 6:27PM
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Any viewer of any landscape will being focusing on a particular point at any one time. These are focal points - optically- and mentally-defined. They are not physical objects in and of themselves. Think of it in the context of photography. There can be a different focal point in each shot of a single landscape.

If you design anything around a single physical "focal point" that is meant to be the centre of attention at all times, then it will be a rather one-dimensional experience.

- Audric

    Bookmark   April 29, 2010 at 7:37PM
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But what about a formal garden with allee's and statuary?

    Bookmark   April 29, 2010 at 8:54PM
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No ... Wait a minute ... Wait ... I think I mean "yes".
I know I'm a weird case, but the way my brain works might help elucidate what goes on with others. I can't see focal points. I can only have them described, or fall over them.
So I'm more familiar with Laag's washing machine analogy. Meaning that I know that some of the best design decisions I have made ... and some that still need to be put into effect ... have to do with removing the eyesores. Do they count as focal points? My hubby still loves to create a hose tangle. He thinks it's "efficient" and "convenient". He doesn't apparently experience it as "tacky" or, for those of us doing the hose dance, "dangerous". To me it screams "look over here at these multiple dangling hoses!"

Ironbelly used to post about this one -- that one of the most positive improvements to most landscapes is to remove the negative "focal" points. The eye, even the inner eye, will get attracted to the messy, the weird, and the ugly.

I'm clearly more tentative about how, when, and whether to create a positive focal point. I suppose, in some subtle way, if you get rid of the major negative points that draw the eye, you are encouraging the viewer to look elsewhere, rearranging the emphasis, moving the perspective.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2010 at 10:06PM
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Is a focal point a distraction? To me it can be. I personally like to design with elements of diversity and coheisiveness. I want to get the whole experience. One day it may be bloom another day it may be foliage or a hardscape. Sounds also play a part. Wind, water, wildlife etc... I don't mind a statement, however I don't want that to be the only thing I see or feel. I guess I don't like to get hung up on a focal point when so much more is going on. Anything can be a focal point to one person and an eyesore to another. What makes you happy and content is the way to go. For expample: The bluffs along the mississippi are so beautiful the way they are. While they have changed much over the decades and century. They offer elements of color, stone, wind, wildlife, smells and the wonder of what came before me. Don't laugh too hard if I'm way off base here! The bluffs along the mississippi are big hills with accsents. That is the bonous. For what is worth. Thanks for the thought provoking question.

    Bookmark   April 30, 2010 at 2:46AM
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Anything that draws a high degree of attention is a focal point whether it is a dicarded washing machine or a live performer on a stage.
Audge has a pretty good description of what one is. He further says that if you have one focal point it is a one dimensional experience. I agree, but sometimes a one dimensional experience is an intended experience. Sometimes a series of one dimensional experiences is desired. Sometimes avoiding any focal point builds a different type of experience (sense of tranquility - a meditation garden).

    Bookmark   April 30, 2010 at 7:18AM
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Yes, but it can be as simple as a small bed on annuals in front of a porch. I think people get confused when there are too many focal points.

IMHO, it's like a focal point in a room. If you don't have a fireplace, you don't need an accent wall, just use the window. In the garden, simple might be better, but I would not call a washing machine in the front yard a focal point...that would be an eyesore :)

    Bookmark   May 2, 2010 at 8:35PM
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It is an eyesore, but it is undeniably the focus of attention in that landscape whether you want it to be or not. That, by definition, makes it a focal point.

A bed of annuals eight feet away from a discarded washing machine on a front lawn may be intended to be a focal point, but is unlikely not to be secondary to the washer. That would not make it the focal point.

    Bookmark   May 2, 2010 at 11:12PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Formal elements are focal points when seen by themselves, such as a statue in a nook. A formal layout echoing the facade of an important building, seen from where the whole is in view makes the building the focal point.

Unless there is a spectacular fountain or other commanding feature nearer the viewer than the manse beyond.

    Bookmark   May 3, 2010 at 11:26PM
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You see now here is a useful topic to discuss especially as we are fixated on the borrowed concept is a visual element. How essential is a focal point to a blind person and what might that be. Now we have shifted from an object to attract the eye to some other definition of how to attract the senses. Andrews point still stands: first eliminate distractions which is as important with smell as with sight touch or taste.

    Bookmark   May 4, 2010 at 1:23PM
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This point frustrates me too. I was trained in floral design and some of the elements are the same.
The problem I have is a small yard. In reading magazines you need the focal points but those points are pointed out in the photos from a certain (the most beautiful vantage point )spot in the yard. so I guess I need a post with a sign on it saying, STAND HERE TO VIEW.
As is my experience, gardens are meant to be walked through (for most visitors) and I design my gardens with specific things in mind that I want to see from where I sit and view most often. But those same things might be overlooked by someone who doesn't spend much time there.
Design your garden for YOUR viewing.
And ALWAYS ALWAYS down play those negative focal points!

    Bookmark   May 6, 2010 at 9:51AM
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