Straight lines in nature

inkognitoJuly 10, 2008

"There are none" some say: others say this is a myth. You might say a tree trunk is straight but I could prove that it isn't, the same with a blade of grass or the horizon, it may look straight to you, and this could be all that matters. A straight line is open to interpretation and means a different thing to a writer a geometer and a landscape designer. Like all phrases lifted out of context it can lead to argument, the last time I heard someone say "There are no straight lines in nature" he followed this by saying "There are no straight lines anywhere" which I thought was particularly daft. So here is my take: If there are no straight lines in nature how does a focal point work?

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petzold6596(8b southern NM)

Focal point is just that, a POINT at which the eye concentrates to make an image on the retina. Has NOTHING to do with LINES, except geometrically speaking. Geometrically speaking a line is made of a series of dots, ie points.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2008 at 1:13PM
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petzold - Well, yes, technically, a point is a point, not a line. But you see and experience suggestions of lines all the time that draw your eye to that point. That said, of course a line needn't be razor-straight to pull you through it. If it's well done (assuming giving the impression of a line, whether horizontal, vertical or diagonal, was the goal), your mind fills in the space and you're drawn.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2008 at 2:46PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

What irritates me is that the 'no straight lines in nature' response often seems to be used to discourage/deride the idea of using straight lines in landscaping and imply that curves are the only acceptable shape for beds etc. 'Curves' too often mean, in practice, wiggly lines for bed edges, which I find unnatural and unattractive in many cases. Straight lines many be considered 'formal' and 'unnatural' but they can be very attractive, especially when contrasted with informal plantings - that's where Sissinghurst gets a lot of its charm, for instance. I think curves and straight lines should be equally seen as options for use in landscaping. Both may be acceptable, desirable and attractive in different situations - or even in the same situation. I just don't like the 'no staight lines in nature' line being used, as it sometimes is, to attempt to cut off debate on whether straight lines are appropriate in a situation. I suspect the oddly curved front path that scraplolly is dealing with is the result of a former owner's belief that only curved lines are good, when a straight path would be practical and look much better. (Soften it with a planting bed on either side if the straight line bothers you enough.)

    Bookmark   July 10, 2008 at 3:20PM
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Sometimes you just have to Ask a Scientist, even if it's on a website...

"Nature does have a lot of straight lines especially when discussing light direction and crystalline faces. However, most living things are made up of organic compounds that are polar (unsymmetrical) in nature and do not form "straight lines" in their compound bondings."

In order to view an object, I can sight along a line at the object; and when I do, light will come from that object to my eye along the line of sight. A much simpler principle of physics.

That being said - I can concentrate my attention on an object/point which has any shape, color, or size whether its intention is to be a focal point, to have real dominance, or not. Can I not make any something into a focal point simply by singling it out? Seeing a tree for the forest, as it were.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2008 at 4:28PM
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This is interesting.

Doesn't a focal point become so because of contrast? Including the use of contrasting lines, eg, straight and curved?

    Bookmark   July 10, 2008 at 5:07PM
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A line of sight is not a material object in the landscape.

In a similar line or tangent of thought, why does everybody want to soften the angularity or lines of a house? Let the house be itself. Man-made objects are typically some combination of lines and geometric forms, and such objects are re-assuring dominion over nature.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2008 at 7:15PM
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petzold6596(8b southern NM)

I think we have taken the initial statement had more to do with the living world the the nonliving world. So lets focus on the curve vs straight lined planting beds.

Based upon my many travels around our beautiful land, viewing the larger vistas , the inter land along hiking trails and buildings in these places, I see curves everywhere. Let me focus on the building in these environments. Historically our dwelling have been built using straight line with few exceptions and when viewed totally, look out of place from the rest of the surroundings. Some people accentuate this by building straight walkways and driveways, making the situation even worse.

To me, the curbside landscaping beds should be curved in order to soften the straight lines of the building and to visually increase the width of the house and reduce the height of two story houses. Straight line beds are very appropriate in the backyard.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2008 at 7:31PM
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It all depends on scale. I'm not how sure my logic is, but I do think that nothing is "perfectly" straight. Something that appears straight, when looked at closer and closer, eventually has some sort of variance. Light travels mostly straight, but even that bends as it hits edges, passes through different mediums, encounters a hot or cold patch in the air.

What I think actually matters is not whether or not we perceive straight lines in nature. Perceive is the operative term. A line which is "straight" to the naked eye is straight to the naked eye. If you can't discern the deviation, then there isn't one. That is not to say that what you perceive obviates what exists in reality - it's just that the mental reconstruction of reality in your mind will differ.

Focal points don't necessarily need straight lines. The convergence of lines (or curves) to a point can create a "focal point."

- Audric

    Bookmark   July 10, 2008 at 7:37PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Curves are appropriate and preferable where there is the room for them. Small enclosed areas already framed by a rectilinear shape may be too tight for curves to look well with the existing elements. Otherwise, the fact that many make poorly designed curves does not make curves inherently undesirable. The answer to something tending to be unsuccessfully executed is to work to improve techniques.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2008 at 7:44PM
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Curves do not always soften straight lines. Contrast between the two can easily increase the starkness of the straight lines.

Additionally, straight lines can produce beautiful curves. Take a look at the hyperboloid.

- Audric

    Bookmark   July 10, 2008 at 7:48PM
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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

"How does a focal point work?" I suggest a focal point has more to do with negative space than with lines, straight or otherwise.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2008 at 12:25AM
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Arrangement of plants in nature is random by chance and rarely in straight lines for any great length.

So to find a straight line of plants usually shows some purposeful planting and arranging. But isn't any garden with or without curves a purposeful arrangement, and an unnatural creation.

A garden creates order out of natural disorder and to sustain that order requires work. Work is needed to overcome entropy, and work is a mark of purposefu'l intelligence

    Bookmark   July 11, 2008 at 5:56AM
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Wellspring's 7 Reasons For Straight Lines In A Landscape

1. Safety
Imagine you live in a neighborhood without sidewalks as I did once upon a time. Try walking down your street with your eyes closed. You've been taught that you should stay near the ccurb edge to keep you out of the middle of the street. The street runs straight for a block and then you note that you are following a pronounced curve. You think "Oh, I'm at the corner where my quiet street comes to a busier intersection. I need to follow this curve and then cross the street to go down the next block."
Only you don't quite go all around the ccurve. When you back your heels against the curb, using the technique taught you by the mobility instructor, you think you are about to go straight across the street. Instead, without you knowing it the curve has tricked you--you are actually backing up against the curve that is paart of the street corner and will be doing a very good imitation of jaywalking. Let's just hope that the busy street isn't too busy!
My explanation may not be very clear, but suffice it to say that straight lines are often safer for persons who have low or no vision, balance issues, or who tire easily.

2. Comprehensibility
Similar to above. I use edges of beds, sidewalks, driveways, fences for orientation and mobility. Curves add one more layer to the task of comprehending the landscape's layout. Maybe it's this extra layer that adds mystery "around the bend" for those who can see. I believe we decipher lines more readily. Lines connect two points. We have to wonder a little more about what a curve is doing.

3. Simplicity
Sometimes a wide rectalinear bed is the best answer. It's straightforward, bold, strong. It provides a frame (unity?) that is immediately comprehensible. Yes, it is more static, less dynamic, but sometimes that can creat power and peace. Think Vietnam memorial. Curves, at times, add a complexity that won't be the best way to achieve the desired result.

4. Practicality
I won't argue the science of whether or not every perceived straight line is straight. I do understand what a spider is seeking to achieve when starting to make a web. The foundational lines of the web connect two positions. The spider weaves a frame and then the intricacies of the whole of the web. Try teaching the spider that it ought to start with a cccurve. The spider simply wants to use as little energy and ttime as possible to draw a web line from one twig to another.
Sometimes straight lines in our landscapes are the best way to achieve a practical result--best use of resources, best way to solve a problem.

5. Contrast
"Let's get rid of the nasty straight lines!" we yell, "Banish them from the design toolbox." Ooops, we've thrown away a tool that can be very useful in creating contrast that works. Sometimes the contrast will be exactly right when a pattern of leaves is seen against the cross-hatching of lattice, a border of perennials scallops and laces the edge of a straight path, the curves and lines of a Japanese maple claims its space because of its juxtapositionopposition?Âto the straight edges of its formal border.
Sorry, if I'm not putting it well, but there is a contrast between straight and curved, nature and artifice, inanimate and animate that spells out balance. It's not always achieved through "curves only".

6. Uniqueness
Since everybody else is doing curves, I'll do straight lines and be happy. I like looking a little different from all the cookie cutter houses, each with their attempts to get the curves right.

7. Pure Contrariness
Tell me it shouldn't, couldn't, cant be done, and I'll try it. Don't like to have my freedom reduced. Nature? I love nature deeply, but believe my work with local conservation efforts will do more for helping the environment than putting my plants in curvy corrals instead of straight ones.


    Bookmark   July 11, 2008 at 5:55PM
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Bravo, Wellspring!

I'm clapping, in case you can't hear me!

    Bookmark   July 11, 2008 at 6:54PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

And so am I! Well said...!

    Bookmark   July 11, 2008 at 10:02PM
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The big advantage with having a person on this board with vision but no sight is the shear contrariness of it. Mostly we appreciate gardens as a purely visual phenomenon and then along comes Wellspring to turn all that on its head. In terms of guiding a plan for a yard anyone of the above 7 would serve better than "There are no straight lines in nature."

    Bookmark   July 12, 2008 at 10:16AM
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petzold6596(8b southern NM)

Wellspring, it seems to me, statements 1 through 6 are nothing but reasons for #7. Not a justification for using straight lines. Obstinateness can be a virtue.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2008 at 11:35PM
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Well, I can't say whether there "really are" straight lines in nature or not, nor can I say whether there really is something called a curve.

What matters, since this isn't a forum for philosophical metaphysics, is what we perceive...and what we're dealing with...which is a house...on a lot...usually made up of straight lines and in need of plants.

So the real question here is: what's the proper balance of curved and straight?

    Bookmark   July 13, 2008 at 12:16AM
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Hi, I've been away, touring gardens and parks in Finland - gotta say the Finns love curves! Must be the legacy of Aalto, who was probably the first Modernist to bring curves back into design (as opposed to the rectangles of Mondrian and Le Corbusier). Something else I noticed was the extensive use of native plants, and gradual transitions from natural to man-made environments.
It's a different picture here in Estonia - you see a lot of straight lines in newly built landscapes, and these often go diagonally and cross at odd angles - the effect is quite different from "static" rectangle patterns, dynamic and even restless. The diagonals can alter one's perception quite a bit - making a space appear bigger, changing viewing directions, and, in fact, reducing the feel of being confined in a rectangle. Yet they belong to a tradition where man draws a line between nature and himself.
I imagine there would be reasons to have a marked difference between garden and nature in climates where nature presents dangers - poisonous snakes and bugs are a good reason have a smooth lawn etc. The nature in Finland, however, is not that different from here, so I'm guessing the divide is largely cultural. Or, could it be that we have more flat ground?

    Bookmark   July 13, 2008 at 4:41AM
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Petzold, if I'm understanding you correctly, you feel that my seventh point negates the value of points 1 through 6. Sort of sad, since I think there's more to the first six than the seventh. Plenty to play with before throwing them all out. I guess it just seems fair to me that you share more background information and examples to support your view.

Timbu- As always, I learn something when you post. If I'm understanding you, not only can lines become dynamic, they could also play with one's perception and, therefore, play with the comprehensibility and simplicity I mentioned above. Is that right? So what I'm really supporting is a type of conventional line usage. Trust me, I wouldn't want my choices to be universal, but I certainly want ease of movement in my own landscape and there are public places where safety and greater ease of movement also make sense.

    Bookmark   July 13, 2008 at 9:19AM
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Petzold, obstinateness could be a virtue if it doesn't limit your willingness to critically examine differing viewpoints. At the end of the day, believe what you want to believe, but unless you can substantiate your beliefs, there is no value in imposing them on others.

If you would like to expand on your comment that safety, comprehensibility, simplicity, practicality, contrast, and uniqueness do not justify the use of straight lines but rather exist for the sake of contrariness, please do so.

I do believe that there is plenty of crossover between some of the reasons that Wellspring has offered. The comprehensibility and practicality of strong lines are strongly tied into their simplicity; with a straight line from point A to point B, you can infer all the points in between. However, I do not see how comprehensibility and simplicity would not be a reason to use straight lines.

Straight lines have certain attributes. It is impossible to argue against that. They are easier and quicker to comprehend and to infer. They provide the shortest path between point A and point B. They can intersect, be parallel, or do neither.

There are also certain phenomena which relate strongly to straight lines. Light travels in mostly straight lines. Gravity pulls from the centre of the earth, directing our perception of levelness. Our minds are the subject of so much stimuli that it simplifies input.

There is no way that there is no reason or situation that the properties of straight lines offer an advantage over the use of curves.

- Audric

    Bookmark   July 13, 2008 at 10:30AM
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Are there truly straight lines built into landscapes? Yes, the horizon is curved and a hanging spider may not be hanging from a truly perfect line, or a grove of poplars do not have perfect lines to them, but they are just about as straight as any straight walkways or vertical posts or horizontal rails that you'll find in a built landscape.

There is a perspective by many which seems to start with a perceived notion that landscapes are supposed to be or at least strive to match nature. More often than not, a built landscape is designed to follow up the design and/or construction of very unnatural things. Sometimes it is within a natural context such as a cottage in the woods. Other times it is in totally built environments such as a parking lot on a city block.

Most of the time, the composition is moving somewhat away from completely artificial form and material even if it is simply because plants are more natural than steel and their forms are never perfect.

Why is there an assumption that when one is moving toward the natural he has certain thresholds that he must cross? This is really arbitrary. None will acheive 100% natural since the project's base is the man made situation that prompted the landscape design. It is inherently a transition from the artificial elements to a piece of the earth. That transition may be anywhere from extremely subtle to extremely abrubt. Usually, the idea is to achieve a logical balance where nature is not compromised more than it needs to be for the function of the building or whatever the man made situation is and that the function of the project is not compromised more than it needs to be for the sake of being "natural".

Where is there a perfect edge of a planting bed in nature whether it is curved or straight? Where are planting compositions occurring in nature where everything has its own space without encroaching other plants or being succeeded in return? No matter where you put these thresholds, it is arbitrary. Certainly, any of us can decide where we most like these thresholds and design toward them and that is fine. But, wherever you stake your claim there will always be someone more natural to one side of you and someone who is supporting the built work more to the other side of you.

Defining our own likes and dislikes as being factually right and wrong is rediculous. Making observations of how these affect the landscape can certainly be factually correct. But it can be equally factually correct that an artificial (straight line) layout can affect the landscape in a positive manor as well.

Not everything is going to float everyone else's boat. That does not mean that they are wrong or not good. Style and personal taste are one thing. Whether something is effective or not can be a totally other matter.

    Bookmark   July 13, 2008 at 10:53AM
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According to Euclid a straight line can be drawn between any two points and above we read "you see and experience suggestions of lines all the time that draw your eye to that point." Either the eye is one point and the object the other or two points of equal weight seem connected . If that straight line is a built feature like an allee leading to a statue then the focal point is underlined (so to speak). In this case the straight line forms an axis that everything else must relate to. So a straight line can be visible or implied. I am not sure who first said "There are no straight lines in nature" but when Gertrude Stein said it she,as a writer was saying that it was unnatural to have a story with a beginning and an end but no middle i.e. a straight line from one point to another with no deviation. If you have never read her you will find lots of middle (muddle ?) but no beginning or end. So we designers may be taking the phrase too literally, what if I said �the design process is non linear, taking a tangent here and diversion there, and therefore natural� would that make sense? What if instead I stated that �the design process moves in a straight line following strict principles�, better? The gardens that contain only straight lines and usually straight jacketed plants allows for no deviation no mystery and as a result are predictable, on the other hand one that contains only wavy lines or no lines at all is totally unpredictable. The negative words we attach to these extremes are boring and chaotic although both could equally be positive attributes. Luckily we get to choose and most of us choose some of each, some straight some not so straight. Man-made straight lines as found in a wall, pergola or walkway act in a way that shows off the seemingly randomness of leaf and flower and vice-versa. The obvious parallel is the lines and notes drawn on a musical score. When we adopt a slogan like �There are no straight lines in nature� as if it was gospel however and apply the same Thuja to �soften� corners of every house while, we are in trouble. There was a beautiful house shown here recently with a most interesting and unique feature, the walls flared out at the bottom, but still there were suggestions to plant at the corners. so don�t think I am making this up. Even the Renegade Gardener says there are no straight lines in nature which even if it were true should not be the guide for something as artificial as garden design(English sense).

    Bookmark   July 13, 2008 at 6:23PM
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We are human and our subconscious often runs off of familiarity.

Our human expectations of straight lines, vertical, horizontal, edges, centers, level, etc,... tend to run in the background when we are dealing with man-built environments. You feel it is out of place when the flagpole leans, the floor slopes, the picture is tilted, or the clapboards are not parallel.

Then there are the familiar expectations our subconscious when experiencing nature. Ponds don't look right when placed on top of a hill for instance. Rivers do not run in straight lines. Trees on slopes do not have big bulged out level areas to accommodate watering saucers, nor do many of them grow perpendicular to the slope rather than to gravity. When you see these or other things that contradict that familiarity, you may not know what exactly it is, but you do know it does not feel right.

Landscapes are often a blend between both the things our minds associate with man made and the things they associate with nature. That is both an opportunity to build upon subconscious expectations to strengthen our goals and an opportunity to miss some of these and lose some control of the goals of the project.

Think of a small square lot in a city grid with a straight road, parallel sidewalk, rectalinear building, row of trees in the hell strip, etc,... Then you want to introduce curves. You certainly can, but you can't just do it and expect it to work. You have to overcome all of the ordered lines. You have to be aware of it to overcome it. Others might not recognize what the clash is, but they will feel the discomfort when their subconscious is rattled by the clash against its expectation. You have to support a different expectation to make it comfortable, in other words.

You must have those understandings in your conscious mind in order to make the adjustments that the average person's subconscious can accept. If you don't, you will not recognize the discomfort that you have created. You may never know that some things are not well recieved unless there is opportunity for public criticism, or structured critique, or if you want to invite it from people who will give a true critique (not your friends).

You can't simply treat all landscapes as if they were totally natural by simply ignoring the man made elements. You have to transition. It can be a bold transition, or it can be subtle. If it is not addressed, it will not look right. Some people do this without admitting it to themselves, but if it looks good, you can be certain that it has been addressed (even if you did it).

    Bookmark   July 13, 2008 at 8:49PM
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