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Landform Design Guide

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Earthwork is ancient artform. In England, the prehistoric stone circle at Avebury is a composition of landform with vertical structures.

Landform remains one of the most dramatic elements available to garden and landscape designers.

At the landscape scale, landform is best treated as land sculpture (earthworks). The best design procedure is:

words -> drawing -> model -> sitework

  • decide what you want to achieve - and put it in words
  • sketch the design aim onto a rough diagram with a very soft pencil (or draw with your finger!)
  • make a clay model (using a spatula or block of wood, not your finger)
  • do not rely on the drawing to create the actual earthwork: it is necessary to be on site, directing the work, driving the machinery or working with barrow and spade

At the garden scale, even the smallest changes of level can become significant aspects of the spatial design - perhaps a location for steps between two 'garden rooms'.

It is traditional for landform designers to draw inspiration from natural forms: hills, valleys, plants and the human figure.

Landform design

Here are 3 ways of doing a landform design:

1. By drawing contours and sections. The initial shaping should be done with a soft pencil (about 6B). One should "draw from the shoulder' with a little help from the elbow and a little more help from the wrist. Stretch the fingers before starting work. Think of the initial work as shaping a lump of wood, as a carver would do. Then have a go at tracing the soft lines with a fine pencil, as a wood-carver uses honing and sanding tools after the saw and the chisel (Figure 9). Unlike the carver, you can now take a fresh sheet of tracing paper and have another go at the shaping stage, then at the honing, then again the shaping, the sanding and the polishing, until the job is done.
2. By clay modelling. It is unquestionably the case that the best landform designs I have seen started life as clay models. Clay is a better medium than paper as a surrogate for land. Clay is also much better than plasticine. You can work it with knives, tools and blocks of wood. These tools encourage you to "work from the shoulder', instead of with the fingers. The model should be made to scale and on a base plan. If you want to go on from day to day, then wrap it with a wet towel and polythene. Don't expect to keep the model too long. The aim is to generate a set of contours, take some photographs (with low light, from different viewpoints) and then return the clay to the pug mill. Contours should be drawn on the clay using a "traveller' (a pencil fixed to a bar and moving on two strips of wood) and then drawn them onto a sheet of glass or Perspex, supported on the same strips of wood. You can also find the contours by placing the model in a tray and slowly filling it with water. Another advantage of clay is that you can use it to make a volumetric model. At 1:100, each cubic centimetre of clay will represent 10@t000@tm3 of earth. Brian Clouston wrote a good article about this (Clouston, 1976).
3. By computer. The machine has two great advantages: it calculates the volumes for you and it shows you what the landform will look like from eye level at defined viewpoints. The disadvantage of design by clay model is that you tend to be working with a "helicopter pilot's' view of the land. This produces results that look beautiful to pilots but not to pedestrians. The computer also produces impressive wireline drawings and photorealistic models of landform. Please do not forget two old University of Greenwich sayings: "No contours -- no marks'; "No cross-sections -- no marks'. The third dimension is crucial to design.

Medium avebury original

Avebury, England

Medium claremont  original

Claremont, England

Medium landform original

Scottish Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

Medium female form original

Female form

Medium gourd form original

Gourd form

Medium laumeier1 original

Laumeier sculpture park

Medium 9 original