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Finding a Way
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Finding a Way

Aqua Ill-eps Ill

Aqua Ill-eps Ill

One of the keys to designing effective spaces for human occupation is to create opportunities for movement from one place to another. This component of mobility adds functionality and utility to just about all spaces while keeping them vital and interesting.

In watershape design, we have several options when it comes to introducing mobility to our work, including pathways and bridges that lead to various destinations within the spaces we’re asked to organize.

Footpaths can connect a home to the far reaches of its yard, for example, making use of areas that might otherwise go unoccupied and unnoticed. Or they can guide visitors to the water’s edge along pathways that optimize the visual experience. Bridges work in much the same way, with the added drama of carrying visitors over the water’s surface and a vast potential to create architectural interest on their own.

In either form, these features also give the designer valuable opportunities to surprise and delight onlookers with unexpected access to moving water, reflective water, interesting rockwork, unusual plantings, sculptural or architectural fixtures or even distant views. They also give us ways to lead visitors to quiet places of respite and repose – or to places where lively entertainment is the order of the day.


The neat thing about paths and bridges is that they can be incorporated into an infinite range of styles, assembled with a huge range of materials and running the gamut from the extremely simple to the very complex. This frees the designer to step outside the box and tap into a vast well of creativity.

The key to successfully deploying these structures is to consider the way people will be moving within the environment from the very start of the project. In fact, simply knowing that you want people to move within a given space can set the tone for every other step in your design process.

One of the things design-conscious watershapers talk about a great deal these days, for example, is the visual advantage of placing watershapes off to the side of the available space. Depending on the situation, of course, there’s a great deal to be gained in locating the water away from the home, not the least of which is that you can use the space between home and water to set up a pathway (or multiple pathways) that lead homeowners and their guests through the environment and toward a beautiful destination.

That’s a possibility entirely cut off, of course, if your first and only inclination is to set pools five feet away from the patio doors.

Yet that’s not to say you need to be working on five-acre estates to make pathways work. If you’re careful and skillful, just a few yards of separation can be enough to give onlookers a varied, interesting pathway for approaching a watershape. The transition alone adds interest and delight to the experience of those who take the steps needed to reach the water.

These paths can be extremely formal in design, with crisp geometric lines moving through highly organized spaces, gardens and exterior structures. Or they can be far more naturalistic – a narrow, winding path, for instance, that leads you through lush, overhanging landscaping to a small serenity garden with a partial view of a pond, stream or swimming pool. Or you can create a pathway to a private nook that houses a spa or a small fountain or a beautiful piece of sculpture.

You can also use pathways or bridges to lead the viewer through elevation changes or to locations where they come within an arm’s reach of moving water or a waterfall or the riffle of a shallow stream. They can lead as well to places where it’s convenient to feed Koi or twist into a lotus position for yoga or meditation.


Let’s talk specifically about footpaths for a while.

Your options here are limitless, because paths can be made of anything from loose stepping stones or gravel or brick to mortared-in-place stonework or formed-and-poured concrete – and any combination of materials you might imagine. You can work with squares, rectangles, arcs, circles or irregular shapes – and your choices aren’t limited to stone or cementitious materials. In fact, some of my favorite paths have been made of tile, wood, mulch or even grass.

I’m particularly intrigued by Frank Lloyd Wright’s use of linear wooden planking – a detail he adopted and adapted from his study of Japanese gardens. The angles that can be used in guiding onlookers through a space are both interesting and beautiful, and it’s a look I’ve used on certain projects to provide a feeling that is simultaneously architectural and organic.


Pathways are powerfully attractive. It is difficult to imagine that there are too many people who, upon entering this space, wouldn’t feel curious about what they’ll find at the other end of this simple set of stairs – and find themselves going exactly where the pathway’s designer wants them to go.

By selecting materials for their colors, textures and similarities to other features of a setting, you can use a pathway underfoot to create visual links between a pathway and its surroundings and between one section of a setting and another. Or you can use contrasts in materials to create visual separations. Many landscape architects I know use a pathway to create a transitional zone between, for example, the formality of a deck just outside the back door of a house and a less-formal space out near a pool or pond.

Depending on materials of construction, all of this and more can be accomplished at reasonable cost – and the potential return on even a modest investment can be a tremendous amount of interest and value added to the overall composition.

Personally, I enjoy creating spaces in which my clients can sit and relax. Simply by creating a small path to some out-of-the-way spot where I’ve placed a bench or some other form of seating, I’ve often managed to create what they’ll later say is the best spot in the yard. Such a path might lead to a wall covered in vines or a slope where I’ve put a small waterfeature or some special flowering plants.

Wherever or whatever this special place might be, the fact that a journey of even a few steps is involved in reaching this secluded spot has a lot to do with the impression it ultimately makes.

In my own design work, I seek these spots whenever the opportunity arises because I know how much they mean to my clients. You may find surprising locations for such resting spots in your own work. I recently designed and built a small pond and waterfall that is located next to an estate home’s driveway. One of the things we added was a very small path that leads to an elevated area where we put a bench next to a cascading waterfall. It’s surprising to find serenity in the front of the home near the driveway, but it’s nonetheless a beautiful place to sit and listen to the water.


Among the reasons that paths are so effective in conjunction with water is that we all love to be near water and are willing to go to great lengths to get as close to it as we can. By defining a path to the water, we as designers effectively lead visitors in a direction to which they are naturally inclined.

That is why I design paths that lead to places very near the water. On some of my lagoon-pool designs, for example – especially when there are shade structures involved – I’ll set up a cantilevered deck over the water or situate the deck so that it juts right into the water, surrounding the viewer with water on two or three sides.

One of my friends and colleagues, Paul Benedetti of Aquatic Technologies in Morgan Hill, Calif., recently completed a project that includes a faux dock that juts into the shallow end of a large swimming pool. I love that idea, and in his case, Paul set it up so the dock is actually part of the pool structure and doesn’t have water flowing beneath it. Still, it creates the illusion of a small boat dock and enables onlookers to walk out across the water’s surface.


People have a natural tendency to want to approach water. In this case, a ‘faux dock’ that doesn’t even extend over the water is an explicit invitation to come closer and have a good look. (Photos courtesy Paolo Benedetti, Aquatic Technologies, Morgan Hill, Calif.)


Another detail I love is the use of rockwork to create stepping-stones across the top of a body of water – something that brings us into the closest possible proximity to the water without getting wet. It’s one of those details that delights just about anyone and brings out the child in us all.

Bridges offer that same sort of delight when added to a project. Just as there’s a human need to get up close enough to water to touch it, there’s also a desire to move over water and look down into it to study reflections, ripples, any sort of motion or even the lack thereof.

I’m convinced that this basic impulse is why we see so many fine restaurants located on structures elevated above bodies of water or placed immediately adjacent to water: There is something about being elevated over water that draws our attention and interest – not something that can be explained, but certainly something that is felt by almost everyone.

And we’re lucky that we don’t need to develop psychological profiles of individual clients to see what works for them: If I see an opportunity to include a bridge in a project, I’ll go for it every time and discuss it with clients as an option they definitely should consider.


Of course, there’s more to building bridges than there is to laying down your average garden path. First, there are more limitations when it comes to materials for bridges – although you’re by no means limited to stone or wood. Second, there are considerations and limitations related to the kind of water you’re bridging.

If it’s a swimming pool or the water is meant for bathers, you need to determine local codes related to overhead clearances for any bridge.

This means that, in bridging a pool, you’ll often face a need to elevate the bridge, either by creating an arch structure or by using steps. This need can make approaches to the bridge a bit awkward, so I usually begin to make the pathway to the bridge rise a good distance away from the water’s edge – thus elevating the path to the bridge rather than making the bridge itself do all the work of rising to its required height over the water.


You don’t need to recreate the Golden Gate Bridge to span water effectively. This simple set of angular turns, barely above the surface, does the job of moving onlookers out over the water – which is usually just the experience they’re looking for when they get that close to a pond, pool or stream.

This strategy also extends the bridge “experience” and can make for interesting structures, berms and elevations that themselves can be viewed from other vantage points around the yard.

I’ve also used this gradual elevation to orchestrate views of the water and the surrounding environment. In this way, bridges themselves can become destinations – and wonderful places to pause and gather in the view or enjoy a quiet conversation.

Bridges over swimming pools also provide fascination for those in the water. In fact, it’s another quirk of human nature that dictates that if you build a bridge over water, whoever is swimming in that water will want to go under the bridge. Keeping that in mind, you may want to consider including some form of tile or another interesting finish on the underside of the bridge as well as on its top and sides.

As suggested above, you can get away with less-substantial structures when you’re bridging streams, ponds or cascades. I particularly like the effect that is created when a large piece of flat stone serves as a small bridge. You also can achieve nice looks by using smaller pieces of loose or set stone in paths or steps that lead to a bridge made of a large piece of the same type of stone. It’s a rustic look that blends well with surrounding landscaping.

Even small concrete bridges that cross over tiny stretches of streambed can add a great deal of interest – and when you couple their use with strategic placement of pathways and deck areas, the combined affect can be truly wonderful.

As always, how you apply these “devices” in your work will depend largely on the style, setting and basic design – not to mention the desires of your clients and the extent of their budgets. But bridges and pathways are seldom far from my thoughts when I consider a new space and contemplate a new design for it, basically because they add value to the experience I’m working to create in every backyard I see.

Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of the Genesis 3 Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders. He can be reached at [email protected].

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