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200508DT0By David Tisherman

Everywhere you turn these days, you see watershapers tackling projects that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago.  

It wasn’t that long ago that simply raising a spa seemed like a big challenge, but these days vanishing edges, perimeter overflows and other ambitious details have become relatively common.  And it’s not just technology:  Watershapers are gravitating toward great materials, colors, hardscape, plants and amenities – signs of real growth and, for the most part, a very good thing.

With this broadening list of possibilities, however, have come some growing pains.  The industry’s like a teenager with a fresh driver’s license:  just because he or she knows how doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she should!  The consequence with watershapes is that, more and more these days, I see projects weighed down by all sorts of bells and whistles that are, from a design standpoint, completely inappropriate and, often, visually jarring.

KITCHEN-SINK MENTALITY

Consider the common case of clients with a smallish backyard, a substantial budget and an irresistible desire to do something really impressive despite the limited space.

In such situations, very often these days I run into complex, free-form bodies of water with a vanishing edge on one side, a perimeter-overflow system on another, a beach entry on a third, an artificial-rock grotto topped by a waterfall and a slide on a fourth – and then there’s the raised spa, the fire pit and the outdoor kitchen.

The results aren’t always awful, but far too often, the outcome of so inclusive a design program is visual clutter that generally has nothing to do with the style or architecture of the home or the nature of the setting.  

Believe me, I love the concept of the backyard resort as much as the next person, and I certainly understand the desire to expand projects in the name of greater profitability.  But when we overload a space at the expense of good design, we are almost certain to create a mess – one that fails to exploit the potential beauty and overall aesthetics that can grace just about any well-considered project.

Another example:  In recent years, water-in-transit systems have taken hold in a big way.  Where vanishing edges, raised perimeter overflows and deck-level slot edges once were rare, they’re now found all over the place.  In the right setting, these hydraulic wonders are just plain brilliant; use them inappropriately or in the wrong space, however, and all they do is amplify the inadequacies of poor design decisions.

Is it appropriate to install a crisp, angular, ultra-modern perimeter-overflow system alongside a Colonial-style home with a cottage-style garden?  In a design sense, the answer is a deeply resonant “no.”  In the right setting with a suitably styled home, however, that same ultra-modern watershape might be the perfect call.

This seems obvious enough, and I would say that you do not have to be an accomplished designer to recognize that ultra-modern details set against soft, traditional backdrops conjure irresolvable visual discontinuities.  

Frankly, I think it is our responsibility to guide our clients toward appropriate designs for given settings.  And when I run into clients who absolutely insist on perpetrating what I see as an abomination, I’ll walk away.

TOOL OF THE TRADE

Some will argue that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that homeowners have an absolute right to determine the visual natures of their personal environments.  Who are we, after all, to tell them what they want?  My answer to that question is simple:  If our only purpose is to give clients what they want, then there would be no need for design (or designers) at all.  

In fact, there’s much more to the process than simply following the clients’ lead:  The key is to work with them, extract information about what they want and then transform their ideas into a compelling design by taking the obvious and making it subtle, effective and beautiful.  

Too many watershapers cave in to the notion that their clients are invariably right and should always be given what they want.  The result is that way too many projects these days look as though the client walked through some sort of watershaping retail store and picked their favorite effects off of a shelf – a fire pit here, a fountain there, a rock waterfall over there – without giving the slightest thought to visual continuity.

In other words, we do have an active role to play in the process, and it is usually only through our design expertise and judgment that clients’ desires are translated into settings of maximized beauty and elegance.  And in a great many of these situations, achieving the greatest results requires us to exercise that most elusive of human qualities:  restraint!

Those of you who know me or who have been reading this column for any length of time are well aware that I am a designer who is not short on ego.  I consider myself an artist, and I’ve never been shy about discussing what it’s taken me to achieve that status.  

What some find ironic (and others don’t recognize) is that many of my best designs are the simplest.  This is why so many of my designs (and those best liked by other watershapers) are simple rectangles that don’t feature vanishing edges or tricky edge details of any kind.  Instead, my focus is on colors, materials, textures, joinery and how everything fits in the architectural environment.

I was trained to think this way.  In studying design, you learn that some shapes – and particularly the rectangle – will translate beautifully into a variety of settings and harmonize with a range of styles.  Yes, I know how to build complex systems with free-form shapes and vanishing edges and beach entries and thermal ledges and waterfalls and grottos, but I will do so only when the situation calls for it.

Those situations that call for elaborate visuals are fewer in number, however, than are those in which an elegant shape adorned in an appropriate color palette and quality materials will make a far more beautiful and soothing statement.  It’s all about awareness of the needs of the surrounding architecture and the requirements of the setting – no more, no less.

STEPPING BACK

In every class I’ve ever taught about watershape design, at some point I’ll say that a pool should not be the focal point of a design.  For all of its remarkable qualities, the water is just an amorphous, transparent, formless, colorless, tasteless material, and what really matters is the setting, the overall visuals and how we choose to use the water’s reflective (and aural) qualities to compliment and enhance the overall picture.

I usually go on to point out that this perspective extends naturally from an understanding of balance, line, scale, proportion, spatial relationships, color and visual weight.  In a great many settings, those principles will dictate a design that relies less on elaborate technology and more on an almost profound simplicity.

Let’s refer to a pair of classics to illustrate:  the pools at the Taj Mahal and the reflecting pool on the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C.  In both cases, we see large, rectangular reflecting pools that define and reflect the landscape adjacent to monumental structures.  These reflecting bodies of water are large to suit the scale of the space, and that’s impressive.  But what’s even more impressive than their scale is a perfect simplicity that amplifies and counterbalances the extraordinary structures reflected on their dark surfaces.   

In both places, we see the reflective qualities of water used to their absolute maximum effect.  The fully integrated spaces surrounding these watershapes are organized to bring people into the space and instill a sense of awe.  And while the water is a defining component of the design, at the same time it’s as minimal in form as one could possibly imagine.

Just imagine if either of those designs featured piles of rock on the ends:  The power and majesty of these magnificent settings would be dramatically diminished.

Another example:  My good friend Paul Benedetti has just completed a project (profiled, as luck would have it, in this issue of WaterShapes -- click here) that he considers his finest to date.  It features not only a perimeter-overflow thermal ledge, but also a sculpted vanishing edge and a spa that overflows on all four sides – with everything held together by colors in a tight, rectilinear design.   

I bring up this project because it’s a perfect case study for the point I’m trying to make:  If he’d placed this beautiful watershape behind a Cape Cod on a typical suburban street, the project would quite probably have been a visual disaster.  As it is, however, the slick modern design harmonizes perfectly with an ultra-contemporary home and the expansive views its setting affords.  The watershape’s technical and visual sophistication is, in other words, a perfect fit.

SECOND THINGS FIRST

Now that we’ve worked our way through some examples, let me refer again to that newly licensed teenager and my sense that the industry is going through a crisis of knowing how to do a couple things but not always knowing exactly when those things should be done.  

I frequently run into watershapers who, for instance, have figured out how to do one thing or another very well and then seek to use that element – a vanishing edge, a beach entry, a fire effect, a particular combination of stone materials or something else that serves to distinguish their work from that of other watershapers – on every single project that comes their way.  

Design Sensibility

When provoked, I can go on quite a rant about designing vs. selling.  The easiest way to trigger such an outburst is to throw this one at me:  “Not including all the bells and whistles and going with everything my client wants me to include is like leaving money on the table.”  

That’s a classic salesperson’s attitude, and there’s nothing specifically wrong with having it unless you also have the nerve to present yourself to your clients as a designer and artist.  In my book, sales is one thing, design and presentation quite another.  

Salespeople focus on what they can do to satisfy clients while pulling as much as they can into a project.  If the watershape turns out well, that’s great.  If it doesn’t, fine, the bottom line is still fully padded.  A designer, by contrast, builds a career and reputation by focusing on collaboration in the development of spaces that are aesthetically and emotionally pleasing to their clients.  If these tasks are done well, the designer is compensated on many levels in addition to the bottom line.

As a designer and artist, I’m not alone in recognizing that rocks, for example, have shapes and textures that must be considered; that drain covers come in colors more or less suited to use next to a chosen finish and have different-colored screws that can be used to attach them; or that grouting can be colored in numerous ways and given a texture that either matches or contrasts with surrounding materials.  

The difference for me is that all of these details are part of my constant consciousness as a designer.  I start my conversations with clients with an awareness of these details and their aesthetic potential, and I collaborate with those clients and never let go of the details until everything is as it should be.  

It’s a meeting of the minds, and, to me, an infinitely more satisfying, stimulating and creative process.

-- D.T.
I see this brashness and limited creative range quite frequently, for instance, in watershapers’ use of rock structures (real or artificial).  These compositions can be quite elaborate and may even be impressive, but too often they are distinctly out of whack – piles of rock with a return line stuck in somewhere too close to the top.  

Getting these structures right is all about scale, proportion and details such as planting pockets that help the rockwork transcend the ordinary.  Yes, there are times when expertly designed rock waterfalls or grottos are just the call, especially in projects that capitalize on the presence of similar natural rock structures in or around the property.  All too often, however, rockwork is included simply for the sake of using it – and the resulting heaps on pool decks are visual distractions at their best and eyesores at their worst.  

In many cases, these things happen because there’s a desire to extract as many dollars from a project as possible – a sales-first/design-second mentality that I see as the greatest impediment to our industry’s ongoing success.  I can’t govern the actions of others, but I can argue that if you find yourself including features in watershape designs simply for the sake of up-selling the client, then you are not in the business of creating art or giving your client the most beautiful work possible.  

I will say further that if you are among those who take this “retail” approach to watershaping and have the nerve to refer to yourself as a “designer,” then I think you are misrepresenting the services you are providing.  By contrast, when you work to provide quality design for clients looking for something elegant and tasteful, you’ll naturally step beyond “selling” and into a state of dynamic collaboration with them instead.

This means accepting the fact that the best design solutions may not be the most expensive.  It also means considering that using beautiful materials in simple, elegant designs will quite often be a better alternative to cluttering a space with edges, waterfalls and elaborate expressions of all the cool things you know how to do.

If you need convincing on this point, look at the work of the acknowledged masters:  Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and his Bauhaus disciples or Frank Lloyd Wright and his successors, including John Lautner.  Or consider Ricardo Legoretta, whose work with water in built spaces is the essence of elegant expressiveness.  And don’t forget brilliant landscape architects and garden designers, including the masters of Katsura Rikyu in Japan and contemporary geniuses such as Mia Lehrer, Shinichiro Abe, John Brookes, Anthony Archer-Wills and others whose respect for the materials they use consistently shows up in their wonderful exterior spaces.

There are plenty of renowned designers whose work you can use to pattern your own.  All it takes is an open mind and recognition of the fact that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

OUR PLACE IN THE WORLD

While I treasure this design heritage, I am also realistic enough to see that there are countercurrents that work against the principles of my design heroes.

Where my heroes’ design influence tends to be subtle and intellectual, when we look around us we are all bombarded by the outrageous design sensibilities of Las Vegas, amusement parks and resort properties around the world.  Sure, these complexes have their moments – what could be more spectacular or attractive than the dancing waters of Bellagio as gloriously executed by the folks at WET Design? – and there’s no denying these approaches can be fun in the right setting.  

But ask yourself:  Do these facilities, which so many of our clients have seen and enjoyed, represent the best possible design influences?  The answer, I think, is “no.”  

The key difference I see between those who create amusement parks and those who create landscape and watershaping art is one of aesthetic value.  The forwardness and commercialism of themed spaces is aimed at generating short-term excitement and the goal of extracting dollars from pockets.  Sales-oriented watershapers capitalize on this interest by translating Vegas-style extravagance to backyards and can profit handsomely by adding blinking lights, arrays of jets and sound systems to their projects.  But can the results be described as appropriate in any but the rarest cases?

By contrast, the work of artists, architects, watershapers and garden designers is aimed at creating beauty and a sublime sense of visual acceptance.  Translating these ambitions to backyard scale is not only possible, but is much to be desired.  

Look at it this way:  Through the years, I’ve known a great many people who are repulsed by the garish environments of amusement parks, casinos and resorts.  In that same time span, however, I’ve yet to meet a single person who is put off by the look of the craftsman-style homes designed and built by Greene and Greene.

My point is that tradition-based design – that is, our response to the weight of several thousand years of cultural heritage – will cut across a much wider band of tastes.  I don’t know anyone who’d want the columns of the Parthenon arrayed around his or her home, but certainly we can all agree that such structures are enduringly beautiful.  I wonder if the same will be said 2,000 years from now of Disney’s magic castles.

I’m not saying we should pay attention to classic design because it’s culturally sophisticated (although that certainly doesn’t hurt when it comes to working with sophisticated clients).  Rather, my intention here is to convey the thought that, through the principles so ingeniously employed by the masters of our field, we are able to create work of remarkable and enduring beauty.

To me, that is far more important than the price tag of a project or how much of that tab I put in my pocket.  I am in business to help my clients and, with them, to pursue elegance and beauty.  If that means leaving a vanishing edge, a fire element or a beach entry out of the design, then so be it.

That, in artistic terms, is what restraint is all about.

 

David Tisherman is the principal in two design/construction firms: David Tisherman’s Visuals of Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Liquid Design of Cherry Hill, N.J. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. He is also an instructor for Artistic Resources & Training (ART); for information on ART’s classes, visit www.theartofwater.com.

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