Garden Design

Proportion and Patterns

Beauty has a hold on us! Across time and place, people have decorated themselves and their dwellings. As our societies developed, people also created art, architecture and gardens to celebrate our attraction to beauty. But how do we define beauty?

Clearly styles and preferences have changed over time and circumstances. Color favorites come and go, hemlines rise and fall, home styles adapt to changing technologies. Yet a few underpinning concepts remain constant, and one of those is pattern and proportion.

These patterns and proportions appeal to our eyes and help us understand the world. It can be simple, such as a hallway that draws you along so you can find out what is at the end. It can be as complex as the multiple patterns in the Parthenon or a flower.

The most common pattern is the “golden ratio,” or phi, commonly written out at as a dimension of 1 to 1.618, and easily understood as a rectangle that measures 1 along the short side and 1.618 along the long side. This ratio was first identified as having almost universal appeal by the ancient Greeks and used over and over in their buildings to help create pleasing dimensions between overall width and height, between peak of roof and column heights, and even within the buildings’ details.

In the Renaissance this proportion was called the divine ratio. Many Renaissance artists used the ratio to create beautiful compositions with divine ratios between the subjects or even by placing the subjects around the painting using the ratio. It seems that even our faces are, on average, prone to be based upon this ratio, with the width of the face equal to one and the length roughly equal to 1.618. The same is true of our limbs and overall height.

Mathematicians, architects and artists have played with this ratio for centuries. But, as with most ideas, there is really a range of preferences. If you draw out several rectangles using dimensions ranging from 1 to 1.5, 1 to 1.618 and 1 to 1.75, you will be able to determine your own preferences.

In this sketch, you’ll see a garden that introduces golden ratios and sequential Fibonacci numbers as the basis for most of the shapes and relationships between heights and distances.

As you design your garden, check the relationship between the two sides and see if a ‘golden’ proportion would look more pleasing. Then as you walk around in gardens and natural areas, take a moment to look for patterns. They are all around us, and each discovery can be a moment of wonder. Enjoy.

Jan Little is director of education and public programs at Sarah P. Duke Gardens. She is also a landscape designer.