Camouflage ugly amenities

As a designer, I am often aware of or am challenged to hide, soften or camouflage some of the less attractive parts of the landscape: utility boxes--such as air-conditioner units and electric-control boxes--or similar utilitarian items that are a necessary part of the landscape. In other situations, I am asked to place or decorate site amenities such as bike racks, ash urns, trash receptaclesor similar products. My particular philosophy is to appreciate the beauty of a designed object for what it does. After all, it looks the way it does because of its function. In doing so, I can de-emphasize its impact on the environment. Of course, well-thought-out placement in conjunction with a thoughtful design or product selection can take care of visual awkwardness or the need to screen or soften. But you'll still always have the occasional situation when something is just in the wrong place. And no matter how many different ways you look at the thing, it's just simply unattractive.

Aesthetics always seem to take a backseat to the positioning and maintenance requirements of outdoor utility units. Add to this the myriad site accessories mentioned previously: trash receptacles, ash urns, bike racks, benches and similar accessories, which can quickly add up to a lot of clutter if not positioned and coordinated. With care, however, you can blend these obtrusive and unattractive accessories into a landscape. In the case of an electric utility box, air-conditioner unit or maintenance out-building, for example, you obviously want easy access but you don't want them to be obvious. As for other accessories, such as trash receptacles, bike racks, benches, lighting, outdoor speakers, etc., some of these items need to be easily seen for people to use them. However, typically you don't want them to be the focal point of a landscape.

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Modifying the environment The first challenge is to make sure you really understand the problem. Then you can get into the how-to-solve framework. Start by asking basic questions that help distinguish what the problems are that you want to solve. You can group landscape accessories into two groups: those you can screen that remain functional and those that must be obvious for direct use by the public.

Site amenities in the first group require that the user be able to see the items or that you must install signage to communicate their location. After all, a bike rack or outdoor bathroom do no good if the public can't find them. So your first order of business is to make certain the amenity is in the appropriate location to begin with before you set out to decorate, screen or modify its environment in any way.

Obviously, if you can move the object to a more attractive location, then do so. But oftentimes it is not possible for you to modify or move an existing site utility. In addition, such items sometimes require a minimum distance from other landscape aspects to maintain access to the amenity. In these cases, determine if you can modify or mediate the environment around the utility. You can do this in several ways:

*Grade the site. With this technique, you contour the earth so that the viewer sees over or past the object (see Figure 1, page C1). A common way to do this is to build a wall in front of the utility and grade to the wall. Another way is to build a low wall between the viewer and the viewed object and to raise the grade in front of the wall so that you direct the view over the new earth contour.

If you have room, you can build an earth berm in front of the object. Design the berm carefully so that it works with the surrounding landforms and does not protrude in an odd way. Typically the side slopes of the berm should not exceed a 3:1 slope if you plan to cover it with turf to ease in mowing maintenance. You can also add plantings to these earth shapes to reinforce their screening ability.

*Add plantings. When using plantings (whether with or without a berm), use them in a way that doesn't call attention to the fact that they are screening. Basically, you want to incorporate plantings so they are a part of the broader landscape composition (see Figure 2, above). Doing so keeps the plantings loose so that they are not merely an imitation of the shape of the object you are trying to screen. Otherwise you are simply adding mass to the object.

Another approach is to have plantings do double-duty. That is, the plantings not only screen the object but perform another function, such as adding a new visual interest to the area (see Figure 3, at left). Similarly, you can change or soften the appearance of a utility element such as performing transitional mowing. In this case, you only occasionally mow the turf around the utility provided you have enough room to make a large enough drift for movement to create a rough effect. Using prairie-style plantings can have a similar impact, helping to nest the utility in the landscape.

*Change the viewer's reference point. In using this technique, you modify the environment to change the observer's reference point or relationship to the object. For example, modifying or adding a path can change the circulation pattern away from the utility. Or you can move shrubbery from directly in front of the object to a position closer to the observer (see Figure 4, at left).

Moving the offender Can you reposition an object to another location? As mentioned, an object's placement often solves any problems with it. In other words, you must learn to appreciate the beauty of how a certain amenity performs its function and--if everything about it makes sense--then there's no use obsessing over the fact that you can see it. Some clients have this romantic notion that the landscape needs to appear natural and that you must avoid or remove anything that doesn't fit this idea. But this isn't necessarily true.

Making the obvious less so A range of options is available when it comes to choosing site accessories. Therefore, you can select them so that they fit in with the overall environment through detail, color, material, etc. Try to choose these objects--ash urns, bike racks, trash cans, etc.--so that they all work together to form a visual relationship. In doing so, you keep the site from taking on a cluttered appearance where each item seems to stand alone.

Ed Westwood is a designer with the Brickman Group Ltd. (Long Grove, Ill.).

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