Forced Perspective

We recently discussed two methods of Japanese garden building which when properly employed can make the smallest plot of land seem larger. Along with “hide and reveal” and “the borrowed view”, one can mess with the human eye to create the illusion of depth and distance through what is called the forced perspective. This particular design device is an excellent one to consider when one is dealing with a small yard and/or one is going to experience it largely from a window. Many garden spaces in Japan are meant to be viewed from either inside a building or upon a veranda, specifically from a seated position. The position/height of the viewer, as well as their viewing position, are critical in order for forced perspective to work.

One can manipulate the sense of space and scale from a specific vantage point through various simple techniques. One method is to slope the ground upward away from the viewing position, thus garden objects placed at different points will appear further away. Another simple approach is to place larger objects closer to the viewing position and smaller ones further away. The last method that comes to mind is to have a vary bare ground plane, devoid of texture, in between the viewer and the viewed. The human eye, it turns out, relies on the subtle textural differences along the ground to assist in judging distance and scale. Imagine standing in a completely white room (ceiling, floors and walls). The eye has great difficulty determining the actual size of the space. I saw this to great effect in the Portland Japanese Garden’s “Flat Garden,” where the foreground of the space was predominately white gravel. Objects in the mid- and background appeared much smaller than they were due to the eye’s inability to judge the horizontal dimension.

There are more Japanese design principles to explore. I encourage anyone interested in exploring the topic further to dive right in. There is so much we can learn from other distinct garden design styles and cultures.

Josh Steffen, Horticulture and Facilities Manager


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