The Finer Points Of Creating Bodies Of Water That Mimic Nature

Eric Herman Headshot
photo of a waterfall
© Linda Oyama Bryan

In next edition of AQUA Architecture, we're taking a walk into an area that doesn't draw much coverage in pool and spa magazines — the water garden. In this section you'll find "Natural Details," written by a good friend of mine, Tim Krezminski, founder of Laughing Waters, a Chicago-based firm specializing in the design and construction of ponds and streams.

In this beautifully illustrated discussion, Tim delves into many of the fine points involved in creating bodies of water that effectively mimic nature. It's a wonderful piece for many reasons, chief among them is how it reveals the level of care, education and mastery of craft required to take the work of aquatic design to an extremely high level.

Tim will be the first to tell you that he's had many teachers, people such as Anthony Archer-Wills, an artist many believe to be the greatest water gardener of the modern era, if not all time. And Tim will also quickly point out that he is a lifelong student of the natural world, a pursuit that fills him with both inspiration and humility.

Working in the world of naturalistic design, where the goal is to leave the impression that you're in the presence of a body of water created by nature, is remarkably difficult. After all, the way the forces of nature work over centuries and millennia is infinitely complex and seemingly random. Yet, there are recognizable patterns and obvious evidence of causes and effects. In essence, mimicking nature is an exercise in learning to tell the narratives found in the sciences of geology, hydrology and biology, to tell the story of time.

I think when you look at the images of Tim's work and read his descriptions of the ideas behind his water gardens you'll agree this is the creation of a true artist who has invested the time and effort needed to achieve works of complex beauty.

There's another big point here that I believe is worth serious consideration. That being the relationship between water gardens and other bodies of water, including swimming pools, spas and fountains, which are likely much more familiar to readers of this magazine. Specifically, some may ask, why should pool and spa professionals think at all about ponds and streams? After all, pools and spas are clearly man-made and need not be the product of studying the natural world, so why care at all about water gardening?

For many years, through my writing and editing for this industry, I've worked to overcome that disconnect for what I believe are very important reasons. First of all, ponds and streams share an obvious common element with pools – water – and therefore the work of pool and spa professionals and those from the water gardening industry share many practical challenges.

That list includes building structures that reliably contain water, moving water through systems of plumbing, pumps, skimmers, drains and filters and creating systems that maintain safe and attractive water quality. That's all obvious, but in many ways means that to a large extent the technical challenges are very similar even though the bodies of water themselves seem very different.

The two professions are also in the business of creating works of aquatic art and craft that provide positive experiences for clients, both residential and commercial. Whether it's a pond or stream, or a pool or a fountain, the water is almost always going to be a key element in the landscape, a place where people are drawn to the water's edge for relaxation, rejuvenation, reflection and interaction with other people. Ponds, just like pools, provide venues for experience with family, friends and in solitude.

In terms of the experiential nature of the water, when you talk to people in both industries and listen to what they're trying to achieve for clients, the language is exactly the same. They talk about the use of reflection, water-in-transit, edge treatments, human interface, the sounds of moving water and the blending of water with soft and hardscape elements.

There's also the fact that many swimming pools are designed to look natural, the way ponds are, and for those creating what some call lagoon, garden or natural pools, the challenge of visually recreating nature is exactly the same as with pond and stream craft. There are also pools these days that use completely natural methods of chemical treatment and filtration, or what is known as the "wetlands effect," to treat water, a method that has been used in ponds and streams for as long as humans have been building them.

By the same token, these days there are many ponds that are built with swimming in mind, which means that those bodies of water must account for things like bather entry and egress and safe hydraulic and chemical conditions. Some have grottos, slides, diving wells and beach entries.

Perhaps the most important commonality is that at their finest, both ponds and pools can be rightfully called art forms. They use water as a design element, along with rock, plants and manmade hardscape to create works of architectural art, structures that are venues for human activity. To reach that level, artisans working in water must understand the elements of design. They must master color, texture, motion, reflection, layering of views, proportion, scale and countless other creative elements.

Here's another way to look at this equation. Frank Lloyd Wright arguably stands as the greatest architect in American history. No one disputes he was one of the seminal figures in contemporary architecture and design. What surprises some people is that one of his primary influences was Japanese gardening and design. On the face of it the daring geometric forms of Wright's work has little to do with the bucolic works of the great, centuries-old gardens of Kyoto, where the beauty of natural forms is captured and represented in literal and allegorical forms.

Yet, when you delve into the essence and detail of Wright's work, the influence of the natural world is present throughout, evident in the ways his Prairie homes used horizontal lines to harmonize with the landscape of the American heartland, or how Fallingwater seamlessly compliments the forest and river.

Wright is only one legendary example of designers who blended natural and man-made forms. Others such as Thomas Church, Lawrence Halprin, Capability Brown, Roberto Burle Marx, Luis Barragon, Ricardo Legoretta and many others, all in different ways, explored the marriage between works of nature and humankind.

The point in invoking such a list of steller designers is that even if you don't set out to mimic nature as my friend Tim does, understanding natural forms, how they're created over time and how they interface with the work of human hands, is all part of becoming an educated designer. You don't have to be famous like the designers listed above, but to unlock our full potential, we all must be forthright in our efforts and recognize that the world is full of vast resources of education and inspiration.

This is all part of why under the banner of AQUA Architecture I believe there is a place for the works of those who regard nature as their greatest teacher.

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

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