Delving into the designer’s bag of magic tricks

Imagine having to fit the entire contents and experience of a large packet of Smarties into one of those teeny tiny packets. The full volume of sweets; the full adventure that is packed into the deluxe box; the delicious anticipation that starts with the explosion of colour as they slide into view (giving the term ‘eye-candy’ its literal meaning); the rich chocolate infused aroma as each colour bursting morsal is lifted; and its consequent anticipation of flavour, which is never disappointed as we bite through the candy coating of each mouth-watering bauble… 

Well, logistically, it is simply impossible to fit the same expansive experience into so tiny a package without feeling somewhat short-changed. It takes a bit of magic to make it happen. We all know that magicians are not truly magic, but by trick and or illusion they make us believe more than would seem possible. And so the landscape designer must do the same in tiny spaces: they must create space where there is none; they must provide views where there is little depth of field; they must give one somewhere to go when it seems that there is nowhere to go; and they must create opportunities for activity and a range of experiences where there is barely room to swing the proverbial cat. This little site (our “tiny box”), tickling the toes of Table Mountain, offered the opportunity to pull a rabbit out of the hat – so to speak.  Rising very steeply almost immediately from the house foundations, this site was unattractive, uninviting and not particularly safe. It needed something special to unlock its potential.

BEFOREIt was almost impossible to photograph this site from ground level due to the limited space at the base of the first retaining blocks, set just over a metre from the house. Note the uneven slope directly above the retaining blocks. The notion of slipping off and toppling over the wall created a zone that felt extremely hazardous to the user. 
BEFORE The original garden showing the central garden area to upper gate and make-shift, uneven steps. This high retaining block wall was the first impression of the garden. 
On the plus side, the tiny site was offset by the fact that it provided direct access onto the Table Mountain Nature Reserve. If only we could all boast the TMNR conservancy as our own backyard we would indeed be fortunate. The neighbour also, conveniently for us, had two lovely established Chinese elm trees that cast dappled shade into the garden in the afternoon. This borrowed shade would be appreciated in the summer.   The tricky bit was accommodating all the ‘sweet stuff’ of a full garden experience that needed to fit into this limited package. This included easy access to the gate at the top of the site, a shower for those post hiking cool-offs, room to entertain in the garden with al fresco dining, and an option to braai. All of this would be a lot easier with an endless budget, but one seldom has the freedom to design with an open cheque book, and this site was no exception. So, a little magic was needed to pull it all together.

After waving our design wands around a bit, these were the rabbits that we pulled from our bag of magic tricks:

Key was changing the way we saw the site from ‘potential garden’ to ‘elaborate staircase’.  This simplified matters in that staircases are steps and landings – period. Gardens, on the other hand, need open spaces for lingering or entertainment, paths for movement and adventure, finding the lines of sight to establish views or screen out bad ones, sometimes enclosure for a sense of security, and so on. You see, there is a much longer set of requirements needed in creating a garden compared with creating a staircase; so refining the requirements made it strangely easier to accommodate them all. Spot the subtle psychological manoeuvre at work here… By turning the first flight of steps to climb up the side of the very necessary 1.5m high engineered wall, set only a very short distance away from the door thresholds, we were able to use them to break the expanse of an otherwise blank facing wall, creating, by design, an invitation to explore.  Blank walls stop the flow of energy, but this way we encourage and invite it to follow the path we set out. It not only breaks the vertical plane in an engaging way, but also reduces the impact of looming height. The dimensions remain unchanged, but there is an illusion of space that’s not really there.  The ‘sleight’ is all in the arrangement of the pieces.
A small water feature at the base of these steps created a view directly outside the sliding glass doors of the dining room. Now, instead of being faced with a blank wall, there is an entire living landscape to visually explore, complete with plants, wildlife (glittering goldfish, iridescent dragonflies and an array of other small creatures), a fountain and the play of light on water.  Fancy sleeves pulling an endless array of colourful scarves is not in our ability, but we can work  wonders with one square metre of ground.   Our landing was more than a landing. By enlarging it, in fact making it the biggest component of our staircase, it expanded to become a multi-purpose space. Not only did it provide a real breather between the first and second flights of the 20-odd steps needed to traverse the site, it allowed us to use the site diagonally to create length, ensuring that the steps were not too steep to the upper gate.  It also housed the shower head, which we located against the 2nd smaller retaining wall connected to plumbing and drainage. The back retaining wall was designed to a critical ‘perch-height’ so that it could double as bench seating when the weather invited a bigger party outdoors.
UNDER CONSTRUCTION – The constructed and engineered walls were built in partnership with the very able Capabuild team. Leaving these as raw brickwork was primarily an economic decision that had positive spin-offs in that it meant minimal long-term maintenance of paintwork disappeared, but they are intrinsically more interesting than a blank plaster and painted wall.   
UNDER CONSTRUCTION – our oversized landing ‘magically’ accommodates a range of activities.
“Follow me” – an invitation to explore.
UNDER CONSTRUCTION – The CDS team skillfully recycled existing retaining blocks and rocks already on site to build the extra steps necessary to complete our staircase, with small retaining walls for pockets of planting. It is easier to get plants established on a flat surface because it allows slower and deeper penetration of surface water.
A few months after installation and … Voila!  Out pops a full garden experience accommodated in a mere 66m². Magic?  

For more of our project features, visit our showcase page here:


Contours Design Studio is giving away a landscape design plan valued at R20 000. Enter the competition at the official competition page.

Lucy Schnell is a Landscape Designer and blogger for Contours Design Studio.
N.D. Landscape Technology SACLAP registered Pr LM
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