October 11, 2020 6 min read

I was nineteen when I first visited Villa Rotunda, one of the sixteenth-century architect Palladio's most famous houses, in the environs of Vienna. The day was gray and uninviting and, it not being the tourist season, everything was closed. To gain entry my brother and I resorted to using white envelopes containing whatever tips we could afford. The tactic finally succeeded and the gates were opened. In front of us stretched a straight path that led up a steep hill with only a small glimpse of the villa's entrance at the summit to lure us on. Starring at the bottom, we felt the exhilaration of anticipation as we climbed; stone walls on right and left were like horse blinders, screening out any distractions. At the top of the ascent we were rewarded by the sight of the whole, dazzlingly beautiful villa and its glorious 360-degree view.

Not far from the Villa Rotunda is the Villa Barbaro, which is a very different, but equally unforgettable, use of axis. The house, which was also designed by Palladio, is made up of a series of rooms with plaster walls but little or no woodwork. The flat walls are decorated with wonderful theatrical trompe l'oeil frescoes by the sixteenth-century master Veronese. Visitors are enticed through the rooms until they come to the enchanting, tongue-in-cheek reward -- the illusion of a young man, the owner of the house, stepping out of a doorway to greet them.

One of the earliest, and to my mind one of the finest, Palladian houses to be build in the English-speaking world is Chiswick House, near London, with architecture by Lord Burlington, and interiors by William Kent. This eighteenth-century jewel is a masterpiece of axis planning. As you walk through the house, you move from darkness to light, from narrow enclosure to expansive space. The idea of creating a visual journey that draws you -- or your eye -- along, prickling curiosity, manipulating emotions, and increasing anticipation until the reward is reached has been seminal in my work; and my designs are very involved with enfilade, with creating a visual corridor. I often recall the Arab proverb "Narrow is the passage to heaven" when I advise people who are decorating their own homes to keep in mind that the end of a visual journey, even if the journey is only a corridor, should have a completion, a reward. If it is not closed doors, then perhaps it could be a barometer, or a vase of beautifully arranged flowers.

My own house in Connecticut is based on a complex use of enfilade. The house can be thought of as a long train that has come to rest in the middle of a garden. In the middle of the train is an octagonal entrance hall with a weathered relic of an Italian stone wellhead as its centerpiece, breaking up the long axis that stretches from one end of the house to the other. This room also sits at the crossing of another axis, allowing anyone standing here to see in all four cardinal directions -- an architectural idea emphasized by Palladio. All four vistas end in glass, with views of the garden.

Axis and enfilade play an important role in the so-called "Venetian" apartment I created for clients in New York City. It illustrated my belief that we experience architecture sequentially. I devised an inner sanctum, a sequence of rooms -- unified by a light pallet -- that open up into another. First is the entrance foyer; here, to evoke the appearance of an outdoor space, the walls are finished in crude scratch-coat plaster and the floor is made of homed volcanic stone, which has been left unfilled. This room is where visitors leave the reality of New York City behind and pause before moving through an archway into the first reception room, which is a more refined, less textural space -- an experience not unlike passing through the barnacled exterior of a shell into the smooth central interior.

The foyer leads into the first reception room, from where the view to the right, set off by twin columns, looks through the drawing room toward the dinning room where, on the end wall, is the climax of the enfilade -- a glimpse of an exquisite watercolor mural.

To understand this apartment is to be aware of two levels of interpretation. The space may be viewed as a romantic Venetian pastiche, but also as a minimalist environment. Together these parallel realities gives the apartment a feeling of nostalgia for the past as well as its sense of future.

A house I designed in Arizona has two main axes that cross each other, and a third which is parallel to the first. One axis runs through four rooms, from the fireplace to the library at one end to the dining room, where the finale is the light that pours through a double-domed oculus in the roof on to the table. The other leads from a two-story-high window, which frames the spectacular view of a mountain peak, to a channel of water that ultimately pours into a lap pool which itself forms the major part of the third axis.

Axis organization is a fundamental concept on which to build a design, and a relatively simple, way to arrange visual ideas. It directs attention to a sequence of objects and moves the eye through space. Just as the rhythms of music move through time, design rhythms move through space along the path you have predetermined. When used effectively, axis function as the aesthetic Pied Piper, and never more so in a garden.

Some of the greatest twentieth-century gardens illustrate this point. Among the most famous are two in England -- Hidecote Manor, in Gloucestershire, designed by Major Lawrence Johnston, and Sissinghurst, designed by Harold Nicolson and his wife Vita Sackville-West. Johnston was an American who moved to England because the climate was so much more conductive to gardening. He created the garden at Hidecote as a series of exterior rooms, to be experienced one after the other, just like walking through a great house, following major axes. The walls are tall hedges -- of clipped yew, of pleached hornbeam an stilts, or of a tapestry of beeches; and the doors are narrow gaps giving only partial views of the next garden beyond. The long formal vistas entice the visitor to keep venturing onward with the promise of more treats to come.

My garden at Robin Hill is actually a series of gardens: the Rotunda Garden, the Gray Garden, the Alleé, the Appian Way, and the Azalea Field. Rather than as "garden rooms," I think of these gardens as acts in an opera or play.

I planned my garden so that it would be experienced sequentially, drawing you from small spaces to larger ones and form shade into full sun. I achieved the same effect indoors by painting a little entrance hall a dark color, and the two-story drawing room beyond it a pale hue. In house and garden, as you move from dark to light, and from small to large, your senses are manipulated by the changes in color and space.

Just as classicism taught me that an axis in a house should have a visual reward at each end, so I believe that no garden vista should be without a focal point or conclusion. At Robin Hill, the largest outdoor space, the Alleé, was created by replanting an eighteenth-century cow path. Rhododendrons, birches, mountain laurels (Kalmia latifolia),and Japanese dogwoods (Cornus kousa) were brought in and underplanted with ferns and other shade-loving plants. The avenue finishes with a small garden -- another act of the play. The focal point here is a huge seventeenth-century Tuscan olive jar made of terra-cotta. Behind the jar, to terminate the view, I planted three cone-shaped yew trees, clipped to simulate cypress. The trees are positioned in graduated scale to create the illusion that the Alleé is longer than it is in reality.

When planning a garden, I often think of it as a hand, moving from the house in the palm to the fingers that reach out to the edges of the property. At the end of the fingers, the appropriate terminations could be a beautiful tree or shrub against a wall or hedge, an urn or a pedestal, or planting so luxurious that you might believe that you were entering a forest. In addition to the jar, other focal points at the end of the fingers in my garden include a sixteenth-century English horse-trough that ends the Appian Way, and a weathered millstone that terminated the orchard.

Most gardens also need secondary axes, running either at the right angled to, or diagonally across, the main vistas, in order to create necessary links. At Robin Hill some of the secondary axes are walkable; others are purely visual.