The oval-about

Updated: Jan 2, 2020

Confession time. I just spent my day doing geometry, and really enjoyed it. I was playing about with shapes on the landscape plans, and I came up with a new thing. I give you the oval-about. It’s a roundabout, but oval.

A while back I blogged about garden design, and shared a first attempt to bring some order to the reduced garden footprint since the Moreton land was parcelled up. The thing I toiled with most was the entrance. The main problem is that the original approach to the house would have been from the south, past a gatehouse, along a formal drive through the old formal garden and, as the view opened out, the first sight of the house would have been the grand southern facade, in all its symmetrical Georgian splendour. The effect would have been something like this. Obviously it is always sunny in Devon.


But we no longer have an entrance on that side, and instead approach from the exact opposite angle, so that the first view is this:


Not quite the same.

There are all kinds of ways you might suggest to smarten up the entrance, but actually very little on this side of the house is under our control. This roadway is shared, the gate isn’t ours, we don’t have a say in what kind of fence is down each side of the road (pretty much every type of boundary material is used somewhere along the drive). There’ll be a housing estate to the left, and in front and to the right we don’t know what’s coming. There are no formal plans yet. So we’ve been scratching our heads about how to improve the approach and create a boundary that will work whatever the neighbours eventually do.

The shape is not an easy one to work with, and the lack of any symmetry is a big part of the problem. Georgian design is all about symmetry and proportion, and the back of the house and the boundary shape is anything but symmetrical or proportioned. Lopsided and wonky more like.

Entrance original plan view

The red line is the boundary and the field gate is just off the top of the picture across the grey shaded access road, so you approach from the top.

The garden design course I did was all about trying to set the features of the garden into a framework or grid, imposing a little subconscious order (or even rigid formality in front of a Georgian building). In its simplest form, for me the tutor suggested a grid of squares reflecting the symmetry of the house. Its easy enough to tweak the formal bit of lawn into a square with the same footprint of the house, and straighten the line between tarmac and grass. But when the tutor looked at the entrance, he suggested reworking things so that the road lying horizontally on my plan between the northern (top) wing and the boundary was continued to the right (east) side with some kind of entrance gate set into the boundary.

I was convinced this was a good idea, and have stared at the plans for hours, playing with tracing paper and scale rulers, trying to impose grid squares, lines and symmetry onto this roadway. But my practical engineer husband was equally unconvinced. Not only did he point out how expensive it would be to reroute the entrance road (having to impose a level to the quite steep drop off between the curved tarmac road onto the grass being just one issue, not to mention risk of losing some of the large trees which nicely screen our view from the impending housing estate). He also thought very practically about traffic flow, with currently a way in and out that don’t risk collisions, space to park, and a bit of a ‘wow’ when you follow the curve and the view opens out to reveal the east facade. The current set-up where, despite arriving from the north, we still have a sense of separate guest and trades entrances, appealed more than imposed symmetry.

Our debates about aesthetics vs utility were quite extensive. And passionate. And I really did agree with his points about utility, especially the idea of the big reveal or ‘wow’ as you round the corner. But I was equally passionate that it must look better. We were ‘discussing’ the apostrophe-shaped hedge-lined grass area, home to the three large trees, in a quite animated way, while staring at a large printout of the plan on the wall in our home office, and I believe I was crossly scribbling circles around it with a 4B pencil to emphasize exactly how much I disliked this evil, irregular, asymmetrical shape when, bingo, it was an oval. And it looked right. And we both went, yeah, that could work. And stopped for tea.

I sketched it out roughly and included gates and railings, which can be put into the plan with some pleasing symmetry. Here’s the first mock-up. It’s not completely clear from this sketch, but the gates are meant to be at 90 degrees to one another with the curve of the nose of the oval between. No trees would suffer in the making of, etc etc.

entrance sketch-1

I confess I was a little unsure how exactly to size up and mark out the oval on the ground, and slightly concerned that if I actually did it properly geometrically, the shape that worked so beautifully as a scribbled concept might end up proving just not quite right – too close to the house to drive around, or not quite fitting around the trees, or a little off-centre to make it fit, so that the symmetry wouldn’t quite work out. So I put off the detailed large scale plan. Until yesterday.

If the thought of maths triggers mild panic, or you wish you never heard of trigonometry, Pythagoras and his triangles, let me try to persuade you (without any equations, I promise) that geometry really can be a thing of beauty, and actually quite useful (*nerd alert*).

First I needed to read up about ovals and ellipses and how to define them. My drawing package on the computer always draws an ellipse, which can be only one shape for any given height and width. If you took a circle viewed full face on then tilted it so that either the top or bottom is tipped away from you, to your eye it becomes an ellipse. An oval, apparently, is a more vague term, which can be more egg-shaped or more athletics track-shaped, with any sort of curve joining the widest and longest points. I thought to make the shape fit in our space, I’d need to end up using a bit of a dodgy oval, but if I wanted to draw on my computer, the default would be an ellipse, and it would be easier to explain to a builder on the ground if it had a geometrically defined form.

I knew a bit about proportions and the golden ratio, at least applied to rectangles, so I looked up what a golden ratio would look like for an ellipse. I promised no equations, so google it if you want to know more. It’s also known as the divine proportion, and happens to be about 1.618 (in other words a golden rectangle has one side that is 1.618 times as long as the other). Its found in shapes we find aesthetically pleasing but don’t know why, and often defines proportions in living things that are viewed as pleasing or attractive. If you lean your elbow on the desk and then bend your wrist to 90 degrees, your forearm and hand define a golden rectangle, give or take.

Unfortunately an ellipse where the length is 1.618 times the width is rather skinny for my entrance plan. I tried the proportions of my garden course house grid, 27 metres split into thirds, so I tried 18 metres wide. Still too skinny. What looked better was somewhere around 27 by 20 or 21. But that was just a fraction too big and too close to the house if it started at the boundary. One thing that came up on my google search was the famous Oval Office in the White House. That wasn’t a skinny ellipse, but the page said it was a golden ratio oval, so I kept reading. Turns out it is an ellipse drawn inside 2 golden ratio rectangles, so this time if the length is 2 units, the width is 1.618. So if I scaled that to my 27 metres long oval, width would be 21.84 metres (not far from my one that looked about right).

Exactly 27 metres to match the house is a tad too big, but 26 metres fits perfectly. It has to sit at exactly 45 degrees to the house to align the gates with the angle of the wall and still make everything parallel and perpendicular in the appropriate places, and the curve symmetrical. And when that’s all lined up, it gives a suprisingly pleasing fit, with all the gaps and gates being about 5 metres, and the curve of the road fitting almost perfectly. It just needs the edge neatening a bit. We’ll have to take out the hedge that’s there in the apostophe now, and dig out a bit of tarmac to replace with grass – we’re thinking about that mesh with grass growing through that you can park on. Surround the oval with granite bricks set into the ground flush with the tarmac that you can drive over and you have a parking area that also functions as a round-about. Except it’s oval. I’ll probably reinstate some hedge behind the railings and around the curve to keep the effect of turning the corner before you see the main view of the house, and to hide any cars/dustbins. We’ll need planning permission to build a wall and railings, so will chat with our neighbours and keep you dear blog-followers posted. Here’s the plan as it currently stands. After considering so many radical changes, a tiny tweak and yet I think it makes for a huge improvement. As they say in some parts of Asia, same same but different.


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