Text and photographs are © by Ellen Spector Platt & Ellen Zachos, all rights reserved.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Excuse me, could I please borrow your water tower?

In college I majored in 19th century comparative history and literature of England and France. (Practical, you say? Just wait.) It was then I first heard the phrase "borrowed scenery", a concept vaguely relevant to grand estate gardens as described by George Eliot, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, etc. Turns out the idea of borrowed scenery is originally Japanese, but it's just as significant in a 21st century NYC garden as it was 1000 years ago in Kyoto, or 200 years ago in the English countryside.

People usually think of borrowed scenery as pastoral and sweeping, incorporating a distant mountain, a classic ruin, or the Potomac River (below) into the view from your garden.

In NYC, borrowed scenery takes on a whole new meaning.

See, I have a thing for water towers. When I first moved to NYC (many MANY years ago) I used to go up to the roof of my building at night and lie there, looking at all the water towers. They are a New York City icon, yet most of us take them for granted.

Now that I spend most of my days on rooftops, I have plenty of opportunity to admire the various shapes and sizes of surrounding water towers, and I find they sneak up on you. At first glance you don't see any, then you spot one, then another, until you realize there were 6 or 7 in your field of vision all along. I've found 12 in this one photo, can you? (Click on the image to enlarge.)

It's not just the water towers themselves (gray, aged wood, simple, sturdy, functional, sculptural, tall & slim, squat & fat, adding their own special geometry to the NY skyline) but how they combine with the rooftop gardens that surround them. It's the same quality that fascinates me on The High Line: industrial and urban architecture juxtaposed with living, moving, growing plants.

Of course a rooftop garden in NYC is mighty fine to begin with, but why not follow in the steps of Capability Brown & Tachibana Toshitsuna and borrow a little scenery to make it even better! Just as you might place a shrub or put up a fence to hide an ugly pipe or HVAC unit, so can you position a tree or erect a pergola to direct the gaze toward that wooden bastion of the NYC skyline: the water tower.


Unknown said...

I love water towers too . . . and I love the puzzle!

Frank said...

Nice Post. I like the towers too and used to paint them (on canvas that is!).

Ellen Zachos said...

Sarah, did you find all 12 towers?

NYCG, tomorrow night I'm headed downtown to a rooftop bbq. I'm bringing my camera and hope for water tower opportunities.

Georgia said...

Darn, you beat me to this. I just moved to the Village and have been noting all the water towers. Great photos.

Marie said...

How funny...I was actually just thinking of you as I was looking at my now-lively bees on the terrace, and then found your comment, plus the watertower post! How was the bbq?

I recently designed a garden that had two watertowers, and I was as happy as a parched pig in a mud wallow.

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