Visual tricks that create magic outside

Give yourself pretty views, and privacy, with trompe l'oeil murals, water features, green walls and other decorative screens

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 May, 2013, 5:01am

It may no longer be true that a camera does not lie. But who can be averse to a little digital enhancement if no children or animals are harmed in the process?

The same can apply to our homes. Scenic views are scarce in local housing, but why look out onto an ugly blank wall of the neighbouring building - or worse, have neighbours peering at you - when a more scenic view can be easily achieved?

There are various ways to create a view where none exists, and introduce privacy as well. An interesting method - widely used in Europe but less so in Hong Kong - is to paint a trompe l'oeil.

Landscape artist Claire Lau explains that a trompe l'oeil, which means "deceive the eye" in French, creates optical illusions through lifelike three-dimensional rendering and lighting.

"As long as elements of light, colour and perspective are used correctly, you can make anything look 'real' on a flat wall," she said.

"By using a trompe l'oeil, you can take any blank wall in an outdoor area and transform it into anything you want. You can give a railroad barrier an ocean view, blend a skyscraper into mountains in the background, or simply add more visual greenery to a concrete forest."

Lau says that when choosing a visual illusion, it is important to consider the existing physical features of a space and what would go well with it.

"However, to me, the magic of trompe l'oeil lies in making the impossible possible," Lau said.

"As an artist, I would be more inclined to create something fun and unexpected. For example, I painted a series of murals on semi-open-air staircases at Yew Chung International School that included a tropical sea world, tree roots growing out of a stone wall, and a mingle of colourful pipes that echo the already existing physical features of the space."

For landscape architect Mark Ng, a home's exterior can be more than just a pretty space. He recommends the environmentally friendly act of cultivating a green wall.

Fast-growing creepers on a wire trellis will conceal the ugly bits in no time. And exposure to the sun for six months to a year should provide a height coverage of 10 to 15 metres, at little cost.

However, ready-made versions are also available.

Ng, a technical director of ACLA, a landscape-architecture and urban-design firm, used the trellis system for the green wall at Hotel Icon in Tsim Sha Tsui.

"There are many methods ranging from simple climbing and sucking plants clinging their way up the building wall. All you require is a planter at the base of the building façade," Ng said.

More costly - but instant - are proprietary green wall systems that may cost up to HK$13,000 per square metre. They do not need soil and they are becoming thinner and lighter.

One such example from Japan, Greentins Vertical Green System, even recycles its own water. Ng said: "This is soil-less and has a recirculating irrigation system built in. The water trickles down from the top and it can be used indoors as well.

"However, special lighting must be provided due to inadequate natural sunlight. You can create images of anything you want using this system - even the Mona Lisa."

But unlike the evergreen creepers on the trellis, this system is not fully sustainable - it needs to be replanted after three to five years.

Another option is to use wood as a decorative screening.

Einwood, a Japanese product, is a wood-plastic composite made from sustainable softwood waste and recycled polymer resins. It has many uses in outdoor landscapes. Indeed, it becomes a very effective visual screen when set on a frame as vertical slats. "You don't need to paint it, pests don't get into it, and it lasts for 50 years," Ng said.

Architecture and interior design firm Original Vision uses various techniques to block out the neighbours and hide ugly bits in its Hong Kong projects.

Screening treatments add privacy and make the space more personal, says managing director Adrian McCarroll, who recommends using a water feature that creates a visual focus and a sound distraction.

That is particularly effective in locations where the goal is to block out traffic noise or a neighbour's barking dog.

It is amazing how trickling water creates a sound barrier, McCarroll adds.

The cheapest and most space-saving idea is simply to create a water wall.

For instance, at a Clear Water Bay home with a busy road behind it, slate tiles were broken up and stacked to create a "second wall" along the property's boundary. With a pipe at the top and a recirculating tank at the bottom, the water constantly trickles, creating a visual focus. A layer of screen planting was added for further effect, and the whole feature is lit up at night.

McCarroll also favours planting. Fast-growing, low-maintenance bamboo makes an effective green screen, but it is best kept in pots as it tends to take over whole areas.

If planting in the ground is possible, McCarroll recommends creating a varied hedge effect using smaller palm variations such as the umbrella tree, Chinese fan palm and bamboo palm.

Plants can be masters of disguise, McCarroll says. Young plants such as pretty, tropical bougainvilleas can be trained to grow on just about any structure. Simply build a wire cage around anything in need of concealment - air conditioning units for example - and they will "vanish" within months, he says.

Some situations are particularly challenging. At a South Island village house, ugly concrete foundations from the house next door marred the garden vista of an Original Vision client.

To tackle the problem, the firm designed a screening wall made of solid timber, an interesting contrast to an existing rock wall. That turned the formerly unsightly space into a beautiful and private outdoor living area.

Whatever way one wishes to conjure up a view, McCarroll says the lighting is critical.

"It may not add to the screening effect, but it enhances enjoyment of the outdoor space," he said. "When you dim the house and light up the outdoors, the visual effect is compelling. It makes a house feel so much bigger and at one with the outdoor space."