Contemporary Uses for Arches and Pergolas
Today's arches and pergolas are closely linked to earlier constructions, but, other than to provide shade, their function tends to be purely ornamental. Grapevines are still grown over these structures, as are other climbers, also chosen for their fragrance and color. Traditional structures remain desirable in many settings, although the cost and time to build them are major commitments.
Arches as Sight Lines
Although arches maintain their traditional use over an entrance or an opening, their far more important functions in contemporary design have become to frame a view or to form an opening into another part of the garden. Arches are now most often built as freestanding "viewing panels" or "windows" through which to catch glimpses of other areas within the garden. This technique has been used successfully with wooden frame archways, sometimes further enhanced with a trellis and even stained glass panels, offering both clear views and tinted images.
These days the term arbor applies to the construction of a shaded alcove offering a cool retreat. Arbors are usually formed from a pergola construction, with either slatted lumber or trellising on three sides.
Manufacturers of garden structures have been quick to take up the popular trend for nostalgia, so you may find that even contemporary arbors are modeled on old designs: Victorian, for example. Many are grand affairs, sited to command a view over the garden and surrounding area or set as a focal point to attract the eye and form a welcome shaded seat.
On a more modest scale, other arbors are available as post-and-rail construction kits with bolt-on trellis panels, which may be planted up, added to, or adapted to screen functional utility areas, neighboring windows, and even the street.
Shaded Cover Over Terraces
Whether a freestanding construction or a "lean-to" with overhead beams attached to a house wall, the main use of the pergola today is to provide shaded cover over an area for alfresco entertaining. Overhead beams alongside the house — especially when clothed in climbing plants — help keep adjacent rooms cool in summer, protect furnishings from the fading effect of strong sunlight, and form a good visual link between the house and garden.
This association is successful because the open canopy of overhead beams and climbers becomes an effective transition between the solid roof of the house and the foliage and branch structure of the surrounding vegetation.
In many ways, a pergola with overhead beams is more satisfactory than a structure with either a solid canopy or a glass roof. A solid roof can run the risk of providing too much shade and appearing too heavy; it casts no interesting patterns of light and shadow and allows little air circulation. Glass roofs, while letting in more light, may become too hot and cause glare, requiring some form of screening and again casting too much shade. A roof such as this will, of course, protect you from rain, but the noise in a storm may prove too loud for you to remain comfortable, anyway.
Modern pergolas are really no more than a new look at a very old type of structure, designed to be inexpensive and easy to build. The do-it-yourself pergola kits currently available come with prenotched crossbeams and posts, corner braces (often with waterproof glue), and planed posts with a beveled edge, all made from lumber treated against rot.
The use of today's structures has spread to encompass more contemporary functions such as carports: a wooden framework with a roof of slatted wood and climbing plants is far more attractive than utilitarian corrugated plastic roofing. This slatted wooden construction has also been used to good effect in the building of shadehouses, which allow you to grow shade-loving plants in gardens with no natural shade.
Pergolas have truly replaced traditional arbors as shaded walkways, even in small gardens. The traditional Italianate theme of a cloister-like shaded walkway around a central, open courtyard can be very successful today in small city gardens.
Here, a walkway around the garden can have the effect of making the space feel bigger — and that the overhead beams offer some privacy from surrounding tall buildings is a bonus.
Modern pergolas offer a new look at shading sitting areas, too. Indeed, some pergolas offer a far stronger statement than one of pure function and practicality. Overhead beams in minimalist designs or posts in painted steel or wood become arresting focal points; the intricate pattern of light and shade may even be their sole purpose.