when it comes to the art and architecture of a landscape, parks, plazas, and even pastures may come to mind. yet there is a discipline dedicated to an entirely different kind of landscape — one that lives in subaquatic spaces — and it’s called aquascaping. this art of creating an underwater garden within the confines of an aquarium combines architecture, sculpture, painting, landscape management and careful focus on the flora and fauna that live inside. ranging from minimal driftwood arrangements to elaborate jungle environments, the resulting compositions are as dynamic as they are distinct, and can form an artful expression in any interior environment. aquascape designs can be stylized according to a range of aesthetic influences, including the garden-like ‘dutch style’ and the japanese-inspired ‘nature style’ — but before we dive into types and techniques, we look back at aquascaping history.
a nature-style aquascape, suggesting mountains
image by peter kirwan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via wikimedia commons
the history of aquascaping begins with the innovation of the aquarium in nineteenth century victorian england. in 1836, english doctor nathaniel bagshaw ward proposed to use his invention of the ‘wardian case’ — an early example of a terrarium — to house tropical animals, which he did by 1841 and filled with aquatic plants and toy fish. a few years later, british marine zoologist anne thynne built the first stable and sustained marine aquarium, and maintained a collection of corals and sponges in it for more than three years. on its heels, english chemist robert warington experimented with the notion of filling a 13-gallon container with goldfish, eelgrass, and snails. warington is credited for fully developing the principle of the aquarium, noting that plants added to water in a container would give off enough oxygen to support animals, so long as their numbers do not grow too large. he published his findings in 1850 in the chemical society’s journal.
a jungle-style aquascape with anubias, ferns, bolbitis crypt plants and more
image by george farmer, CC BY-SA 4.0, via wikimedia commons
the keeping of fish soon became a popular hobby, particularly after ornate aquariums in cast-iron frames were featured at the great exhibition of 1851 — the international showcase at the crystal palace in london. an aquarium ‘craze’ was soon in full effect, with english naturalist philip henry gosse’s creation of the first public aquarium in the london zoo. it was gosse who coined the term ‘aquarium’ in his 1854 book, the aquariums: an unveiling of the wonders of the deep water. by the late 1800s, popular interest in aquariums had reached germany and the united states, and became more widely used in houses after world war I, when electricity allowed for the introduction of artificial lighting, aeration, filtration, and water heating.
aquascaping by dave chow via finest filters
as the popularization of aquariums increased, so too did creativity in their design begin to develop. the craft of aquascaping, and the arrangement of aquatic plants to create an artful underwater landscape, is thought to have been introduced in the 1930s in the netherlands with the introduction of dutch-style aquascaping techniques. the style was intended to mimic a heavily planted english garden — underwater, following principles of harmony, depth, and simplicity. the dutch-style setup revolves primarily around plants with diverse leaf colors, sizes, and textures, while rocks, driftwood and other ornamentation absent from the scene.
aquascape evoking an overgrown cave and decaying trees
image by duc viet bui, CC BY-SA 4.0, via wikimedia commons
in contrast to the dutch-style, japanese photographer, designer, and aquarist takashi amano introduced a new style of underwater landscaping in the 1990s. amano authored a three-book series, nature aquarium world, on aquascaping and freshwater aquarium plants and fish. rather than evoking a colorful garden, his compositions drew from japanese gardening techniques, and avoid artificial ornamentation in an effort to highlight the beauty of the natural landscape. typically organized around a single focal point, an asymmetrical arrangement of relatively few species of plants is combined with carefully selected stones or driftwood. the style is largely inspired by the japanese aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi — an appreciation of ‘imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete’ beauty.
this lake malawi biotope with cichlids is an exhibit of artis, a zoo in amsterdam — note the absence of green plants
image by svdmolen, CC BY-SA 3.0, via wikimedia commons
since then, a huge range of interpretations, styles and techniques have developed across the aquascaping community. the iwagumi style derives from japanese rock formations, and refers to layouts that highlight the use of large stones and minimal geometries. meanwhile, a jungle-style aquascape is thought to incorporate both dutch and japanese features, with plants left to assume an overgrown, untrimmed aesthetic. serious aquascapers can enter competitions that are judged on composition, balance, and use of space, but also the biological well-being of the aquarium’s inhabitants. hobbyists and professionals alike can also draw inspiration of countless videos on youtube that share aquascaping tutorials and techniques.
discover aquascaping art and design in the photos and videos below…