Pergola Definition – What Exactly is a Pergola?

Is it a pergola, gazebo or pagoda? Many people are confused about both the meaning and pronunciation of these three terms. Once the key features are explained, however, they become much easier to recognise.

When I’m designing a garden for clients, they are often unsure how to describe what it is they would like – “You know. One of those wooden things you grow plants up.”

Or others might ask about the structure that is being built – “Are you building one of those pagoda things, or is it a gazebo – oh, I don’t know – but you know what I mean”

I explain that it is going to be a pergola – “So that’s how you say it! What’s the difference then?”

This happens so often, and yet people are always so interested in these garden structures that they will overcome their embarrassment, with the pronunciation, in order to find out more.

Let’s begin with a pergola. The emphasis is on the ‘p’ –

per – go – la

A pergola has supporting, vertical posts with rafters across the top. These are usually open and flat, running at regular intervals horizontally across the structure, and supported by side rafters. Their sides being square or rectangular in shape, they have straight lines as the basis of their structure.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule: for instance; a corner pergola, where the rafters radiate out from a central point; some wrought-iron pergolas that have curved rafters, due to the fact that wrought-iron can be moulded into more intricate designs; and circular pergolas that, even though they have curved side rafters, still have flat, horizontal rafters radiating out from the centre. Even so, it is obvious that they are all pergolas because they have horizontal rafters running at regular intervals.

Now, let’s look at the pagoda, with the emphasis on the ‘g’ –

pa – go – da

A pagoda is something quite different. Think oriental. Think turrets – like an upside down curved V.

It will often have two or more turrets, and tends to be a much larger structure: in fact, it is usually referred to as a building, and wouldn’t normally be found in your average garden. Pagodas were originally built as religious shrines or memorials in the far east.

That being said, the design influences of the pagoda are increasingly seen in other structures we see in our gardens today, especially in the turreted roofs of gazebos, and in turreted pergola rafters. The reason for this is to introduce an ‘essence’ of the far east into our garden design, making it a haven of calm and relaxation.

And finally, the gazebo, with the emphasis on the ‘z’ –

ga – ze – bo

The typical gazebo has a covered roof, with open sides and supporting pillars, or columns. It can be any shape: round, square, rectangular or multi-sided. The covered roof may be domed or turreted (think of a marquee without any sides). The quickly erected, fabric gazebos have become increasingly popular for dining ‘al fresco’.

Some round gazebos, especially those suitable for supporting climbing plants, may have an open roof. The distinction, here, between a round pergola and a round gazebo, would be that the round pergola would have flat rafters and the gazebo would have a domed or turreted open roof.

These three types of structure are closely related but they do have there own distinctive features. A pergola should become more easily recognisable, now that you know what you are looking for!

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