The great American architect Louis Kahn famously had a discussion with a brick, asking it what it wanted. Evidently a brick wants to be surrounded by other identical bricks all perfectly aligned so that they can all equally bear the same load. If they have to span any opening, they will naturally want to display their strength and forbearance by forming an arch.

However a stone is not something molded by humans into a convenient form. The formation and development of a stone is beyond human experience. Presumably nearly all predate our species. They have a distinctive character formed in extreme conditions of great heat or enormous compression. Possibly great tearing forces will leave their mark as will prolonged assault by water, wind, temperature changes, other rocks or even plants and animals. A character formed in what we might consider adverse circumstances, but to a stone entirely natural, of course.

So you might think that any self-respecting stone would want to display its essential nature – what makes it distinctive – so that we could gain a sense of all those adventures that it went through to make it what it is today. It would want to make its shape, texture, blemishes, colours and everything else obvious to the world, or its new audience, when it is hauled out of its most recent natural position into a garden: where it was last lodged or left on a surface or revealed after soil around was washed away.

And just as it was in its previous position within a forest, on a hillside or beside an ocean, either fully or partly exposed to the wind and the other elements, it would want to be in a relationship with other stones, the soil, water and plants. It is these relationships that have defined it in the past and will do so in the future, including long after the band of humans who moved the stone are long gone.

A stone is a unique thing with complex relationships beyond any easy human understanding, but any garden designer must attempt to grasp the essence of these. Ancient Japanese gardening manuals provide a guide, advising a dynamic discussion with the stones, with the first step being to choose the principal stone for the space, and its placement. The rest unfolds as other stones are placed at the request of the principal stone (Sakuteiki IX). This discussion makes the composition something beyond simple human creation, something both intuitive and very specific, something that requires a deep rapport with the stones and something that cannot be imagined before the precise nature of all the stones are known.

At least that might be the theory. In reality like most aspects of human endeavour, rules, principles, procedures, conventions and so forth develop to explain, assist, and perhaps ultimately codify or solidify. Some conceive of the seemingly random arrangement of stones in their natural setting in terms of an endless collection of triangles – triads; some in a horizontal plane and other as vertical elements, with the religious overtone of a central Buddha flanked by a supporter on each side to back this up. Triangles are an organising principle to assist with analysis and design. Triangles provide both a sense of stability (tripod, roof-forms) and movement (arrow, incline) when each is necessary.

In the famous garden at Ryoan-ji in Kyoto, the stones are composed with great subtly, if only because that is all there is apart from some discrete moss milling around their bases. The stones are starkly revealed, arranged in groups emerging out of a vast sea, cloud or river of gravel, to no simple scheme. The designer plays with the stability, tension and sense of direction between fifteen otherwise unremarkable stones. The particular shapes of each one and their careful placement are used to gently hint at a direction perhaps, or simply support the directing role that the central player of any group may have. This is a contained, framed space, with the initial (and most dominant) group on left leading the eye rightwards and the right-side groups either responding in kind or at least providing a sense of braking or holding the rightward flow. There is no uniform spacing nor easy numerical balancing so any movement by the viewer changes the sense of relationships and perhaps the nature of the tensions. The perceived spacing reduces as the viewer moves rightwards along the temple timber floors (if visitor number allow) heightening the sense of counter-thrust from more diminutive stones at this right-side end. Under different light and weather, the relationships will shift. As complex sun and moon shadows move through a day, the relationships will change in some surprising ways. Less distinct forms will emerge in moisture-laden air or new lines and edges form under snow.

Compared to Louie Kahn’s rather easy task – a stilted simple conversation with a brick – the task of composing a garden of stones is challenging. The strength of any such garden will depend on a long detailed and dynamic exchange between the humans and the stones, starting way before the garden space is considered, deep in a forest perhaps where the stones must be extracted so that their orientation remains unchanged in their next resting place. With this rather strict obligation, stones must be chosen, shifted and positioned with a developing sense of balance of stability, required tensions and repose, and a sense of the nature of the final space – its size and orientation, and the likely the movement of the humans, whose pleasure is presumably the final purpose of all this activity. The nature of the final arrangement will come down to how well your discussion with the stones goes: how close you might be to their spirit, that is understand their essential nature and the way that this can work with those of others. The provided principles and rules may be a guide but will only take you so far since each stone, collection of stones and place is different, and will ultimately require a unique response.