Monday, November 5, 2012

Designing a Japanese-Style Garden Part I

It was a visit to San Diego's Japanese Friendship Garden that opened my eyes to the possibility of creating a Japanese-style garden.  Perched on a hillside in Balboa Park, the simple and spiritual space was more of an experience than a landscape. Its subtlety made me realize that I was entering pretty deep waters if I wanted to create something meaningful and not just a pastiche of Japanese elements.

Japanese aesthetics play an important role in western art and design.  Since it opened its doors to Europe and America in the mid-nineteenth century, Japan's influence can be found in everything from western furniture (Chippendale, Arts and Crafts), western cinema (The Magnificent Seven, The Good The Bad, and The Ugly) and western literature (the French craze for Japonisme plays its part in both Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu and the excellent The Hare with Amber Eyes.)

Within gardens throughout the world you find many allusions to Japanese design -- from Kew Gardens impressive pagoda, to Longwood Gardens stunning waterfall tableau that is Japanese in everything but name.  More to the point, San Diego's Japanese Friendship Garden, the Seattle Japanese Garden and Philadelphia's Shofuso Japanese House and Garden strive to recreate actual Japanese gardens in a western setting.

When designed by those with an understanding of Japanese history, religion, climate and landscape, the results are stunning, but in my clumsy hands, the threat of a smiling Buddha sitting amid a clump of bamboo was a real danger.  So, like so many things at Heydonbury End, the journey towards my Japanese garden begins with a bit of research.

An excellent place to start is Marc P Keane's book Japanese Garden Design.  The book strikes a nice balance between history and art, photos and text, and detail and grand themes.  Keane is an Adjunct Professor at the Kyoto University of Art and Design and treats the reader as more of a "pilgrim" rather than a "shopper".  In addition to a really first-rate discussion of the various periods and styles of Japanese gardens, Keane gets to the heart of what makes a garden truly "Japanese" -- and it is not bridges and lanterns.

"Of the three components of design -- principles, techniques, and elements -- it is the elements that are most superficial or, let us say, the most "exposed."  Because of this exposure, the elements -- moss and twisted pines, rocks and white sand, stone lanterns and stepping stones -- are the best known and most often associated with the Japanese garden.  These stereotypical elements are not, in fact, requisite for making a garden in the Japanese way.

When trying to re-create a garden in an alien cultural or physical climate, importation of the elements alone will only succeed in making a garden 'Japanesque,' what might be called Japanese style (wa-fu) whereas, with a clearer understanding of Japanese design principles and techniques, one can create a garden with a truer Japanese spirit (wa-shin.)"

Keane's photo's and diagrams of the various types of gardens -- gardens for taking tea, gardens designed to be viewed from inside, gardens for strolling, gardens for religious purposes -- reveals a universal truth in all design. Form must follow function.

Kyoto is acknowledged as the wellspring of Japanese garden design.  In fact, gardens of the Heian period were created to mimic the topography of the new capital city.  A wealth of information about the gardens of Kyoto can be found on Bowdoin College's Japanese garden site.  The many photos of each garden, taken from different vantage points, reveal the rationale behind each element's use and position.  In addition, the site goes into great detail on the attributes of each element and presents a very helpful bibliography and glossary.

With all this information at hand, I'm starting with a relatively clean slate -- a stone wall and a flight of stairs I built earlier. . .

And a nice view of the pond.

Next step:  Hardscaping and plant selection in the Japanese style.

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