By Jim Robinson
My love of nature started with a rock collection I had as a child: My fascination with the simple beauty of those small pieces of stone hit me early in life and never left.
Several years later, my outlook was dramatically expanded when a wealthy uncle of mine paid to have a formal Japanese garden built for his home in Boulder, Colo. Ever since, I’ve had a profound appreciation of archetypal Japanese gardens and the way they celebrate nature through landforms, rocks, plants and water.
By the time I was in high school, I had already decided that my career was going to involve working outdoors, and from that time forward, my prime interest was in bringing the techniques and disciplines of Japanese gardens into the greater American landscape both where I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.
For 30 years now, I’ve worked as a landscape artist in that region – for 15 years in Portland and for the last 15 in Eugene, Ore. Although many of my designs are not what you could describe as “Japanese gardens” per se, everything I do is informed and influenced by those traditions. I bear no grudge of any sort against the beauty of gardens in the Western European tradition, but to my mind, there’s nothing in landscape design that harmonizes more seamlessly with nature than does a true Japanese garden.
One of the fantastic things about this mode of design is that it connects you to centuries of well-documented history and traditions that have led to development of some of the world’s most refined and beautiful spaces. Many are in Japan, of course, but they are also found in the United States and elsewhere.
As is true of many who work in the realm of Japanese gardens, the masters who have gone before me have had a profound influence on what I do.
Without question, my greatest teacher is the renowned Japanese garden master Hoichi Kurisu, with and for whom I worked for more than ten years. He showed me how the spectrum of specific details that go into in a beautiful garden work to create a whole that exists in harmony with nature and the human spirit. More to the point, he’s personally responsible for some of the most beautiful public and private gardens found anywhere in the United States.
|‘It’s that very effort, that careful arrangement of available components, that makes everything come together in a scene that simultaneously calms and energizes those who enter and move through the space.’|
When you strive to work in this design tradition, the importance of having a great mentor cannot be overstated. I worked with him from 1979 to 1989 out of his office in Portland, Ore., and was privileged to be a part of an array of projects of stunning beauty throughout this country.
The way he patiently crafts these spaces and their rocks, plants and watershapes is still a constant source of inspiration for me. As just one example, in Rockford, Ill., he created the Anderson Garden, which has been honored by a range of experts as the best Japanese garden in the country. It’s a space of supreme balance, sublime beauty and magnificent subtlety that must be experienced to be fully understood.
To this day, when I’m designing a garden I often ask myself, “What would Kurisu do in this situation?” In many cases, I’ve openly worked to echo his approaches in my own work: I always strive to be original in what I do and to make certain each project is true to its site and my clients, but the work never strays too far from the lessons he gave me.
Even today, I still work with him from time to time. In fact, Kurisu and I collaborated not long ago on a lovely part of a large garden project in Napa Valley. We’ve also worked together on projects in the Cayman Islands and throughout the Northwest and elsewhere.
One of the many things I’ve learned is that the principles of Japanese gardening can be applied almost anywhere. Yes, there are certain plant materials that are more closely associated with the tradition than others, but the overriding approach to organizing spaces and the elements within them can easily be translated to a variety of settings.
In my case, I’m fortunate to do much of my work in the Pacific Northwest, which sits at roughly the same latitudes as central Japan and shares many similar plant species as well as the dramatic topography that’s such a key design element. Here, for example, my working life is made much easier by the abundance of pine and fern species that thrive in the natural environment.
Setting that advantage aside, however, the population here consists mostly of people who have little or no familiarity with Japanese gardens, which makes it a challenge at times to foster an appreciation of my approach among them. Fortunately, however, these gardens speak for themselves, and once they see photographs of my past projects, the nature of the work becomes clear: Clients don’t need to know the first thing about Japanese gardens to recognize their beauty, visual balance and existence in harmony with nature.
|‘In developing these spaces, we don’t try to copy nature; rather, we interpret nature and build an impression of it that ultimately relates to the people who will move through the space.'|
How do these gardens convey this sense so well on so many scales and in so many settings? I’ve read a great deal about them and have heard many descriptions, and it all seems to boil down to the designer’s ability to enhance and magnify every detail in the garden, from the smallest stone to the largest tree, and show off each one in the best possible way.
This is why I marvel at the creative process of a master such as my friend Kurisu: The level of patience required to work and rework each element not just as something on its own but also as part of a dynamic, overarching composition is nothing short of phenomenal. But it’s that very effort, that careful arrangement of available components, that makes everything come together in a scene that simultaneously calms and energizes those who enter and move through the space.
You don’t need to know anything about that exercise to absorb this brand of beauty and gain an intuitive appreciation for the composition of the space around you. Best yet, in Japanese culture, this human participation – the impressions each visitor develops and takes away – is as much a part of the garden as are the rocks, plants and watershapes.
Unlike many of the descriptions of Japanese gardens that attribute such qualities to an almost mystical dimension, I believe that the true power of these spaces is due to a very grounded sense of connection between the human mind and senses, and the surroundings.
STONE BY STONE
In developing these spaces, we don’t try to copy nature; rather, we interpret nature and build an impression of it that ultimately relates to the people who will move through the space.
What this means in practical terms is that when I design or install a garden, my crews and I are always thinking in very specific terms about each and every element contained within the space – about every rock, plant or watershape and how it will be viewed and what it will mean in the greater context of the garden.
For all of the intuitive and even spiritual qualities that pervade Japanese gardens, our work is not that far removed from the work of landscape designers operating within other design traditions. What we all do begins with the site and visualizing how the existing landforms and surrounding views can be used to shape complex and layered compositions of stone, plants and water.
This is why I always spend time observing the setting at various times during the day and taking pictures I can use to revisit the space when I return to my studio. Using those images and recollections, I create hand-drawn renderings of the garden that help my clients see what I’m seeing.
The plant and stone palettes we work with are almost always entirely indigenous to the areas in which we work – and in my primary sphere of activity in the Pacific Northwest, I’m lucky to have a wonderful selection of both. I manage every detail I can, creating the planting plans for many of my projects and often working at length with clients to be sure they understand what they’ll see once we’re finished.
When we start working on site, the process is a mix of following a basic design while also improvising somewhat as we move forward. The hardscape and watershape structures always go in first, of course, as the bones of the garden. Once those elements are in place, we move forward with the plants, exercising tremendous care so their forms are best revealed in the finished product.
It’s important to note that this is not a solo effort: I’m a participant, but I work with an experienced team of installers who often contribute their own ideas to the process. Through the years, we’ve come to an intuitive understanding of our collective design mission, and I know the results wouldn’t be the same without their help.
That may sound impossibly complicated, but there’s a balance here that brings things into focus with reasonable speed. With experience and patience, it gets to a point where you’re always thinking about both the overall view and feeling and the way that every piece contributes to that impression.
One of the keys to finding that balance comes in the fact that everything in a Japanese garden has a direction: The views and the pathways are all designed so that you’re either visually and/or physically led through the space. There’s a constant sense of discovery, enjoyment and fascination with the landscape’s complexities, and the main aim is to eliminate any sense of separation between the human experience and the space that surrounds us.
This is why in a Japanese garden you don’t try to show everything at once. In maintaining a visitor’s sense of oneness with nature, it’s helpful instead to sustain variations of view and a subtle sense of surprise. In the greatest gardens of this type, the footpaths are carefully orchestrated to govern how one moves through the space – where you speed up, where you slow down and where you stop. This can happen on a relatively large scale over dozens of paces, or it can take place within just a few feet.
This is achieved by the way we layer the views, arrange varieties of textures and colors and place stones within the garden. It’s largely a pursuit of asymmetrical balance on a level that penetrates the consciousness of the visitor and affects his or her sense the space on an intuitive or in some cases a spiritual level. Japanese gardens achieve this not by way of mysticism or mythology, but by managing the visitor’s moment-by-moment experience.
The idea is that the visitor is not someone who is separated from nature but is instead intimately part of it, simply by being there and allowing his or her senses to take over.
To achieve this sort of sensory cascade for visitors, designers of Japanese gardens follow certain principles – not hard, fast rules, but governing insights that inform specific design decisions.
In placing stone in flatwork or in vertical elements such as retaining walls, for example, one always tries to avoid places where four corners come together. In other words, any intersections of stone should form “Y” shapes and not “X” shapes.
There’s also a general rule that five-sided flat stones work well in decks, and considerable attention is paid to avoiding pieces with even numbers of sides. Indeed, odd numbers are always important in Japanese and other Asian cultures, and it’s particularly important where there are groupings of elements that they come together as threes and other odd numbers.
|‘There’s a constant sense of discovery, enjoyment and fascination with the landscape’s complexities, and the main aim is to eliminate any sense of separation between the human experience and the space that surrounds us.’|
But no such rules are absolute. With rock placement, for example, there’s a general principle that dictates that the flat surface of the rock is placed on top, but there are many situations having to do with topography and the needs of the design that can dictate otherwise.
Visual balance is achieved through asymmetrical arrangements and curvilinear forms. This is distinctly different from formal Western gardens with their axial and bilateral symmetries and geometric squares and octagons driving views and defining lines of sight. In our work, we strive for balances that are subtler and less easily dissected by way of immediate visual perception.
Again, this is not achieved by directly copying nature, but instead by means of representation. In Japanese gardens, in other words, the hand of the gardener is seen and there’s full acknowledgement that these are created spaces.
One of the most powerful elements we have at our disposal in creating these spaces is water. The idea is not necessarily to give the impression that the water is pre-existing and completely natural; rather, these watershapes are representative, in a realistic way, of bodies that might be found in nature. This is why, for example, water is sometime only suggested in these gardens in a metaphorical sense by way of raked beds of sand, swatches of grass or patterns of rock that represent a stream or cascade.
In other words, water doesn’t need to be there at all to play its usual significant role in a Japanese garden design.
In working with actual watershapes, however, the Japanese gardener is using one of the most powerful of all elements in a composition. By nature, water almost always creates a sense of arrival, sending a message that the visitor has come to a special place where he or she is expected to stop and contemplate both the water and its surroundings.
We install water elements with approximately 85 to 90 percent of the projects we do. They vary in size and complexity, but they are always key elements of the design, whether they are simple, sculpted watershapes or those that include large streams and waterfalls.
All of our watershapes are constructed on a Bentonite sub-base surmounted by a gunite shell. This requires a great deal of planning because our goal is to integrate the water with the surrounding landscape – meaning no visible concrete and creation of structures atop which stone material can always be placed.
This is true, of course, no matter the garden style: Water has a profound effect on the human psyche, and in any garden it can create near-hypnotic states by, for instance, reflecting the surrounding plant and stone material. In that sense, water asks visitors to stop and absorb their surroundings, which cuts to the core of my mission as a professional by enabling me to revitalize people through their appreciation of natural forms.
In doing so, the Japanese gardener exploits the tension that rises between nature and the man-made world in the juxtaposition of clearly manufactured elements and those that are less obviously “designed.” By orchestrating the experience – by, for example, bringing a stone deck right to the edge of a creek – we create feelings of transition, feelings of freedom from structure that are immediately perceptible on a subconscious level.
The goal here is always to create gardens as places of repose, comfort and even revitalization. When we achieve that, I know we’ve lived up to the expectations of our clients and aligned our efforts with tenets of the design tradition I hold so dear.
Jim Robinson is president and founder of Daichi Landscape, a Eugene, Ore.-based design/construction firm specializing in Japanese gardens. He has worked in the landscape industry since 1975, when he and his father started a maintenance firm immediately after he graduated from high school. He then studied landscape design and construction at Portland Community College for two years and, in 1980, apprenticed himself to Japanese garden master Hoichi Kurisu, with whom he worked and studied for 10 years. In 1989, he entered the landscape architecture program at the University of Oregon and later was an exchange student at Waseda University in Tokyo. In 1996, Robinson founded Daichi Landscape, which now provides highly stylized gardens, watershapes and sculptures influenced by the traditions of Japanese gardening, culture and art.