In Visionary Landscapes: Japanese Garden Design in North America, Kendall H. Brown explores the work of five contemporary Japanese-style garden designers whom he has designated masters of the art.
What does it mean to be a master of the contemporary Japanese garden design? To answer this, once must consider what constitutes a Japanese garden. The first images that come to mind might be of bamboo, or perhaps coy fish, or raked patterns in gravel. Japanese gardens are more than their components, though; they are a set of principles. And because principles should be transferable, it is possible for Japanese gardens to manifest themselves in very un-Japanese ways.
As Brown notes, Japanese gardens nowadays are less microcosms of Japan than they are “Japanese-inspired microcosms of nature.” Hence the flourishing of Japanese gardens outside of Japan, to the extent that they outnumber those inside Japan.
There is of course a fraught social history of Japanese gardens in the West, one that Brown fully recognizes. Taken out of their regional and historical context beginning in the late 19th-century, Japanese gardens became curios and projections of status and sophistication (the irony being that constructing a Japanese garden can, at least now, be in questionable taste).
To suggest one has mastered the art of Japanese gardens is to therefore suggest mastery of the art’s principles, as well the ability to reapply those principles without creating, as Brown puts it, a “garish pastiche.”
Perhaps none of the designers featured in the book more deftly graft the Japanese style into the North American context than David Slawson. Born in Ohio, Slawson spent a number of years in Japan studying the art of garden design before returning to the mid-West and applying his knowledge on college campuses and residences.
In recounting the story of his time spent in Japan, Slawson speaks reverently of power: the power of the dry landscape at Daisen-in, the power of rocks “disposed in space” at Ryoanji. These gardens moved him, and his designs seek to reproduce that impact.
At the Hoeschler residence in Minnesota, Slawson evoked Lake Superior’s north shore with a formidable river of stones.
Power can overwhelm, however, and this dramatic garden left the rest of the yard feeling weak. So Slawson complemented the initial design with an equally adamant garden entrance, replete with boulders that call to mind a north shore gorge.
Shin Abe, another of the book’s featured designers, has at times demonstrated a tremendous capacity to abstract the natural world. He pushes this traditional Japanese technique to its extreme at the Education First office building in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the building’s entrance, slabs of stone suggesting frozen waves emerge from “dry” pools, geometric patterns filled with blackish aggregate and gravel. Low-sitting granite rectangles serve as benches, and the whole design gives the sense of water represented through rock.
Several of the book’s featured designers evoke Japanese landscape painting in their work. Marc Peter Keane’s Tiger Glen Garden, which refers to a work titled The Three Laughers of Tiger Ravine, possesses what Brown describes as a “gentle intensity.” A miniature stone ravine, patterned like a roman road, winds through the tiny courtyard garden, a rocky gash amidst moss and an elegantly-branching Tanyosho pine.
For all the talk of adapting the Japanese style to North America, many of the book’s gardens are still loaded with features some might consider cliché: Sand raked just so, a smattering of Buddhist paraphernalia, the unmistakable preference for Ponderosa pine. And then there are the lanterns. Modest, often camouflaged, they beg not to be considered kitsch.
And maybe they shouldn’t be. Maybe there is something we still don’t understand about our attraction to Japanese-style gardens, and how we can’t seem to adopt the principles without indulging in a bit of the exoticism that Japanese culture represents to the West. And maybe a little indulgence is good now and then.