Review of "Japanese-Style Gardens of the Pacific Coast," photographs by Melba
Levick, text by Kendall H. Brown; Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., New
York, 1999.


Richard W. Amero

Since Kendall H. Brown begins his short history of Japanese-style gardens with a stern quote from garden designer James Rose to the effect that all Japanese gardens outside of Japan are fakes, one might conclude that he doesn't like Japanese gardens in the United States. This, however, is not the case. His attitude toward these "transplanted" gardens partakes more of ambiguity than of ambivalence. He seldom says bluntly he doesn’t like something. His liking may, however, be read between the lines.

Brown has an extensive knowledge of the ways in which Japanese garden styles have been adapted in the United States. He finds plans for most of them have been determined by those who pay for them. As with gardens in Japan, which developed over the centuries, the majority of them were not ---until recently--- people’s gardens. Gardens in Japan before World War II did not reflect popular tastes though they may have been responsive to popular superstitions. They were jammed with symbols of immortality for people who knew they were going to die and with images of Paradise for people who wanted to forget their miseries in dreams of eternal bliss. They were savored by cognoscenti, who were aristocrats, courtiers, monks, samurai, landowners, and, during the Edo period (1615-1868), merchants. Part of the motive in establishing gardens in Japan, with their many religious and symbolic connotations, was to show how discerning the clients were who commissioned and, in early periods, designed them. By showing that the motives behind the creation of a garden were not lofty, it is automatic to say that the gardens revealed their creators’ flaws. Brown is too smart to do this for whatever motives were behind their construction, the results were and are admirable. Good art is good art all over the world. The entirely different gardens of Versailles and Katsura are testimonials to the excellence that committed people sometimes achieve.

Japanese government officials and importers created Exposition gardens in United States cities, such as Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco and New York, to hide the aggrandizing intentions of these connivers behind a mask of beauty and gentility, while these unscrupulous schemers were industrializing their country and ransacking China. In retrospect, the relation between appearance and reality, or motive and result, is clear for Japanese officials were playing to the stereotypes that Westerners had of them. They were polishing their image as a flashy, sentimental and superficial people. As with the performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s "The Mikado" and Puccini’s "Madame Butterfly," westerners could not get enough of sugar-coated visions of a fairytale Japan.

Some of the gardeners who helped to create Japanese-style gardens for Expositions in the United States and the rich clients who hired them afterwards to design gardens were far more discriminating than were easily-pleased Exposition visitors. As knowledge of Japanese gardens increased and as gardeners acquired more skill Japanese-style gardens were created in California that were vastly superior to their crass, crowded, cramped and commercial Exposition models. The Huntington Japanese Garden at San Marino, California, and the Hakone Gardens at Saratoga, California, were created in the wake of Expositions. San Diego and San Francisco kept their Exposition gardens until the advent of World War II, when they went into eclipse as did the fickle American embrace of fans, paper lanterns and pretty maidens in kimonos.

In the 1950s and 60s, Japanese-Americans who had prospered and who were more eager to show communities in which they lived that they were good citizens than they were to promote the traditions of their parents' and grandparents' homelands, got behind plans to create Japanese-style gardens in San Jose, San Mateo, and Hayward, all in California, and the frequently praised as "authentic" Japanese Garden in Portland, Oregon..

Unlike  gardens which were created for the enjoyment of all comers in the 1950s and 60s --- regardless of ethnicity --- from the 1970s on Japanese-Americans began to create gardens for themselves and/or for tourists. This is evident in the Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles. Here Japanese-born landscape architect Takeo Uesugi designed a small sloping triangular garden --- named incongruously the James Irvine Garden after a major donor --- consisting of a waterfall in the topmost portion that feeds two streams and a small pond. The design is based on the Murin’an garden in Kyoto and is filled, maybe overpowered, by ornaments, stones, and native and Japanese plant species. Uesugi said the watercourse reflected the sometimes unpleasant life experiences of three generations of Japanese-Americans, an arcane interpretation which Brown reports without registering his agreement.

A remarkable private garden which can only be seen by the wealthy is the Golden Door in Escondido, California, whose low horizontal, hip and gable, tile-roofed buildings were designed by San Diego architect Robert Mosher after a 25-day and night visit to Japan. Landscape architect Takendo Ari designed and laid out the grounds. The retreat is impeccably done. Everything that is visible is exemplary in restrained taste. For the few who are allowed within its sacrosanct confines it amply supplies the invisible qualities of peace and serenity for which they pay high fees. As with cloisters in a monastery, it is difficult to conceive how its harmonious and restful atmosphere could be transferred to a public park where masses gather and trample.

The most unusual garden featured by Brown is the "Garden of Water and Fragrance" at the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys, California. Here reclaimed water from a sewage treatment facility has been used to irrigate a composite Japanese-American garden on flat land whose fragrance is debatable. Unlike most Japanese-style gardens, the grounds are wheelchair accessible. This concession for the handicapped does not prevent the garden, designed by Koichi Kawana, from becoming a pleasing American adaptation of the stroll gardens at Katsura and Korakuen in Japan to American conditions that allow for the comfort of a greater number of visitors than are permissible in Japan.

Since Brown allows himself "wiggle room" it cannot be said he dislikes the "hybrid" garden in Golden Gate Park which was the product of two expositions, one on site in 1894 and the other in the Marina section of San Francisco in 1915. Agreeing that this garden is the most popular in California ---if not in the United States --- Brown appears to accept the belief that by changing the garden over the years it has somehow become a real Japanese-style garden and not a lifeless copy of an anachronistic garden in Japan. I don’t know what Brown thinks of Norman Rockwell, the magazine illustrator, but Rockwell’s admirers put him on the same level as Rembrandt and Velazquez. (Rockwell knew better!) No matter how many people flock to the Japanese garden in Golden Gate Park it is a poorly designed intermittently crass garden that appeals to people who would rather have it clumsy and disorderly than designed in conformance to exacting and not always nonsensical rules practiced by Japanese artists and gardeners over the ages.

Brown’s "play it safe" approach is evident in his treatment of the Earl Burns Miller Japanese Garden in Long Beach, California. Unlike the garden in Golden Gate Park which, despite Brown’s assertions, may not have been designed by George Turner Marsh, an American, and which acquired many of its irksome accouterments over the years, the Earl Burns Miller Japanese Garden was designed by Edward R. Lovell, an American, whose knowledge of Japanese gardens was minimal. The resulting garden, which learned people regard as inauthentic, has become popular among people who use it for weddings, classes, meetings, horticultural lectures, and similar non-garden viewing activities. More than a pastiche of Japanese decorative devices, it is a melange of inadequately assimilated Japanese and American details. Judging from photographs in the book, which have been falsified by the photographer’s art, the garden is too colorful for a subdued Japanese garden where the subtle greens of shrubs and trees play on one another. Nonetheless, the incongruities in the Long Beach garden seem to meet Brown’s criteria for creating a synthesis of Japanese and American cultural values that is easily understood by Americans and, unlike a museum or a stationary work of art, capable of multiple use.

Not so, however, is Brown’s hesitant quaver about the Japanese Friendship Garden in San Diego,
California. Aware of the heated controversy over a successful plan to convert the entrance to the garden into a profit-making restaurant/business designed to siphon off cash-laden visitors in adjacent portions of Balboa Park and the substitution of Takeo Uesugi, a more amenable and less expensive Japanese-American landscape architect, for Ken Najakima, the architect in Japan who had received the first commission, Brown limits himself to saying, "While the garden may have generated friendship between San Diego and Yokohama (San Diego’s sister city), it was less successful among those responsible for it."

More in tune with Brown’s pragmatic versus theoretical approach is his qualified praise of the San Diego Tech Center in Sorrento Valley where the ubiquitous Takeo Uesugi has created a garden divided into sections. In those parts closest to a modern Tech Center, innovation is stressed. This is the dry-garden and "hillock" area, which looks the most unlike what is expected in Japanese gardens. For better or worse the part that is most like a traditional Japanese garden centers around a koi pond, with the usual furnishings of waterfall, pagoda, lantern, low-arched bridge, rocky island, stones and shrubs, and is overlooked by a Japanese-style pavilion housing a restaurant specializing in German cuisine. How the schnitzel-eating patrons must long for a German-style beer garden!

To say that Japanese-style gardens should conform to local conditions, use local materials and local plants is not new. Japanese landscape architects, who have received commissions in the United States, Canada, Australia, Brazil and elsewhere, say this all the time. Sometimes it is the consumer-minded Americans who want to put literal copies of gardens in Japan in their public places as is the case with the Zen Gardens in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, New York and the Huntington Gardens in San Marino, California, or who think that all Japanese gardens must have a stone lantern, a stone water basin and a preferably pruned black pine, as is the case with so many tiny courtyard gardens pictured in how-to-do-it manuals.

It is one thing to say that the Asian view of life is the opposite of the Western view. It is another thing to prove it. Ever since the Romantic movement that began in the 18th century, western artists, writers and gardeners have worshipped nature and believed that what they felt and did was the reverse of their money-minded, plotting, plodding, and rational-thinking neighbors. Frederick Law Olmsted maintained that his naturalistic and serpentine gardens ---which were influenced by Chinese models--- were the antithesis and anecdote to life in dirty, crowded, riot-torn, and sick industrial cities.

Brown says in one place that Classic-style Japanese gardens are "ghosts," by which he means they are "amorphous and vague" and "a tangible antithesis to Western values." He understands the similarity between some Eastern and Western views for he recognizes that gardens in Japan and their equivalent versions in the United States and Canada have a health-giving power that compensates, in part, for the  misdeeds that are common occurrences in the lives of people who obtain a momentary sense of relief when in the midst of their placidity.

At the end of his history, Brown concludes on the happy note that Japanese-style gardens are meant for play. They provide people with an opportunity to playact and to escape. They are part of a scintillating and exciting show that make Hollywood and Las Vegas centers for the dreams and disappointments of prosaic people who need temporary trips into Lotus Land, the name incidentally of the Ganna Walska Lotusland Japanese Garden in Montecito, California, whose theatrical accessories Brown describes in loving detail. Perhaps westerners would feel awkward or silly, sitting cross-legged at the side of a stream sipping saki and composing haiku or observing the artificial and tiresome rituals of the tea ceremony, which today have become the province of women and which, aside from a few diligent participants, are watched by crowds of gaping spectators..

It is, however, pleasant to think of people having a smiling time in Japanese-style gardens . . . the wisteria, the azalea, the waterfalls, the carp, the in and the yo, and all the rest call for that. It is known that ordinary Japanese have a rip-roaring time observing cherry blossoms in their adulterated English-style public parks, where their untidiness is legendary. But Japanese in Japan---who are nearly as out of touch with the traditions of their past as are Americans --- and citizens of the United States need to acquire respect for the artistic and literary creations that come to them from their past. There is pleasure in knowing the historical and symbolic uses of gardens in Japan and of their transplanted versions in the United States. Gardens in Japan and in the United States should be more creative and they are in the abstract and empty space gardens designed by the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, such as his "California Scenario" in Costa Mesa, California, the last therefore climax garden described in the book. (It is popular with skateboarders!) Nevertheless, there is pleasure in knowing that people alive today carry in their minds and hearts the wisdom of the ages . . . the tales of the war of Troy in the Bronze Age (circa 1200 B.C.) and of the battles of the Heike (1181-85 A.D.) still delight and inspire.

Japanese-Style Gardens of the Pacific West Coast is a splendid book and the only book published thus far that delves into the historical background of West Coast Japanese-style gardens. Melba Levick’s photographs are professional. They illustrate the text and whet the desire to see the gardens, if for no other reason than to see which is better . . . the photographs or the gardens. A small objection: I wish Brown had included garden acreage as acres cited in publicity releases are sometimes inaccurate and knowing actual acres enables connoisseurs to compare the problems and successes of the individual gardens.

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