Connecting art and landscape

written by Gina Williams renderings courtesy of the Portland Japanese Garden

Nearly 300 miles from Portland, in a quarry outside Baker City that had been closed for a century, Portland Japanese Garden curator and third-generation gardener Sadafumi Uchiyama finally found what he was searching for—rare, finely grained Oregon granite, known as Baker Blue.

Uchiyama and his team, including Suminori Awata, a fifteenth-generation master stonemason from Japan, carefully selected nearly 1,000 tons of the granite for construction of the authentic 185-foot long, 18.5-foot tall medieval castle wall built with traditional hand tools and techniques. The wall is now located at the west end of Portland Japanese Garden’s new Cultural Village, which opened April 2. The granite, aptly named for its blue tint, is preferred over Oregon’s more abundant volcanic basalt because it is strong enough to handle the weight of a large project.

The long-anticipated opening of the $33.5 million Cultural Crossing project, designed by world-renowned architect Kengo Kuma (who is also leading the National Stadium design for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics), launches the 50-year-old garden into a new era with the ability to better serve the increasing volume of garden visitors. The expansion adds more than 3 acres of space to the 9-acre property, considered one of the most authentic Japanese gardens outside of Japan.

“In this increasingly connected, distracted world, we find many of our guests seek out the peace and respite they find within the Garden,” said Steve Bloom, the Garden’s chief executive officer. “With this new Cultural Village, we will extend the Garden’s legacy and purpose, providing a heightened sense of tranquility, a more robust educational experience and preservation of significant cultural traditions and art forms.”

A Sense of Place

Kuma described the new Cultural Village as a “connector of the stunning Oregon landscape, Japanese arts and a subtle gradation to architecture.”

In that same vein, Kuma said he also took local identity very seriously when determining styling and materials.

“Local flavor is a special identity to the building,” he said. “I don’t want to copy a previous building. For every project, we try to create harmony with the place, because we respect the place and we respect the local cultures and the local tradition. And the best way to show the respect is to use local material.”

The Village emulates Japan’s mozenmachi, the gate-front towns that surround sacred shrines and temples. A critical element of the mozenmachi, Kuma said, is a fluid journey from city to sanctuary.

Balazs Bognar, project architect for Cultural Crossing and design director at Kengo Kuma and Associates, said mozenmachi was traditionally the place for pilgrims and visitors of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples to rest after their journey, eat and socialize.

Mozenmachi literally means, ‘town in front of the gate,’” Bognar said. “Our design for Portland Japanese Garden is a contemporary example of this. In our case, the spiritual destination is more nature-oriented rather than overtly religious.”

photo by Gina Williams

A Celebration of Green Design

New LEED-certified structures designed for the space include the Jordan Schnitzer Japanese Arts Learning Center, home to new gallery spaces, a multipurpose classroom, a gift store and Vollum Library, a comprehensive resource on Japanese gardening and related arts. Each of the structures has living roofs that absorb rainwater. From a design perspective, garden officials said the living roofs are like the thatched roofs of traditional gardens in Japan.

While the original garden remains intact and unchanged, three new gardens have been added with the Cultural Village expansion to demonstrate a wider array of Japanese garden styles and techniques. They include an entry garden with cascading ponds and a water terrace at the entry in Washington Park; Tsubo-niwa (tiny urban garden) in the Tateuchi Courtyard; and a bonsai terrace.

The new Garden House will allow for expanding horticultural workshops, something senior gardener Adam Hart is especially excited about. He said the expansion will also allow the garden to add master-level Japanese gardening courses not offered anywhere else in the country.

“A lot of times you have to go to Japan to learn those techniques,” he said.

photo by Gina Williams

New Opportunities for Learning

The development of the International Institute for Japanese Garden Arts & Culture will merge traditional apprentice-based learning with current, academic-based study, with curricula focused on gardening as well as lessons in Japanese culture via traditional garden arts such as tea ceremony and calligraphy. The Institute will open to the public in 2018.

Hart is also thrilled about the addition of the Bill de Weese chabana garden that will be used to grow traditional tea ceremony flowers “with an Oregon plant palate” and the new Umami Tea Café by Ajinomoto, offering teas and products from Jugetsudo, whose flagship tea cafés in Tokyo and Paris were also designed by Kuma.

“The building features rich wood and skylights and is cantilevered over the hillside into the forest. The view is beautiful,” Hart said. “Rainwater is directed into bio swales and landscaped into Japanese-styled creeks.”

photo by Gina Williams

A Source of Pride

Planning for the expansion has been in the works for the past twenty years, with the garden’s board of directors involved in intense planning for the last decade.

Portland Japanese Garden is a private, nonprofit organization. It was formed in the 1960s after Portland became a sister city to Sapporo, Japan, increasing a widespread interest in Japanese culture.

“Today this garden built for 30,000 visitors per year now has almost 400,000,” said Cynthia Johnson Haruyama, the garden’s deputy director. “We are now a tourist destination from all over the world. I am a native Oregonian, and I am so proud that our state has this garden.”

photo by Gina Williams

The attention to detail at every level of the expansion is also a source of pride for Haruyama, who said the stonemasons even spoke to the granite in the traditional Japanese manner before selecting it, “out of respect for the material.”

She said no detail was overlooked, from employing the centuries-old ano-zumi technique that uses carefully fitted ballast stones instead of mortar to construct the curving castle wall, to Kuma’s design that creates seamless harmony between built spaces and nature.