Words: Shenaz Engineer
The Japanese custom of nurturing ‘landscaped sanctuaries’ as havens from urban life has prevailed for centuries, encouraging restoration through reconnection to nature. Their beauty is eloquently echoed in the word shinrin-yoku (forest bathing). Beauty, naturalism and simplicity remain the essence of Japanese culture, continually celebrated through every turn of the reinvigorated Portland Japanese Garden.
In this digital era, peace, calm and solitude have become a rare commodity and reconnection with nature is a resurgent trend witnessed by the sprouting of ‘contemplative gardens’ around the world. According to Bernard Donohue, Chairman of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA) in the UK, “during times of political uncertainty, visits to gardens and cultural institutions increase exponentially”. The Portland Japanese Garden reflects this shift, with residents increasingly seeking respite from the pressures of their all-consuming work–life stresses. Since opening in 1967, annual visitation figures increased from 30,000 to 350,000 in 2016, leading city officials to both commission and support the garden’s grand expansion plans.
“the criteria for architecture is humbleness”
The addition of the $33.5 million, 3.4-acre cultural village, courtesy of Kengo Kuma & Associates (KKAA), was a respectful collaboration with the garden’s curator and craftsman Sadafumi Uchiyama, honouring the union of both nature and architecture’s connective artistry. Although the relationship between architect and gardener can be seen as one of ‘control versus organic evolution’, both KKAA and Uchiyama view architecture and landscape as an interconnected process. Kengo Kuma has stated that Japan’s tsunami in 2011 made him rethink architecture’s relationship with nature: “the criteria for architecture is humbleness”. This sentiment has been distilled in the design of the cultural village, creating an environment truly worthy of human affection. Natural materials (wood and stone), thatched living-roof structures and flexible sliding walls that allow for natural ventilation highlight KKAA’s efforts for the Garden to remain the Cultural Village’s rhythmic pulse.
The expansion includes an arts learning centre, library, classroom, garden house and an intimate café. It honours Japan’s celebration of gardening as an art form and its connection to architecture, science, engineering, history, horticulture and philosophy. Complementary to the garden, which is contemplative, healing and fosters a sense of self, the integrated cultural village provides spaces for the community to connect and learn, encouraging the exchange of ideas and creativity. The Portland Japanese Garden and the newly incorporated cultural village serve as a borderless third space, celebrating in-between zones for community life within Oregon’s picturesque landscape.
“Landscape and architecture are on the same spectrum. In the practice of KKAA, we recognise the primacy of natural forces first, so that while much of what we do is calibration and anticipation, we never seek to control.”
While researching this article we spoke with Balazs Bognar, one of the design directors at KKAA who worked with Kengo Kuma on The Portland Japanese Garden project. We enjoyed his responses so much that we have decided to publish them in their entirety.
In the Kengo Kuma: Complete Works by Kenneth Frampton, Kuma-san says: “Architecture is an act of producing a thing from a place”. How does KKAA embed themselves in an unfamiliar place to truly understand its nuances?
It is necessary to study not only the more immediate aspects of a site – its place – such as locally available materials, but also it is vital to start by understanding climate, available light, air, vegetation, specificities in terrain, relationships to water and other features. Even less obvious are such crucial aspects as listening to and being sensitive to local social cultures, construction methods and expertise, techniques and attitudes. Only then can one fully begin to tailor a project with care and precision. Listen and learn before acting.
As Brian Eno says: an architect “subjects everything to an effort of control”, while a gardener “works in collaboration with the complex and unpredictable processes of nature”. Given these differing approaches how did the collaboration between KKAA and the Garden’s curator and master garden craftsman Sadafumi Uchiyama unfold?
It was quite a natural process that began with friendship and mutual respect, dating from late 2010. Actually, neither Kengo Kuma nor Sadafumi Uchiyama views architecture or landscape as fully separate, so aside from the time scale you mention in your question, the content and experiential necessity of the “other” is the same. Landscape and architecture are on the same spectrum. In the practice of KKAA, we recognise the primacy of natural forces first, so that while much of what we do is calibration and anticipation, we never seek to control. It is just not possible under the continuity of time. Our attitude is roughly the same as Mr Uchiyama’s, only our materials are slightly different.
“Calling them “third spaces” is good, but almost seems to fall behind in an imagined hierarchy, and we would strongly suggest that these spaces are the invisible binding that holds the life of a village together.”
In an interview with Dezeen, Kuma-san said: “after the tsunami in March 2011, I changed my definition to nature … the criteria for architecture is humbleness”. How has this turning point in KAA’s thinking informed the design of the garden’s expansion?
Our project for Portland Japanese Garden has always taken a “nature first” position, in that the architecture was never the true focal point of the experience. We merely were seeking to connect the dots of an existing, discontinuous path. After 3.11 (as we call it), the philosophical lesson of respecting nature became very real, confirming that our structural approach with our engineers was perhaps not conservative but just right. Much of the structural work is invisible to the visitors, but we are happy we took the long view.
How do you hope the Cultural Village & Portland Japanese Gardens will work for people as a third space?
This is an incredibly important point. We have always felt that life takes place in the “in between spaces”, and that the relationships between things and people are more important than those things themselves. Calling them “third spaces” is good, but almost seems to fall behind in an imagined hierarchy, and we would strongly suggest that these spaces are the invisible binding that holds the life of a village together (almost literally in the case of Portland Japanese Garden). In the Portland project, we have offered not only cultural facilities, but also a generously spaced courtyard, whose fourth side is open to the existing five gardens. This is a place for spending time, hosting events – it is the real heart of the configuration. All the buildings open their corners to this courtyard for direct connections to the outside, allowing life to flow in and out across boundaries. The calmness and contemplation already take place in the existing gardens, and our idea was to allow for some of the livelier, louder and more dynamic functions to take place outside the gardens’ gates.
Shenaz Engineer is a Researcher & Strategist at Right Angle Studio. A Brisbane local, her innate curiosity and fascination for cities has seen her live across Amsterdam, Shanghai, New York, Paris and now Sydney. With a background in both business and design, she continues to collaborate with visionaries from different industries across the world, and has received both national and international awards for her work. Fascinated by the intersection of culture, architecture, health and technology, she is passionate about creating inclusive cities and crafting places for people.
Image top: Photograph by Bruce Forster, courtesy of Portland Japanese Garden