Monday, November 24, 2014

Landscape Design NYBG Lecture Review of Japan's leading Garden Designer & Zen priest: Shunmyo Masuno

The Adult Education program at The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) kicked off its celebrated Landscape Design Portfolios Lecture Series with featured speaker, Shunmyo Masuno; hailed as Japan’s leading garden designer according to his bio.
Now in its 16th year, it was the first of The Garden’s three lectures: part of this season’s theme: “A Dialogue with the Elements.”

Just prior to the Design Portfolio’s premiere event, attendees received an email noting it was a “Sell Out,” suggesting we come early (and presumably to not bring an extra guest hoping to attend.)
Needless to say, anticipation for the presentation shot up a notch to a very happy, landscape-design pollinated-pitch.
On the night of the event, the attendees registered rapidly, (foregoing much of the hearty hello’s and network chatting that is a key part of attending NYBG’s talks), and scooted to get a good seat.  The room soon darkened; the audience hushed as Barbara Corcoran, NYBG’s vice president for Continuing and Public Education welcomed the audience.  
Then, Gregory Long, CEO and the William C. Steere Sr. President NYBG, thanked the guests, Mr. Masuno, and Susan Cohen, coordinator for NYBG's Landscape Design Certificate program, noting Susan has successfully shepherded the NYBG Landscape Design Portfolios Lecture Series since she inaugurated the program. 

Clearly the guests/attendees were already familiar with Masuno. His reputation certainly must have predicated the over-subscribed attendance.

Masuno-san is a Zen priest and a world-renowned landscape designer. 
Or should I say a world-renowned landscape designer and a Zen priest?  His art and his religion are so inextricably linked it’s of no consequence ordering his titles.

Masuno-san is the only garden designer I have ever encountered who is also an eighteenth-generation Zen Buddhist priest; “presiding over daily ceremonies at the Kenkohji Temple in Yokohama,” he notes in his book.  

While most everyone might say there is a spiritual practice with regard to creating gardens – Masuno elevates the spiritual discipline to another dimension – creating spaces “that are inseparable from his Buddhist practice so that each Zen garden becomes “a special spiritual place where the mind dwells.” His book, ZEN Gardens The Complete works of Shunmyo Masuno Japan's Leading Garden Designer published in 2012, is a coffee table work of curated art: a compilation of the master’s landscape designs, featuring 37 completed gardens’ imagery and more than 400 landscape design schematics and drawings, as well as an exploration of his design principles.  It is sure to be used as a reference and as inspiration. It is the “first complete retrospective of Masuno’s work to be published in English.  

Masuno-san took to the podium in his monk’s vestment robe, fan in tow, bowed, and asked the guests - in a measured, soft-spoken voice -- to “Please excuse me” for his language deficiency. 
Susan Cohen, Coordinator NYBG Landscape Design Certificate program, Portfolio Series creator & Shunmyo  Masuno  

He read most of the talk but honestly, his English language skills on display were more than accomplished.  No worries.

Masuno-san’s demeanor and delivery offered an aura of otherworldliness and no small amount of transporting mysticism.   
His oeuvre is at once traditional and contemporary; residential and commercial; urban and rural; modern and traditional. 
Long recognized in Japan for his landscape art, he is now increasingly hailed internationally, with clients from all over the world commissioning his signature designs.  In 2011 he completed his first commission in the United States: a private residence in NYC. 

Key to my interest in this lecture is that I’ve had the good fortune to possess a sort of Japanese garden portfolio of my own -- with on-sight, first-hand experience, too.  I’ve had the pleasure and honor to have visited Japan on numerous occasions – and am privileged to have seen a variety garden design disciplines there.  In addition, I studied and researched Japanese gardens as part of NYBG’s Certificate of Landscape Design program; I’ve worked in the area’s botanical gardens noted for Japanese garden installations, not to mention utilizing inspired elements in my garden design work (especially the rocks and stones) and in my own Gotham garden.  So you see, I have a fairly good understanding of the Japanese garden aesthetic. 
However, taking no chances on the level of his audience’s familiarity with Japanese Zen gardens, Masuno took the time to present a backdrop of various art genres – from painting to pottery to calligraphy and sculpture; comparing and contrasting an Asian art aesthetic to a Western one.
You might think of it as a sort of elevated “Pinterest Cultural Context” prior to presenting his opus of garden art.

Perhaps he assumed that Americans don’t really know what Japanese garden design is at its essence. (I’m kinda’ with him on this.)
On the other hand this was -- safe to say -- a pretty sophisticated audience. And willing to meet him halfway with an overview in the cultural arts, we could all better understand and appreciate his garden designs – in other words, to have a reference point. 
It was a good presentation strategy.  However, the general consensus after the talk was that Masuno could have condensed this portion and featured more of his noteworthy designs. 
After all, that is what the audience came out to see.

He did reference his personal narrative somewhat in relation to his art and that was insightful. For example, he referenced that while his family is rooted in Zen Buddhism, he said,  “After World War II, the government took over our lives and for the first time, we experienced the very idea of separation of church and state.”  Prior to that religion was part of the fabric of their culture and their more homogeneous cultural identity.
He continued: “Perhaps this change is responsible in some way for why, even today, the Japanese feel a loss – of something missing.”  (Yet) This sense of loss is rooted in a foundation of love,” he continued.
I was so fascinated by his references that I did further research on this sense of loss and nothingness.  I learned that Shinto Buddhism places an emphasis on wholeness of nature and its celebration of the landscape. In the Buddhist tradition, “all things are considered as either evolving from or dissolving into nothingness.  However, this nothing is not empty space.  It is rather – a space of potentiality. “

When it comes to garden structure, Masuno’s main point of distinction is that Japanese design is asymmetrical and not just focused on the scenery whereas beauty in the West is all about the symmetry…
I dare overlay a concept from a recent talk at The Horticultural Society of New York Art & Nature Symposium where, alongside some very provocative and compelling new garden-inspired art installations were – it can be readily argued - some American-based Zen garden concepts for the new century and beyond that embrace this sense of nothingness and space of potentiality.  One in particular is a good example of this emerging yet Zen-like garden art: the organically created one featuring “just” soil laid out in a sinuous display. 

Masuno showed trees and water while he described how thinking organically, creating harmony and unity, was not just as a reflection of nature but a freedom of the mind.
He said these elements deepen our understanding of Japanese Zen gardens and that to share the secret of beauty is linked to the understanding of Zen.
If I understand this – then sharing via social media – especially the beauty of garden design – is the essence of Zen.  Ahhhh…
Follow the path of truth found in each one of us, urged Masuno.  
And I urge you to "Follow" me @GardenGlamour and @ChefsGardens  Ha! )

One element of his cultural art comparatives that I found enlightening was in the realm of pottery and ceramics.  This art form, along with the tea ceremony especially, directly informs Zen garden designs, he said.  Masuno showed side-by-side images of a Western Meissen teacup and a Japanese teacup.  He went on to explain that a western aesthetic embraces the concept of a “perfection” whereas a Japanese perspective reflects a sense of “unfinished” or “incompleteness.”  The difference in the pottery is profound. 
To my Western eye the Meissen teacup did look finished and elegant in contrast to the simple, made-in-ceramic-class look of the Japanese cup.  

I learned with later research that this part of the Wabi-sabi Japanese aesthetic describes a mindful approach to everyday life and defines the true beauty of things as “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.”  Whether in bud or in decay, the object is more beautiful because it suggests the transience of things.  The difference in the perception of art and the reverence for arts’ meaning, expression, value, and contribution the culture is key to understanding the purpose of Zen and to finding a true self – to that search for spiritual stability – and to Zen garden making: both design and construction.  And its path of truth is found in each one of us, Masuno explained.

Masuno Garden Designs
In terms of his own portfolio, we learned he launched his commissioned work with two gardens, using sand and stone in the Karesansui style, supervising the entire construction project all the while thinking how to marry inside and outside and how to use the garden to entertain guests.  

To better understand Masuno’s moss garden reference, I researched Japanese Roji gardens and found it is the garden - - a transporting path  -- through which one passes to the tea ceremony.  It is a place for quiet reflection.  Roji means “dewy ground.” Masuno described his garden design using “Moss as water. “ The maple trees there are peaceful in appearance in what looked like a misty dream garden.

In contrast, a landscape he created for a hotel conference courtyard used material of metal and concrete and glass between artificial foundations he had constructed.

He designed another hotel lobby – in Tokyo – creating the garden along with it as “one entity.”  He designed everything in this wood and stone textured lobby project including furniture, fabrics, and cutlery. He described how he “Controlled the scenery in order to view the garden from behind it.”  He showed the lobby from a second floor coffee lounge – and remarked that he designed it to be lower by a measure of 45 centimeters.
The walls were created to offer a feeling of a water pattern, and included a large boulder. 

The banquet hall was made lighter – with its center cut out, bordering one side of the tiered garden.  He created serenity via his composition of tall walls of water and stone backed with layers of green plant material.

In terms of a residential home garden he explained the need for silence in a busy city, so he created a “controlled scenery” viewing garden, using light rocks and a running waterfall effect. He created the waterfall using an exhaust duct and then making it green on top. Masuno talked about how applying a slight adjustment to the rocks, he can produce shadows – an extremely important element.

In Germany he recreated a tea garden that at the same time hewed to the genius loci principle, giving homage to the historical significance of both the “Brandenburg Gate and the true sense of unity of the German people, “ he explained.
“You wouldn’t know it wasn’t in Japan,” he said proudly.  

A spectacular design was the one he did for the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo – it floats four stories above the street and uses backlit cut stone pavers!  Very dramatic.
He also showed the work he did for the Japanese embassy in Singapore featuring a courtyard and the use of select stones as art, placed around the circle. 

But it was the work on the Guard House that drew awe.  
First Impressions: Guard House: extraordinary design greets visitors 
He noted he wanted to make this First Impression a beautiful and memorable one.  It is indeed a far cry from the typical, institutional and scary first greeting found at most embassy complexes.  He designed the windows in the wall – and used black wall lumber and national, natural stone, achieving a modern classic and enduring look.
He showed a spectacular roof garden the he said was an ongoing vacation space for the client, as well as a Zen garden resort in Singapore located along a golf course.   Some might argue that is a double Zen (vs. a double bogie!)

Masuno-san doesn’t create “just” gardens but entire worlds. 
There is so much quiet dignity in his gardens and – true to the lecture’s theme: “A Dialogue with the Elements” – he utilizes a great variety of elements: water, rocks, plants, sand, and wood, for example, and yet the look is complete, intrinsic integration – as in nature.  
This is one of my favorite designs: small space/big looks


Some are quiet gardens in repose – the dry landscape (sand) Karesansui gardens in particular and the garden type most closely associated with Zen Buddhism. 

Others pose with an organic dynamic with waterfalls, streams, and ponds.  My observation looking through the book is his extraordinary use of the “borrowed landscape.”  

The viewing gardens incorporate many elements: power, calmness, tranquility, and elegance – and all change depending on the rock arrangements.  He believes designers must stand at the scene and “Converse” with the space in the garden.   He said, “Japanese gardens never can be formed by drawing up a plan alone. “ The garden must be experienced.”  
Masuno on-site in a garden design installation

So he visits the garden site and waits until the rock seems to speak and say where it wants to be put.  Masuno oversees all the selection and the placement of the large rocks in his garden rock groupings. 

The overarching impression of these garden art installations is serenity; stability and they are shaped like boats and mountains…  Talking with us…
Zen rock
Zen garden rock
Gazing at them, one feels they are alive.

He said the same is true for tree placement. The trees tell him where they should be planted.   “Don’t plant trees just for their beauty in the landscape design,” he noted.  “Trees should be used to create shadows and express contrast or elegance especially in the ways they are trained and pruned to bring out their distinguishing characteristics.”

Masuno writes, “The idea of garden design as a dialogue between the designer and the elements in the garden is clearly stated in the first known Japanese garden manual, the eleventh-century Garden Making… implies the requirements to have a dialogue with the elements in the garden in order to have a complete understanding of the unique character of each element.”

Masuno-san autographing my Zen book
I don't know what it says, but it sure looks special!

Masuno-san and me 


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