A garden sanctuary in the city

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

There is a visible nod to tradition in the shaping and use of natural materials to finish off the exterior of International House, a Modernist building in one of the nicer residential areas of Tokyo’s swank Roppongi district.

A large part of the original section of this institution traditionally dedicated to nurturing international exchange, but now embracing a rather broader agenda of cultural and commercial events, is clad with oya-ishi (Oya stone). The rock, a kind of tuft formed from volcanic ash, has a grain and quality boasting the kind of porous texture marked with holes that’s found in certain European cheeses. Its tonal range — from powdered green tea to muted blues, and even mustard — hint at the idea of nature transformed by human hands. The concept is even more evident at the rear of the building, the location for a modest but aesthetically pleasing garden.

With the exception of dry-landscape installations, whose lines and components are determined by stone settings that can retain the same sight lines for centuries, Japanese gardens have undergone changes in form and dimension as the result of climatic conditions, urban development, fluctuating design trends and, above all, ownership.

During the Edo Period (1603-1857) of unbroken rule by a succession of Tokugawa-family shoguns, these grounds belonged to the Kyogoku clan. Then, with the Emperor Meiji’s restoration to head of state in 1868, they fell into the hands of the government, who in turn passed the site onto Kaoru Inoue, the foreign minister. It was then given to Prince Kuninomiya, before being acquired privately by the Akahoshi family. After that, the shuttlecock plot was sold to the powerful Iwasaki family, founders of the Mitsubishi conglomerate.

Depending on ownership, gardens can either flourish or wither — and it was certainly fortunate that this one came under the design influence of the Iwasaki family. Here, as at other estates of theirs in Tokyo such as the Iwasaki Mansion in Yushima, the family’s input demonstrates a sensitivity to environmental coordination and the close link in Japan between gardens and architecture.

However, following a brief spell of government ownership after World War II, the plot was taken over by International House. The current building dates from 1955, making it, at least by Tokyo standards, almost a heritage structure. Designed by three leading Japanese architects — Junzo Sakakura, Junzo Yoshimura and Kunio Maekawa, the latter of whom expanded the facilities in 1976 — the resulting form bears a clear stamp of the Modernist movement in architecture that was spearheaded by Le Corbusier.

Nonetheless, the convergent lines between building and garden, and a seamless and sinuous interflow of form, speak too of a more Japanese aesthetic. In this respect, for example, the restaurant -cafe section of the building, cantilevered over the pond, was based on a design taken from scroll paintings of the Heian Period (794-1185).

The garden we see today was designed by the influential gardener Jihei Ogawa (1860-1933). Commissioned by Koyata Iwasaki as an adjunct to a mansion meant to serve as a venue for entertaining foreign guests, the garden was completed in 1930. Known for his requisitioning of shakkei (borrowed views), Ogawa’s gardens are characterized by wide, open spaces that integrate lawns and water.

Ogawa developed a seasoned eye for making swift assessments of land sites, commenting in 1910, “It takes only a minute to form a general plan for how to create a garden. … Then I check where the moon rises, where it is in the fall, where the sun shines in warm seasons and in cold seasons.”

The creator of many enduring Kyoto landscapes, including those of the compact Hekiun-so (Nomura Villa), the expansive Heian-jingu (Heian Shrine) and the Kaiu-so villa of businessman Katsutaro Inabata, he is remembered for his pioneering water-management projects in the Nanzenji district of Kyoto.

When the Lake Biwa Canal bringing water 11 km from Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture to the former Imperial capital of Kyoto was completed in 1890, it became possible to divert water to private gardens owned by aristocrats and members of a new affluent business class who acquired properties in the Nanzenji residential quarter.

The creation of these gardens helped to establish Ogawa’s name as one of the foremost designers of his day.

Hiromasa Amasaki, a professor at Kyoto University of Art and Design, has written of Ogawa’s work, “His manner of expression was influenced by a modern view of nature and implied a departure from the clichéd reproduction of poem scenery.

“It was in a sense a shift from gardens for contemplation to gardens for appreciation with all five senses.”

This is patently true of his creation at International House, where our perceptions on entering the garden are instantly purged and cleansed of urban clutter.

For students of the Japanese garden, there are features of interest beyond the broad sweep of open garden and lawn: a dry river, an ancient-looking circular stone pedestal from under a great wooden temple pillar, two stone figurines in the deeper, everglade rear of the garden — and timeworn stone statues.

The garden strata conform to the classic Japanese approach of dividing landscapes into three portions. In this case, the foreground is dominated by the lawn, the mid-section is planted with bushes and shrubs, with the denser background consisting of a tree-studded hill.

The pressures on gardens located within areas of prime real estate is nowhere higher than in Tokyo, a city in which redevelopment has time and again trumped beauty and heritage. A few years ago, a developer had plans to demolish the main building and flatten the garden. Mercifully, members of International House, with the support of the Architectural Institute of Japan, were able to mount a successful campaign for its preservation.

To their credit, the current custodians of Ogawa’s garden and its Modernist addition have made sure it remains dedicated — not to commercial advancement — but to lifting the spirits of those who seek out its delights.

International House is a 5-minute walk from Azabu-juban subway station or 10 minutes from Roppongi Station. Open daily. For events listings, see www.i-house.or.jp.