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A modern master of an old tradition


MIREI SHIGEMORI: Modernizing the Japanese Garden, by Christian Tschumi, photographs by Markuz Wernli Saito. Stone Bridge Press, 128 pp., $18.95 (paper).

A revival of interest in the dry landscape garden of Japan both domestically and internationally took place during the early Showa Era (1926-1989), in which abstraction and symbolism once again came to the fore.

This was partly due to the fact that several new temple gardens were commissioned during this time, but also to the efforts of a number of prominent garden designers, among them Kinsaku Nakane and Takuma Tono.

Arguably, the foremost figure in the renaissance of the dry landscape garden was designer and garden historian Mirei Shigemori (1896-1971). Shigemori believed that by the middle of the Edo Period, as professionals took over their construction, much of the vitality had been leached from the Japanese garden, and that emulation and repetition had replaced innovation.

Shigemori’s first concern, to renew the Japanese garden, was soon superseded by a dynamic innovation the likes of which the Japanese garden world had not seen. And like all radical shifts, this one deeply divided the garden establishment. It is a testament to the originality of Shigemori’s work that it still does.

Those who embraced Shigemori’s avant-garde designs were prepared to accept a leap in the use of gardens often rigged with lassos of twisting lines standing in for waves or clouds. Shigemori’s use of sand and gravel was traditional enough, but these expanses were often colored, raked and crosshatched into new patterns, designed to complement the fresh geometric forms of the garden. Most controversial, perhaps, was the use of concrete, something vigorously opposed by purists.

An English gardener of the old school might concur with that view, recoiling at the sight of crazing paving, stones embedded in cement, and painted concrete borders. It might remind one of the tastes expressed in lower-middle class suburban gardens of the 1960s, the type embellished with miniature wheelbarrows, ornamental wells and a distressful number of garden gnomes.

Reiun-in, a subtemple of Tofuku-ji, was reconstructed by Shigemori in 1970. Wisely excluded from this collection, the garden is a good example of the risks involved in using modern, perishable materials. Daring flourishes in cement, the red paint long faded, are fast turning to building rubble. A corroded, deeply stained suiseki stone arrangement, supported on a concrete structure vaguely resembling a stone lantern at the center of the garden, looks alarmingly like an ashtray or old mortuary tablet.

Consummately illustrated with a very Japanese disdain for the bright, sunlit photography common to Western titles on the Japanese garden, the book profiles 10 of Shigemori’s best known works, many of the most radical executed in the last decade of his life.

There is an explicit intention in the design of each garden, which may not be immediately apparent without the kind of prior knowledge this book provides. Laid out like a chessboard suggesting the remains of old fortification walls, the planar garden at Kishiwada Castle, for example, re-enacts a battle scene from Chinese mythology, replete with troop formations and a concentrated stone setting representing a central camp.

Shigemori even placed stone gardens within the precincts of shrines, a practice that may have appeared radical at the time, but was in a sense an acknowledgment of the ancient links between gravel-laid forest clearings and early Shinto’s attachment to rocks, stones and sand. A good example is Shigemori’s design for Sumiyoshi Shrine in Hyogo Prefecture.

Three years ago the garden appeared to be in need of some maintenance to its splintering bamboo fences, crumbling borders and signature white cement lines that flow through the garden like thick pythons. The surfaces were cracked and scaly, heightening the serpent analogy. Somebody had placed a number of large, hideously painted ceramic pots and urns within the garden in an attempt at an exhibition of some sort. Shigemori may actually have approved this kind of space requisitioning.

Shigemori was probably the first designer in the modern period to suggest using stone gardens as a performance and exhibition space. Shortly after the completion of his design at Kishiwada Castle, an exhibition of metal sculptures was held in the garden. Very apropos was Shigemori’s own contribution to the stone garden. He produced a traditional dance performance for the event in which the theme was the straight and the curved line. His 1969 design for a teahouse known as Tenrai-an, an arresting composition that sets stepping stones in a painted cement base, is described by the author of this book, Christian Tschumi, as “less a garden and more a walk-on sculpture.” In Shigemori’s mind, there was no reason a garden should not be multifunctional.

Ultimately, the appreciation of Shigemori’s work is a matter of taste, but the gardens, always alert, refreshing, remain “a compelling manifesto,” as Tschumi writes in his revealing text, “for continuous cultural renewal.” Shigemori himself wrote that “A garden should have a timeless modernity; what is singularly modern in our time has no real value.”

Only time will tell whether Shigemori’s works will live up to his own standards for longevity.