North America is not a land mass one immediately associates with gardens. China, Japan, Britain and France, perhaps, lay claim to the mind’s strongest landscape associations.

QUIET BEAUTY: The Japanese Gardens of North America, by Kendall H. Brown, photographs by David M. Cobb. Tuttle Publishing, 2013, 176 pp., $34.95 (hardcover)

This book represents a major step in resetting our perceptions. The title covers three distinct phases in the evolution of these gardens in North America: the age of world fairs, sister city gardens and the latter, more sophisticated works that reflect a greater knowledge of the subject and a willingness to adapt and co-opt ideas rather than imitate. Interestingly, it is in this latter phase that we see more authentic gardens, landscapes closer in spirit and form to those found in Japan.

The first world fair Japanese gardens in North America were created as early as the 1870s. Disassembled after the event, few have survived intact. One of the exceptions to these 19th-century creations is San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden, which was built, like many such early designs, by anonymous Japanese immigrants, this one in 1894 for the California Mid-Winter Fair.

The gardens in this work are all open to the public. This is a blessing. There is nothing quite so frustrating as coming across the color plate of an exquisitely designed landscape in a garden book, only to find that it is privately owned, entrance strictly restricted. While some of the gardens are public, city-run enterprises, those managed by private organizations constantly need to raise funds to maintain them. Some trusts and institutions have resorted to hiring out their gardens for weddings, performances, exhibitions and other events. This requisitioning of gardens is not uncommon in Japan itself. Observing many of Kyoto’s solemn, formal landscapes, it is easy to forget that in the Heian Period (794-1185), gardens were often venues for social interaction, pleasure and dalliance.

The skeptic will always look for authenticity and assess overseas gardens accordingly, but one should resist the temptation to judge the quality of designs on their verisimilitude to landscapes in Japan. That would be to miss the point. These are Japanese-style gardens in North America, a fact that infers significant differences in available plant species, climatic variables, visual and tactile distinctions in raw materials like wood and thatch, not to mention the long and considered process of interpretation.

For every objection the purist might raise, you can actually find a correspondence in gardens in Japan. If the presence of a pagoda in the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, seems ostentatious, you need look no further than the Chinzan-so garden in Tokyo for an “authentic” precedent. The concrete base of the snow-viewing lantern at the Japanese garden in the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, is less startling when you consider that the material was used liberally by Mirei Shigemori, one of Japan’s most outstanding landscape designers of the last century. If the waterfall at the Maymont Japanese Garden in Richmond, Virginia, is powered by an electric motor, it is little different from the similarly propelled cascade at the Adachi Museum Garden in Shimane. And when it comes to bronze cranes, standing in the shallows of ponds, you need look no further than the Kiunkaku garden in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture.

The most successful designers may be those who are at pains to avoid pastiche, but the reader who is looking for concise replications of design and mood can find them. The spacious grounds and semi-alpine forest density of the Japanese Garden at the Bloedel Reserve in Washington State reminded me of the beauty and repose found at the Tamozawa Imperial Villa in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture.

The Portland Japanese Garden in Oregon is one of the most consummate works featured, its tea garden an astonishingly faithful re-creation of the Japanese proto-model. There is an awakening sense in the later works that the essence of Japanese gardens rests in design principals as opposed to exotic embellishments.

By the end of this well-written and beautifully photographed book we realize that, far from being lost in transplantation, Japanese garden aesthetics and principals have been re-codified and adapted to create energizing, transformative works. This is a process not altogether different from Japan’s own adaptation of Chinese garden ideas and design concepts.

In the fullness of time, like the Islamic gardens of Spain, our eyes are likely to become accustomed to these North American designs, which are less transplants than fresh creations, experiments in the re-contextualizing of landscape.

Stephen Mansfield is a British photo-journalist based in Japan. He is the author of several books on Japanese and Asian subjects.

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