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portland japanese garden cultural crossing project

“Tradition is not simple ‘preservation’.  It is that element in creative art which does not change at its core but which changes constantly in its expression.”

  • Uchiyama Takeo, director emeritus for the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto



The concept of traditional details being implemented in new ways embodies the core of the recent Portland Japanese Garden’s Cultural Crossing Project.  With growing visitor-ship, expanded programming, and a newly founded institution for Japanese Garden Arts & Culture, the need to preserve and maintain the peace and tranquility of the historic garden while allowing for growth became essential.  Tokyo based Balazs Bognar of Kengo Kuma Associates, and PJG Garden Curator, Sadafumi Uchiyama collaborated on a concept to address these needs which embraced a modern adaptation of Japanese traditional elements and placed the historic garden in a position of reverence.  Delicately weaving together these elements on a small, steep, and heavily forested site, this international design team worked alongside master craftsmen to continue the cultivation of traditional Japanese skills in this iconic Pacific Northwest setting.  Desirae Wood, along with Walker Macy Landscape Architects, Hacker Architects, KPPF Engineering, GRI, PAE, and Hoffman Construction took this incredible vision and guided its creation.  As an essential member of the design team, Desi’s role throughout the project included Assistant to the Garden Curator, Project Manager, Project Engineer, and involvement with daily hands on construction.


Emerging from this incredibly complex site development and construction process is an award-winning project which seamlessly blends world class architecture with the most authentic Japanese Garden outside of Japan.  Totaling $37 million, the LEED Gold accredited project includes four new buildings within a new entry experience and cultural village, along with three new garden areas: the Entry Garden, the Tsubo-Niwa Courtyard Garden, and the Ellie M. Hill Bonsai Terrace.  From the beginning of construction to the last hand-built detail, the attention to master craftsmanship and enduring materials was evident: Shinto ritual blessings of the site, boulders split and chipped by hand, and priceless aged trees saved for transplant all set the tone for the high commitment to authenticity.



Emphasizing the human scale of the site, the project respected and worked within the existing terrain and forest.  Beginning from the new entry, the garden approach sequence was modeled after a transitional journey from the city to a sacred shrine in the mountains – or in this case a sacred garden in the forested hills of Portland.  The passage takes one through a refined and restored native landscape known in Japan as satoyama.  Leaving behind the stress of the city, one passes through numerous ceremonial boundaries before reaching the intimate hilltop cultural village in the forest.  The monzenmachi, or cultural village, supports and protects the historic garden as it would a shrine in Japan.  Within the village, boundaries of architecture and landscape become intertwined.  Permeable building boundaries play with light and shadow constantly changing through the day; floating eaves erase the walls, and ecoroofs merge visually into the forest.  Referred to as ‘kyokai’, the Japanese technique for articulating space is found throughout the project and is evident in each design principle. 


Surrounding scenes of the forest and gardens are brought into the project space through linear devices such as hedges, fences, stone walls, and building elements which replace the foreground and frame the landscape.  Full of these diverse views, the village is laid out in a classic zigzag pattern often referred to in Japan as the ‘flying geese’ pattern.  Made famous by its use at the Katsura Imperial Villa, the pattern reduces enclosure around the central village courtyard and creates more interesting corners and intimate spaces.  Simply put, there is always a connection and relationship between the gardens and the buildings. 


To connect the entire site as a cohesive experience, water was implemented as a binding force.  Whether one is in the historic garden, new cultural village, or new entry area – water is a constant, meaningful and tranquil presence.  Both physically and symbolically, water flows down the hill from the garden to the world and is representative of the force of life and flow of wisdom.  The model of a garden for the people is a positive message derived of the closely tied relationship of culture, nature, and daily life. 


Showcasing Japanese traditional gardening techniques for dealing with water, a beautiful green infrastructure system blends seamlessly into the landscape while addressing modern storm water requirements.  Due to geological site conditions and city regulations, all rainfall on the site was required to be collected and treated.  The narrative for this ecological design challenge begins with the village buildings.  Using a Japanese porous ceramic paver called Greenbiz, a thin profile second story ecoroof absorbs rainfall, echoes a traditional Japanese farmhouse vernacular, and merges into the forest visually.  Water not absorbed by the ecoroofs is collected and daylights in an ephemeral creek which slowly winds down the hillside around buildings, under bridges, and along pathways.  The hidden infrastructure to support this storm water system is built with Western civil engineering standards while the creek decoration by hand follows Japanese garden aesthetic principles.  Using shotcrete, plaster, stone, gravel, and plants, the conveyance of storm water becomes an aesthetically focused living system adapted for the Japanese garden.  Evocative of a rushing mountain creek near the village, the water slows through winding abstract oxbows on the journey downhill before settling in the native wetland at the entry.


This demonstration that infrastructure and beauty are not separate is made possible by the attention to detail to create these scenic affects.  Such consideration of details is evident in the materials and craftsmanship.  Designed up from the details, the project utilized authentic and modern materials which connect visitors to nature.  Emphasizing exacting craftsmanship, traditional details are preserved with modern adaptations.  Thin, sharp, printed aluminum eaves float comfortably above the first story building roofs.  Precise roof panel joints align with wooden elements both in and outside the new buildings.  Utilizing authentic Japanese carpentry techniques, joints were chiseled and doweled, and wood was hand tooled to create a lustrous naturally sealed finish.  Alaskan Yellow cedar, maple, oak, Port Orford cedar, and chestnut are all used to create lightness, warmth, and a graceful patina.  Daylight is softened and integral to the buildings with deep sheltered eaves, sliding glass walls, and Tyvek as modern rice paper. 


Balancing the visual weight of the village buildings, a series of Japanese castle walls retain the forested hillside in the background.  Built of Baker Blue granite, the construction of the wall was led by 15th generation Ano Zumi (dry stone wall) mason, Suminori Awata.  Stones were hand selected, hand split, hand chiseled and then dry laid by a group of skilled masons to achieve the intricate sweeping granite walls.  Grounding the edge of the village, the historic garden, and the forest, the castle walls unify the hilltop and preserve a traditional skill.  Such preservation of skill, whether with modern or traditional materials, truly embodies this project.  Through journey, intertwined boundaries, binding elements, and authentic details – from large to small – the use of traditional details being implemented in new ways shows the beauty and relevance of Japanese Garden arts and culture in the modern world.




Suminori Awata, Bassett Construction, Dale Brotherton, Matt Driscoll, Dann Dunn, Nakamura Komuten, Kyle Schlagenhauf, Smith Rock, Stone Sculptures, Straight Up Carpentry, Turnstone Construction

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