The Monks who Place the Stones

On Tuesday there was a lecture in Moscow by Shiro Nakane about Japanese landscape design. He is perhaps the foremost practitioner of Japanese landscape design and his father before him, designing gardens on a scale of many acres. He talked about some of the gardens in Japan which his father restored for instance, Saiho ji and which I talk about in the film Japan – Philosophical Landscapes which is part of a broader project about the role of landscape in Japanese culture and art. Shiro Nakane is following in a tradition which has lasted for centuries down to the middle ages and before. The techniques have changed – concrete is used for the foundations of the giant ponds on which huge rocks must rest. In fact in one instance he used large metal plates which shipbuilders were called in to lay and weld together as foundations. However the philosophy remains the same even if some of  the  materials used have been adapted to  modern technology. Shiro Nakane explained that part of his role is to listen to the landscape and listen to nature to see how the design of the garden should be determined. What does it mean to “listen” to nature” Below is an excerpt from the text of the film Japan – Philosophical Landscapes which illustrates this in more detail.

It was in the Kamakura period “The monks who place the stones , – Ishiateso  – were given the task of designing the temple gardens using large rocks as their main mode of expression. The influence of Chinese landscape paintings which came from the mainland during the sung dynasty found an echo in the garden designs of the Zen monks who used the themes of ethereal mountains and rivers to build microcosmic gardens. They sought to build a world within worlds, as their gardens became miniaturised versions of the cosmic order and the rocks seemed like mountains rising out of an ocean. In keeping with the idea of wabi sabi, they left the door open to the imagination of the viewer,   inviting them to forget themselves“.

The garden designer and architects “followed” features of the landscape already existing, “listening” to these objects and building the garden around these preexisting features.They used the asymmetry of nature  set against the symmetry of man-made artifacts.

Below is an clip from the film which can be downloaded here:

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