Seriyu-en

(Garden of the Clear Stream, also known as the James Irvine Garden)

Background information

Takeo Uesugi, 1979. 8500 square feet. 244 South San Pedro Street
Garden design in Japan is more than a way of creating spaces to admire. It is also a process for weaving aesthetic principles and traditions into symbolic settings for quiet reflection and contemplation. Articulating a rich cultural legacy that embraces Japanese society's fundamental world view, gardens continue to influence and inspire modern Japanese artists. Without sacrificing the integrity of this heritage, Uesugi combined a community presence with local features to create a Japanese-style garden rather than an authentic Japanese garden.

In 1978, Uesugi was commissioned to design the garden for the Japanese American Community & Cultural Center (JACCC). He wanted the place to serve residents living in the nearby Little Tokyo Towers as well as the larger urban community. Believing that sharing responsibility for the project was an important part of the process in making the space accessible to the public, Uesugi met twice a month with the project's Garden Committee and encouraged involvement by the area's nurserymen. Through the Centinela Chapter of the California Association of Nurserymen, Japanese American nurserymen donated trees, materials and ground cover. Other contributions were made by the San Gabriel Nursery, which provided shrubs, and Frank Yamashita, who donated the Japanese black pines. So generous and responsive was the community, that one of Uesugi's most difficult challenges was integrating the many types of donated plants into the overall composition. Grants totalling $250,000 from the James Irvine Foundation were the principal funds for the $450,000 project. The garden, however, could not have been completed without the physical labor of more than 200 weekend volunteers from the Southern California Gardeners' Federation and the Pacific Coast Chapter of the California Landscape Contractors Association. During construction, Uesugi was advised by his teacher, Dr. Tadashi Kubo from the University of Osaka Prefecture. Uesugi is continuing to meet with the Garden Committee. Maintenance is largely done on a volunteer basis by a semi-retired gardener and by the Southern California Gardening Federation.

Seiryu-en is not to be viewed from the outside, like Riyoan-ji, the famed karasansui (rock and sand) garden in Kyoto. Instead of designing a shakkei or "borrowed scenery" garden, in which the background in incorporated into the garden's design, Uesugi planted redwoods and other trees along the edge of Seiryu-en to screen the surrounding buildings, isolate the garden and intensify the sense of enclosure while suggesting that a forest extends beyond. Indeed, Seiryu-en is a shuyu or stroll garden, combining long and compressed vistas, with places to stop, pause and reflect along a winding path of decomposed granite, beaten earth and asymmetrically aligned stepping stones.

A tea house was planned but never built at the rear of the JACCC Auditorium. However, features originally derived from traditional tea gardens appear throughout Seiryu-en: stepping stones, wooden bridges, stone lanterns, and just to the left of the entrance from the JACCC, water dripping from a bamboo spout into a stone tsukubai basin. Seiryu-en is rich and complex. It displays a diversity of lantern and bridge styles and a variety of bamboo fences--Kenninyi near the tsukubai basin, the simple Yotsume Gaki near the first bridge to the right of the entrance, and Kinkakuji in the narrow courtyard garden on the south side of the JACCC administration building. In addition to the bamboo fence, the courtyard garden is embellished with a stone water basin, a lantern, several different rock compositions, a grove of Madake bamboo that screens the sun from the adjacent offices and stepping stones. Following the Japanese practice, the stepping stones in both the courtyard garden and the larger stroll garden aligned in an asymmetrical zig-zag pattern to create interest, mystery and uncertainty. The belief in the coexistence of opposites (yin and yang) is displayed in Seiryu-en, as it is in Japan, by the juxtaposition of the manmade objects with natural rocks, water, plants and earth. Uesugi integrated all these contrasting elements into a balanced and unified composition, continuing the Japanese tradition of designing gardens that are in harmony with nature.

Murin-an, a garden constructed in Kyoto during the 1890's, influenced the triangular plan of Seiryu-en. But Uesugi did more than copy the layout of an existing Japanese garden. Applying the principles of the 11th century codification of rules on garden design, the Sakuteiki, he adopted local features, such as lining the edge of the stream with boulders from Mt. Baldy to imitate a stream on the mountain and by using plants, such as the coast redwood and Southern Magnolia, which are common in California but not found in Japan.

As with traditional Japanese gardens, symbolism ties the physical elements of Seiryu-en together. Water was included not only for its appearance and sound, but because it represents life. The 170 foot stream, which gives the garden its name, follows Japanese custom by starting in the east, the source of the new day and where all things begin. A waterfall, cascading down a rock path, represents both the Issei and their struggles against economic and political discrimination. An island, which in Japan represents the mythological home of mortal souls, longevity and good health, splits the stream, symbolizing the conflicts Nisei experienced when they served in the armed forces during World War II while their families were confined to concentration camps. The stream finally slows and reunites, representing the resolution of past differences in the Japanese American community by the Sansei or third generation. A shallow, quiet pond speaks of the hope for peace before the water finally disappears, apparently flowing out to the street, symbolizing the integration of Japanese Americans into American culture.

In 1981, the American Association of Nurserymen gave the garden the National Landscape Award at a ceremony at the White House.



The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, January 1998.

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