Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

June 16, 2012

Concrete rocks - Review of Tschumi's "Mirei Shigemori"

The modern garden of the Tofukuji Hojo, with its characteristic checkerboard pattern of tiles in deep green moss, has always been one of my favorites and I am not alone in this, as it graces countless books about the Japanese garden. I knew that it had been designed by Shigemori Mirei, but I did not know anything else about the designer, who is also not mentioned in the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan.

That gap in my knowledge has now been filled y a beautiful book, Mirei Shigemori, Modernizing the Japanese Garden by Christian Tschumi. Photography is by Markuz Wernli Saito and the book has been beautifully edited. Mr Tschumi is a landscape architect who studied in Japan and wrote his dissertation about Shigemori Mirei, so we could not have a better guide to this subject.

[Checkerboard pattern in Hojo Garden of Tofukuji - Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

Shigemori Mirei (1896-1975) was a scholar of Japanese traditional culture, trained in Japanese-style painting (nihonga), flower arranging and the tea ceremony. He became a garden designer after having studied all the traditional gardens of Japan, about which he wrote a massive series of books - he was the first to do so in the years before the war.

Shigemori believed that in the Edo-period garden design had become mired in cliches, a mere copying of famous gardens of the past. In order for an art form to be alive, it has to be vibrantly contemporary, which meant that the "Zen garden" had to go avant-garde. Starting with the gardens of the Tofukuji Hojo in 1939, Shigemori Mirei became a garden designer - the war intervened, but in the last thirty years of his life he created an almost annually increasing number of gardens.

Shigemori's massive rocks are standing boldly upright, he introduced new materials as colored sand and concrete and made use of modern shapes as wave forms. But there is always a philosophy behind his gardens. Sometimes this even harks back to old Japanese notions of stone groupings as iwakura, places where the kami, the deities, would take their abode when visiting this world. Shigemori's gardens have been compared to the "earth sculptures" by Isamu Noguchi, an artist he knew and with whom he cooperated on the Unesco project in Paris.

All gardens have their own fundamental idea: in the garden of Kishiwada-jo Castle (1953) Shigemori built a military encampment as found in Chinese classics; Zuihoin (1961), a subtemple of Daitokuji that was the family temple of the Christian daimyo Otomo Sorin, features a hidden Christian cross in the form of a stone setting; in Sumiyoshi Jinja (1966), a Shinto shrine dedicated to a sea god, he created undulating wave forms of concrete; in Yurin no Niwa (1969), built for an association of kimono manufacturers, he used a noshi, a symbol of good luck that often was woven into kimono, as the central design element. And in the "Prehistoric Garden" of Matsuo Taisha (1975) he used a stone setting alluding to the iwakura that was the origin of this particular shrine.

[Impressive stone setting in Tofukuji - Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

Christian Tschumi's book discusses 10 gardens in detail, and also includes visiting information. It is perfect for a start - and if you want more you can of course turn to his dissertation! There is also an other option I found today when visiting Matsuo Taisha with Tschumi's book in hand - the shrine office was selling another recently published book, bilingual, called Shigemori Mirei, Creator of Spiritual Spaces, the first volume in a series of "Great Masters of the Gardens of Kyoto." It is significant that this series starst with Shigemori Mirei, also in Japan a reevaluation is underway.

Finally this garden master who devised gardens as if making paintings, and insisted on creativity and originality (quite revolutionary in Japan, where it is still the case in traditional crafts that the pupil copies his teacher), is getting the appreciation he deserves. The book just mentioned, introduces several of Shigemori's Kyoto gardens and also includes a list of all his creations.
Mirei Shigemori, Modernizing the Japanese Garden by Christian Tschumi; photography by Markuz Wernli Saito. Stone Bridge Press, 2005.

Shigemori Mirei, Creator of Spiritual Spaces, Photographs by Mizobuchi Hiroshi. Kyoto Tsushinsha Press, 2007.