Zen as Art: Art as Zen

A new $28 million Japanese garden is being built right in our backyard, well-hidden from the passing masses on one of West Michigan's busiest thoroughfares. But do we have to wait until 2015 to see the progress? Maybe not.
A formidable, low-slung, copper-roofed gatehouse greets you at the entrance, accented with the familiar Japanese extended roof overhangs and long horizontal lines. Carefully pruned Bonsai trees, painstakingly placed boulders, green flowing moss and an urn to wash your hands tell you that this is nothing like the rest of the sculpture gardens from which you've come. Meandering paths leading in several directions beckon you to explore the lush watery gardens. You stand and ponder your decision.

These paths lead you into a world very unlike the one you just left behind, with twists and turns and new surprises around every corner: sculptures hiding behind heavy fauna, large and small waterfalls that seem to drown out the world around you, sidewalks designed in a manner to bring inner peace without you even noticing it, birds singing in the trees, pines shaped into odd Dr. Seuss-like shapes, ponds teeming with brightly colored fish, copper-hued gazebos majestically placed to provide respite and an overarching view of your surroungings, and even a zigzag handcrated wooden bridge across a marshy wetland.

You might think this description is of a garden far removed from anything in West Michigan, but the new $28 million Richard M. and Helen DeVos Japanese Gardens - being painstakingly constructed in the northeast corner of Frederik Meijer Gardens fit this to a "tea," and then some. The 8 1/2-acre project is the culmination of 10 years of planning by the gardens, as well as generous support from the local communitiy.

"A Japanese Garden is really a reflection of the depth and breadth of Japanese culture. I believe our guests will be transported far beyond the boundaries of Kent County through the beauty and richness of this new space," says Joseph Becherer, VP and Chief Curator of the Frederik Meijer Gardens.

From a ceremonial planting of a Japanese Maple and Black Pine and a boulder placement at the entrance in 2012, hundreds of thousands of yards of earth have been moved, hundreds of trees have been planted, and over 3800 "Michigan made" boulders have been placed throughout the site. An existing wetland area has been massively expanded to create the central lake water feature of the park, around which paths move in a circuitous fashion.

Hoichi Kurisu of Kurisu International is the head architectural designer on the project. According to Becherer, "Hoichi is one of the leading Japanese Garden designers working today. He was selected for Meijer Gardens after a national search and quickly emerged as the leading candidate. His sensitivity for carefully articulated design places him in a category of his own."

Kurisu's portfolio includes some of the most widely known gardens in the country, including Portland Japanese Gardens, the Morikami Japanese Garden in Florida, and the Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford, Illinois.

At the time of our visit, on an unusally gorgeous October day, Kurisu (who moved to Grand Rapids to oversee the design work), was seen helping a crew carefully place a boulder with a backhoe, workboots on and sweat dripping from his brow like the rest of the team. Many times it takes Kurisu and his crew several hours just to place one boulder, making sure that it is in perfect harmony with its surroundings.

The design is a constant "work in process," and according to Meijer Gardens staff, changes day to day. The final design of the entire park is still yet to be fully drawn, and may never be.

Several waterfalls flank the Eastern edge of the pond and, according to sources, one symbolizes the masculine form and one the feminine. The masculine stands in a tall vertical fashion, and will apparently be much louder than the other. The feminine waterfall moves more slowly and thoughtfully, with much more subdued splashing sounds.

Intricately and harmoniously placed in the gardens will be sculptures by world-renowned masters David Nash, Anish Kapoor, Zhang Huan and George Rickey.

The zigzag bridge on the northern end of the pond breaks in multiple directions, using a pattern that is believed to evade evil spirits, a common design practice used in feng shui. The wood rails and spindles are all hand-carved by craftspeople and create a dizzying criss-crossing wooden pattern.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the park is the structures, many of which were handcrafted and assembled on site in Japan, and then carefully disassembled and shipped to the U.S., to be rebuilt onsite by over 30 carpenters brought in from Japan. The highlight of all the buildings will be the tea house, which was constructed using traditional Japanese techniques that incorporate no nails, screws, or power tools -- only the careful fitting of wooden forms and pegs.

This honorable abode will play host primarily to special events when it opens, with a preparation gazebo outside where visitors will await a formal escort from the tea master. Interestingly, we were asked not to take photographs of the building, as it was yet unfinished, out of respect for the designer.

Visiting the site at this point in the construction allows some perspective of what is to come for this somewhat earth-torn landscape over the next year and a half. Most of the building structures will be completed and closed in by November of this year, and the rest of the construction period will be dedicated to landscaping design and implementation. The Frederik Meijer Gardens team could not give a firm opening date, as Kurisu is unsure. But they do promise it will be in 2015, and they plan to host a variety of public tram sneak-peek tours as the 2014 season unfolds.

"Although traditional, it is thrilling to know this Japanese Garden will be unlike any other, but a reflection of our mission through the sensitive inclusion of the contemporary sculpture," states Becherer.

Project architect(s): Kurisu International, ProgressiveAE
Construction: Owen-Ames-Kimball

Jeff Hill is the Publisher of Rapid Growth Media

Photos by Jeff Hill and courtesy images from Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, and Japanese Gardens Visitors Alliance.

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