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  Glacier Blue® Architectural Topics & News
     Monthly Newsletter
July 2010
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Topic of the Month: Japanese Stone Gardens

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Topic of the Month: Japanese Stone Gardens

Japanese stone gardenAn overwhelming sense of peace and tranquility is instantly felt upon entering a Japanese stone garden. Part of this is a result of the fact that the primary materials used are carefully selected rocks, stones and boulders that sit amidst the garden landscape with a cool stillness that can only come from this nature-made material. But it is their placement in the space that truly creates a harmonious atmosphere like no other.

Among the different types of Japanese style gardens, including the tea garden, the stroll garden, and the pond and island garden, the stone garden is by far the most intriguing of the designs, consisting of various sized stones sitting atop a bed of raked sand or gravel. The varied shapes and forms inspire one to gaze upon the almost alien-like vista and find hidden meaning in its quietude.

Japanese stone gardens are also called "dry gardens", or karesansui, an art form that can be traced back two thousand years. According to the "Bilingual Dictionary of Japanese Garden Terms," the dry garden is, "a garden style unique to Japan, which appeared in the Muromachi period (1392-1568). Using neither ponds nor streams, it makes symbolic representations of natural landscapes using stone arrangements, white sand, moss and pruned trees." Unlike other Japanese-style gardens, there is no water present in karesansui gardens (or the karesansui compartment of a garden). The sand or gravel that is used is meant to merely suggest water by symbolizing the sea, rivers or lakes.

There has been speculation as to whether or not Japanese stone gardens are linked to the practice of Zen Buddhism. In any case, this type of garden is one that is conducive to calm reflection and there are some very Zen-like qualities to creating such a space. The fact that it is common practice for Zen monks in Japan and China to spend time raking sand to achieve a meditative state is reminiscent of the raked sand in a stone garden. The sand, which is often crushed white or beige granite, can be raked in an undefinable number of patterns involving either straight lines, concentric rings or spirals, or a combination of both. Using the lines to complement the stones is a way to visually enhance the design by using the garden floor as one would use a blank canvas.

The selection and placement of stones is, of course, of primary importance in the design of a Japanese stone garden. The Sakuteiki is one of the oldest known Japanese garden manuals and it equates the creation of gardens with the setting of stones. At the time the Sakuteiki was written, the placement of stones was perceived as the primary act of gardening. Similar expressions are also used in the text to mean literally "setting garden stones" rather than "creating gardens". Placing the stones with careful attention within the space has an undeniably spiritual component, as that responsibility often fell to the priestly caste. In the Sakuteiki, the secrets of rock-placing is associated with the priest En no Enjari. The job was a delicate one, as the poor placement of stones was believed to result in illness or misfortune.

Stone arrangements and other miniature elements are used to represent mountains, islands, and natural water elements and scenes. Stone and shaped shrubs are used interchangeable. In most gardens, moss is used as a ground cover to create or simulate "land" covered by forest. Karesansui gardens are often meant to be viewed from a seated position outside of the actual garden, as entering the garden would disrupt the relationship and scale of the composition.

One very important feature in most Japanese gardens is the sentinel stone. They are found at the entrance gate, or at other important focal points. Used with careful thought and reverence, their presence offers a suggestion of conscience and higher authority which can act as a guidepost on one's personal garden path.

Other basic stone types that are used in Japanese gardens in numerous combinations are: 1) The Soul Stone - a low vertical stone with a wide base and a tapered top, placed in a prevalent area of the landscape; 2) The Body Stone - an upright stone that stands the tallest and determines the flow of the garden; 3) The Heart Stone - a flat stepping stone used to harmonize the vertical stones with its horizontal lines; 4) The Branching Stone - a stone with a flat top that is wider than its base that helps to draw groups of vertical and horizontal stones together like the branches of a tree; and 5) The Ox Stone - a flat stone with one side that is higher than the other, usually placed in the foreground. These basic stones are often placed among Helping Stones which are smaller, nondescript rocks that help unify the design.

Perhaps the most famous of all Japanese dry gardens is that of Ryoan-ji, or "The Temple of the Peaceful Dragon," a Zen temple located in Kyoto, Japan. The garden is the epitome of simplicity, consisting of fifteen rocks arranged in a rectangle of raked white gravel.  Although the garden probably dates back to the fifteenth century, its current form may date back only to the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century.

To lend credence to the serenity felt by most people who visit a Japanese style rock garden, an article published in Nature, written by Gert van Tonder and Michael Lyons, analyzes rock garden design and explains it in scientific terms. Using a model of shape analysis (medial axis) in early visual processing, van Tonder and Lyons show that the empty space of the garden is implicitly structured, and is aligned with a temple's architecture. "According to the researchers, one critical axis of symmetry passes close to the centre of the main hall, which is the traditionally preferred viewing point. In essence, viewing the placement of the stones from a sightline along this point brings a shape from nature (a dichotomously branched tree with a mean branch length decreasing monotonically from the trunk to the tertiary level) in relief."

"The researchers propose that the implicit structure of the garden is designed to appeal to the viewers unconscious visual sensitivity to axial-symmetry skeletons of stimulus shapes. In support of their findings, they found that imposing a random perturbation of the locations of individual rock features destroyed the special characteristics."

Despite any rules or specifics regarding the creation of a Japanese rock or "dry" garden, the most important thing a designer can do is to examine the location in which the garden will be constructed, follow the flow of the landscape and search for the appropriate stones with shapes and colors that fit harmoniously into that particular space. By doing this, a serene, balanced and contemplative place is sure to be the final result.

Helpful Links for Architects

AIA Interior Architecture Knowledge Community
The AIA Interior Architecture Knowledge Community provides leadership and expertise to practitioners of interior architecture and design, working cooperatively with its members and other interiors organizations to address relevant, timely practice issues, markets, and trends, such as licensing, liability, environmental, and technological considerations. Through the Interior Architecture Knowledge Community, important links are maintained with allied professionals, service providers, and manufacturers. If you wish to become a member of the AIA Interior Architecture Knowledge Community, call AIA Member Services at 800-242-3837, or visit:

Architect Online's Continuing Education Center

Architect Online's Online Continuing Education Center gives professionals a convenient way to earn necessary continuing education credits without having to set foot in a classroom. The courses listed, sponsored by the companies noted, are accessible from anywhere you can establish an online connection. Just register, read the required material, and then take the test, either through a downloadable mail-in form, or free via a secure online connection, depending on the course. You'll be able to maintain your professional credentials, at your pace, and at a location that works for you. Visit:

Architectural Record Continuing Education Center
Architectural Record magazine has a free Continuing Education Center where architects can earn AIA Continuing Education Credits online. Visit:

Architectural Record Discussion Forums

The McGraw Hill Construction Community, publisher of Architectural Record, has provided architects with a forum to express ideas, opinions, suggestions, and gripes. The discussion forums are open to all, and include topics such as Green Building Projects, Virtual Design, Practice Matters and a forum for younger architects. Visit:

CORA - Congress of Residential Architecture
CORA is a grass root organization that encourages our members to participate in the dialog of improving residential architecture in a way that suits them best. The purpose of the CORA is to provide a continuing forum for advocating and enhancing residential architecture by all individuals, both professionals and non-professionals, that share a common interest in improving the quality of the homes and communities we live in. Visit:

The Green Meeting Industry Council

The Green Meeting Industry Council (GMIC) is a non profit 501(c)(6) membership-based organization. Their goal is to encourage collaboration within the meetings industry toward the development of green standards that will improve the environmental performance of meetings and events on a global basis. The GMIC is the only professional green meetings organization that is a member of the Convention Industry Council. For more information visit:

The World Architecture Community
The World Architecture Community invites all architects to create a free profile on their website. The World Architecture Portal is a unique comprehensive international directory and catalog of contemporary architecture where all architects, scholars and institutions may submit their work and links to share with colleagues from around the world.
For more information visit:

We hope you enjoyed our informative monthly e-newsletter. For questions, comments or more information, please e-mail or call us today.

Liz Benton, Editor 
Glacier Blue® Architectural Topics & News
Devonian Stone of New York, Inc.

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