Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Space in the Japanese Garden


The use and manner of the employment of space as a design element in the Japanese garden is one of its defining characteristics. Space is as important a design constituent as the trees, water, rocks or any other of the physical components of the garden.  It is a vital aspect of aesthetics that is prevalent in all of the Japanese ( and Chinese) arts, and demands a sensitivity to that which is being implied within the work, without all the possible consequences of an action having to be explicitly stated. This process then engages fully and directly the imagination of the viewer in the perception and appreciation of the work in question.  


To understand the manner in which space is utilised in the garden, it is important to appreciate that the garden is composed of a series of overlapping or interlocking views. This concept holds true for both gardens that are seen from a limited number of  viewing points ( such as from a veranda or within in a room, where the view of the garden is framed by the architecture) or gardens that are seen from multiple viewpoints ( as may be the case in a Stroll garden ).  A view is composed of three distinct components: namely, foreground, middle ground and background. Whilst each element will have a distinct character in its own right they are intended to be taken together  as a whole, as each aspect supports and enhances the others. Therefore the space between each of these components assumes a degree of importance both in aiding the definition of one aspect  from another, as well as helping to define the visual characteristic of each component.  The space between each is referred to as yohaku or ‘white space, a term borrowed from Chinese landscape painting. An alternative term is kuudan, which also refers to the ‘negative ‘space between physical elements in a composition.  The same concept is employed in ikebana (Flower arrangement), where the space  between branches in an arrangement is considered important in creating structure, balance and definition in a composition.  Equally, it is employed in ink painting,  sumie, and also calligraphy, shod


The concept of Emptiness is one of the central notions in Zen Buddhism, and moreover is one of the key ideas in all forms of Buddhist thought. If Emptiness equates to absence then it is the absence of everything including the idea of emptiness itself. Within this notion of emptiness is the potential for everything to exist, it so expresses an infinite potential. 

The use and perception of space in this manner allows the designer (and the viewer) to create a sense of rhythmic movement in the composition.  Space is opened and closed as the viewer moves himself, or simply alters the direction of his view of the garden area. This alternation is an example of practice of concept of Yin ( in) - Yang (yo), which is an expression of the perceived universal movements that underlay the functioning, development and continuity of all living matter. Rhythmic movement also enhances the embodied experience of the garden to the viewer by providing an underlying sense of structure to the composition. It allows for the viewer to ‘measure’ himself against the garden and there by understand something of his relationship with the garden as a whole.  To begin to fulfil this engagement with the garden the imagination of the viewer requires just sufficient information to  begin to imply or suggest form within the garden space, the balance of the composition may then be completed within the viewer himself. The use of ‘empty’ space allows for the possibility of internalisation of the composition within the viewer.  It is in this manner that the viewer becomes an integral part of the totality of the composition. 

There is a perceived optimal spacing between groups of components that make up a garden scene, the precise nature of which will depend to a certain extent on the intention of the designer. Expressed simply, too close a spacing, and thereby a denial of the ‘empty space’, will result in a cluttered arrangement of design elements that may not allow for a clear comprehension of the scene. Equally by the over use of ‘empty space’ then the perception of cohesion between the various elements of the composition will be lost, the rhythm of the composition will break down into a series of sterile staccato expressions that do not contain the vital constituent of inclusiveness. The totality will be lost. The designer in the course of creating the work seeks to find the point at which the maximum degree of dynamic tension may be generated, a study of the rock composition making up the garden of Ryoan-ji reveals this very clearly. Generally this point (of  maximum dynamic tension) is found at a position where the introduction of any  further additional space between the design elements will create separation and opposition. The designer experiments with the placement of the elements ( rocks, planting etc. ), constantly shifting the relative position of the elements until his intuition, experience and perception reveals the point where maximum tension is generated.  It is not a definable state, rather it relies on the  sensitivity of the designer to succeed, though to the eye that is used to working in this manner it becomes immediately apparent when there is a degree of  connectivity and at which point this connectivity begins to break down. This holds true for the placement of elements both in the horizontal plane as well as in the vertical plane. 


The language of the garden is the language of nature, it is challenged, tested, refined, and experimented within the context of the assumptions and intention of the designer. Space thereby  becomes a malleable component, the solid forms that make up the garden scene are cut and carved into and so become defined by the use of the ‘empty spaces’ which hold the composition together as a whole. The resulting dynamic relationships that occur energise and inform the composition, also influence critically the relationship between the garden scene and the viewer.  The use of space in this manner prevents the composition settling into a series of prescribed movements which would lead to a rigid structure which does not allow for the integration of the viewer into the totality.


Earth, mountains, rivers - hidden in this nothingness.
In this nothingness - earth, mountains, rivers revealed.
Spring flowers, winter snows;
There is no being nor non-being, nor denial itself.
                                                                        Saisho ( ?-1506 )



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