Descanso Gardens

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Created in the 1930’s, Descanso Gardens is a one-hundred and sixty acre collection of gardens and woodlands in Los Angeles. The flora, albeit physically contiguous, is categorized into six main areas named by function: Lilac Garden, Japanese Garden, California Garden, East Camellia Forest, West Camellia Forest, and International Rosarium. The focus of this short narrative will be on the Japanese Garden, located to the left of the entrance and in the northeast section of Descanso Gardens.
Descanso’s Japanese-style garden blends elements of tea, stroll, and Zen gardens. The tea garden includes a path that leads visitors to the tea house (茶室, chashitsu or literally "tea room"), which was constructed in 1966 and designed by American architect Whitney Smith. The stroll garden includes a path that allows observers to appreciate unique elements of the garden as they walk through it. The Zen garden, originally known as the rock garden or karesansui (枯山水), includes sand raked to symbolize water, gravel, rocks, grass, and other flora. Two out of the three entrances are marked by torii (鳥居) gates, traditional Japanese gates commonly found at the entrances of Shinto shrines and occasionally at the entrances of Buddhist temples. Salient garden features include an arched red bridge, a koi pond, stone lanterns, a coast redwood, oak trees used for shade, a winding stream with small waterfalls, Japanese maples, bamboo, azaleas, and the tea house. The garden is designed to enable multi-angled views of prominent features and to juxtapose complimentary aspects of flora and inanimate objects. Objective analysis of Descanso’s “Japanese Garden” views it in the absence of contextualizing information and creates a lucid cognitive map of the garden. However, the implications of what it is to create a “Japanese Garden” in America are not as straightforward.
Japanese-style gardens influence Americans in many ways. It takes an informed and critical observer to see the gardens for what they are and what they are not. Understanding the perspective of the uninformed – and even uninterested in being informed – American is essential to the greater understanding of the multifaceted influence each garden has on the collective understanding of Japan. Use of the term authentic, the combination of the three types of Japanese gardens, incorporation of “other plants from Asia” as stated in the pamphlet, and the interaction between past and present functions of the garden in Descanso all combine to create the context in which it exists.
The term authentic even only in reference to Japanese tea served in the tea house can lead to an assumed aura of authenticity enveloping more than the tea. Therefore, authenticity must not be accepted at face value, but viewed critically as to which parts of the garden it actually pertains. The combination of Japanese stroll, tea, and Zen gardens and the incorporation of “other plants from Asia” creates an indecipherable and amorphous Japanese entity for the average observer. This occurs first by combining separate aspects of Japanese gardens into one “Japanese garden” and then combining Japan and the other Asian countries into one Asia, an effect that denies credit to the diversity amongst Asian countries. Also, it appears that metonymy, “… the illusion of adequate representation of a world by first cutting objects out of specific contexts (whether cultural, historical, or intersubjective) and making them ‘stand for’ abstract wholes,”(Clifford, 144) has taken place in the assumption that Japanese gardens can be represented by three small samples of Japanese garden styles.
Harvard-trained landscape architect James Rose argues that “[a] Japanese garden is a garden made in Japan… There’s no such thing as a garden where its people aren’t. That’s a translation, not a garden,”(Brown, 8). Even if it were possible to legitimately recreate a Japanese garden in America, the architects of Descanso did not have unlimited resources with which to portray Japanese gardens in their entirety. Therefore, thought must be given to the question of whether or not it is wrong to desire to portray the aspects of Japanese gardens (and possibly culture) that one deems most beautiful or most representative in the face of limited resources. It may be less reasonable to meet the metonymy in Descanso with such harsh criticism and more reasonable to meet it with an understanding of the limitations of creating a Japanese-style garden in America. It must also be considered: for what purpose did the architects build the garden, what did the true architects of our perceptions want us to see – and what might we see in retrospect that unconsciously drove them to create on a substrate of understanding or of orientalism?
Two features provide a view into the changing function of this Japanese-style garden over time. First, there is a Snapple machine in the teahouse which sells “authentic Japanese teas” as well as Snapple teas. Clearly the Snapple machine is out of place, but less so when observed in context. The garden is an appropriation of Japanese culture for American use; in the context of the garden as a tool, the purpose can easily be to represent Japanese culture or to sell an American interpretation of Japanese culture in the form of tea in a Snapple machine. Second, in the Japanese section in the gift shop there was a copy of the book Memoirs of a Geisha. Like the Snapple machine in the tea house, this is a modern form of appropriation. It is essential to understand that cultural appropriation is a living entity in perpetual motion and that this Japanese-style garden was created – and probably changed measurably – during a certain period of collective American opinion about Japan. Therefore, what purpose it served then is not the same purpose that it serves now. As of now: for the Japanophile, the garden may be a piece of Japan here in America; for an Asian studies scholar, it may be a quintessential form of ethnographic metonymy; for a businessperson, it may be an investment with a given cost and return. The functions of a Japanese-style garden are not static; the garden serves the purposes we assign it. It is in this assignment of function that we must take extra care not to lose the meaning that the garden initially carried when it left Japan.

Bibliography

Brown, Kendall H. “Territories of Play: A Short History of Japanese-Style Gardens in North America,” Japanese-Style Gardens of the Pacific West Coast. 1999.

Clifford, James. On Collecting Art and Culture: Marginalization and Contemporary Culture. MIT Press, 1990.

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nfrancis — Last modified Jun 28 2021 1:49 a.m.


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