A river of grey stones runs through a little courtyard garden at the Herbert F Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University. Designed by Marc Keane, this contemplative garden brings an elegant slice of Japan to one of the world’s best-known universities.
When the Herbert F Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University built a new wing, it brought in award-winning American landscape architect Marc Peter Keane to design a courtyard garden. Keane lived in Japan for almost two decades where he studied and practiced the art of garden design.
In addition to his landscape designs, Keane has authored several books on Japanese gardens and philosophy. His latest book ‘Moss: stories from the edge of nature’ has just been released. Revelling in the illusory space between culture and nature it overturns our grasp of what is civil and what is wild.
This garden was inspired by an ancient Chinese parable called ‘The Three Laughers of the Tiger Glen’. In the story, the Daoist priest Lu Xiujing and Confucian poet Tao Yuanming visit the Buddhist monk Huiyuan, who has become a recluse and vowed never to leave his mountain temple and cross the Tiger Glen which formed the boundary of his home and represents the separation between the men (and thereby their religion).
While they were together, the three friends (who represent three religions) enjoyed their time together. As Huiyuan was seeing his friends off on their way home, they were so caught up in conversation that they didn’t realise that they had crossed the bridge over the Tiger Glen.
Once they realised this, the friends burst into laughter at the silliness of it all, at the dogmatic separation of religion when all could easily flourish together. The story of the three friends is popular not only in China but in other countries as well and is depicted in art and literature.
With the three laughers as the inspiration, the Tiger Glen garden was based on the karesansui or dry-landscape style of garden design, in which an image of nature and water is created with the use of an arrangement of stones. Japanese gardens may look minimalistic and bare to some, but they are full of intricate detail and meaning. Keane’s extensive study of Japanese gardens transports you right into the serenity of one.
In the Tiger Glen, three Stonehenge-like upright boulders represent the three friends. A field of moss surrounds a stony ‘ravine’ with small stones lined at the bottom flowing as gracefully as any torrent of water would. A nearby stone basin has running water in it, the sound of which tantalises the viewer, merging the story and the reality of it all.
The stones are a metamorphic rock called gneiss and are covered with lichen and moss. If you thought that all moss was alike, think again. Did you know that mosses have been around for over 350 million years?
There are actually twelve different kinds of moss used in this garden, including Plagiomnium cuspidatum, Polytrichum commune and Thuidiumdelicatulum. Fragments of Bryumargenteum were scattered on the dry river bed. They will eventually grow and fill the cracks between the stones.
The tree in the garden is a form of Japanese red pine called Tanyosho (Pinusdensiflora ‘Umbraculifera’). The tree is pruned by a Kyoto-trained gardener and its bark is polished each year to maintain its form and lustre.
“The most challenging aspect was finding a “naturally wild” tree. In Japan (where I lived and worked for nearly 20 years) there are many nurseries that supply old, carefully pruned trees that have a wild beauty. In the US such nurseries do not exist so it required a bit of hunting to find the right tree,” says Keane.
For most part of the year, the garden is serene in its simple palette of green and gray. The only points of colour are the Azaleas, which, when in bloom, bring bright spots of cheery pink to the garden.
Wooden walkways made from Ipe Wood and a low Vermont granite bench offer spaces to think and enjoy the sparseness and intricacy of the design.
The austere nature of the garden reflects the architecture of the new wing and also the beauty of the art it surrounds. How has the garden weathered over the years? “The Tiger Glen Garden was built with naturally weathered materials so it had a patina of age from the very first day, and that has continued,” says Keane.
“Also, there is a team of volunteers, called the Tiger Glen Friends, who visit once or twice a day to clean, weed and water the garden. Their careful attention means that the garden has maintained the sense of calm it was designed to have,” he continues.
The Tiger Glen garden has won several awards including the A’ Design Award and Competition 2013. On the award’s website, it explains, “The creative challenge in the case of this garden is understanding how to capture the essence of an ancient parable, and of the many paintings created on the theme of that parable, and recreate that essence in a new, contemporary way in the context of a modern art museum.”
Text By Chryselle D’Silva Dias
Photographs Kai Keane