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Serene Scene

A Japanese Garden With Global Touches and a Spiritual Personality

October 29, 2000|SUSAN HEEGER

Jean and John Isaacson didn't want to drop a Japanese garden, stone by stone, plant by plant, into their Mandeville Canyon lot. Though the couple wanted a garden that would suit their 1960s Pacific Rim-style house, a strict adherence to one aesthetic has never been their style. Jean, a Japanese American, is from Hawaii; John grew up in Brazil. Oriana, their daughter, was born in Chile. So, rather than copy specific scenery, they sought a Japanese essence they had admired in Balinese gardens and in Hawaii and Brazil, where lacy bamboo groves are often charged with the wilder spirit of the tropics.

Bamboo, in fact, was already growing around the couple's house when they purchased it six years ago, along with a large multi-trunked sycamore, a few ferns and some camellias. There was a small koi pond below the living room, but an ugly spa and yards of deck all but canceled its effect.

They did some research and found a Colorado-based designer, Martin Mosko, who had studied gardens in Japan. They flew to Boulder to review his work, which mixed a reverence for traditional elements (flowing water, rugged stone) with a sensitivity to Western landscapes. They invited him to California to design their garden, and during his visit, recalls Jean, "He took a spiritual approach. He'd disappear up the hill, and once in a while I'd hear a flute."

Once Mosko had a feel for their bowl-shaped half-acre, he devised terraces of natural stone and linked three koi ponds with a dry streambed and a teahouse that serves as a focal point and viewing spot. He added paths for garden access and plants--red-trunked cherry trees, a few evergreens, irises and more camellias. Once the landscape's "bones" had been installed, the Isaacsons asked Pasadena designer Van-Martin Rowe, who does interiors and gardens, to extend what Mosko had begun. Rowe had designed the inside of the couple's house several years before--in what he calls "mixed Asian styles with Western comforts"--and he applied the same principles outside. "To me," he says, "balance and comfort are the keys. If something looks and feels right in a certain spot, that's where it goes."

To lend a human scale to Mosko's monumental stones, Rowe placed lanterns and bamboo rails beside paths and found a 19th century shogun gate for an inviting garden entrance. He planted in and around ponds, choosing greens, as Zen gardeners often do, for leaf shapes and textures--broad-leafed taros and callas, heart-shaped water lilies, swordlike iris and flax, and an edging of rambling, prostrate juniper. For fragrance he brought in gingers, gardenias, a wash of white roses. From an unused deck he made an outdoor living room, adding coir rugs and teak furnishings from India and Bali.

Throughout the garden, he played with Japanese details, tucking a traditional hand-washing basin in the sycamore's splayed trunk. Additional Balinese touches include a thatch-roofed lantern beside the teahouse and a brass gong in a recess off the deck. And his plant palette combines Japanese favorites such as azaleas and black pines with Hawaiian-inspired hibiscus and a few California-style succulents in pots. Cascading chrysanthemums above the pond, the winter bareness of certain trees and the spring flush of cherries and camellias capture seasonal change, a vital element in classical Japanese landscaping.

The Isaacsons, for their part, have filled the ponds with 50 koi, in shades of gold and orange to almost-black. "Whenever I can't find John," Jean says, "he's usually reading in the teahouse. If I'm missing, he'll say, 'Check the ponds--she's most likely with the fish!' "


Fleeting Beauty, a Sense of Seasons

While landscape design is a centuries-old tradition in Japan, and its influences have shifted over time, some of its basic preoccupations include the fleeting quality of beauty and the impermanence of life itself, as expressed in the cycles of the seasons. Japanese gardens celebrate the seasons as well as beauty's flaws--petals strewn, for instance, on the ground. They also invite contemplation, whether it's of large or implied views, the mystery of a turning path or the mottled surface of a single rock. Zen Buddhism, which took hold in 13th century Japan, brought a new austerity to gardens, restricting flowers and emphasizing foliage. The tea garden, a symbolic space around the teahouse, became prevalent in the 1600s, conferring fresh importance on landscape features such as steppingstones, gates, wash basins and stone lanterns.

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