All Japanese gardens, if done well, done imaginatively and artfully but also done within tradition’s fairly rigid and proscribed parameters (or with an abiding respect for or creative spin on them) have placeness. In their sensitive tough-love partnership of nature and the shaping human hand, they are almost the definitive working model of arslocii. Though the inclusion of certain elements – pathways and materials and physical relationships – can be, need be found in all such gardens, the designers of them have found ways to be faithful and yet to be singular, to take the time-honored and familiar pieces and mold something that feels old and new, even renewed, formal yet comfortable, all at once. Without knowing much about such places, one merely has to go to one, a good one, and to sit in it, and to be in it, and one will know that it is right.
We have been to a few such places, most recently Shofuso, which began life slightly more than a half-century ago as an exhibit in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and which somehow found its way to a small carved-out niche in the westernmost portion of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. Shofuso is, like its not-too-distant neighbor Martin Puryear’s Pavilion in the Trees, an amenity – a throwback to a time when cities believed it was in the public good to provide such things, and when citizens felt that their tax dollars were well-spent in the providing. They are relics of a bygone era – in fact, two eras, from two nations – and in that way alone Shofuso would have placeness.
But, in any discussion of Shofuso and placeness – in fact, of most such amenities and their placeness – inherent nature can be less interesting than situation.
Where Shofuso resides, it is within a park but up against a busy road, and the park is within a hard-scrabble and rundown neighborhood, which is in a city, which is in a large metropolitan area, which is in a cohesive region. Like Charles and Ray Eames’ film Powers of Ten, one can start at the particular and zoom out to the general – from the lake in Shofuso up and out to view the expanse of the encompassing geography. Each element is within another; one exists because the other does.
Often, the placeness of a place is not so much the place itself but the place it’s in, and the place that that place is in, and so on. Much of what gives a place its placeness is the coming upon it. In this way of thinking, placeness is like nested Russian eggs, where, by removing the larger outer shell one finds a smaller one of equal or surpassing beauty within, and by opening this newly found egg, one encounters another. One egg gives over to another, smaller, until, finally, one arrives at the core egg, the gem most nested inside, like a cut stone in a jewel box. Often, what gives this final egg its specialness is not that it is so much more lovely than those that preceded it, but that they did precede it – that there was a process of discovery, a journey, and that coming upon this final egg was the culmination, a bestowed specialness. The prize in a CrackerJack box has little value; it is that it hides from view, and one must send fingers on a burrowing adventure to find it. It is the path of discovery, however messy, that makes the found item something of (even momentary) merit.
But what makes this placeness reductionism even more rewarding is that, unlike the nested eggs, there really is no endpoint to the focusing journey. Within Shofuso, say, there is a teahouse, and within the teahouse is the ceremonial room, and within the room are tatami mats, and one of these mats is a small rectangle, and it is upon this tiny spot that the teapot is placed, and where so much is done in the tea ritual. A place within a place within a place. You could stop anywhere along the placeness continuum and feel the placeness. But if you continue, you can find more.