Traditional Japanese architecture comes to Meijer Gardens


The Japanese Gardens at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park is slated to open in spring 2015. Courtesy OAK

A unique aspect of the Japanese Garden that is currently being added to Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park is the process by which one of its central features, the teahouse, is being constructed — without nails, screws or power tools.

In July a team of Japanese carpenters will begin constructing the teahouse using the ancient architecture technique of joinery. A technique that is more than 1,000 years old, it involves creating interlocking joints that then join together carefully selected pieces of wood.

Wood selection is actually one of the most important aspects of joinery. After the wood is selected it is aged and treated to prepare it for construction.

The entire process is the backbone for the final structure and something that Americans will find quite different from standard construction.

“Construction in Japan for this kind of work is so very different from what we are used to,” said Nicole Haglund, project manager at Owen-Ames-Kimball. “When Kato-san came and he was showing us the tree that was selected for the main beam of the teahouse — because it has just the right curve in the tree, they are going to carve this beam from the tree — it was amazing to us. They are not going to the lumber store and getting a 2-by-12 or having a truss made. They are looking for the right tree; fascinating, the sense of history and time.”

Haglund said that traditional Japanese architecture involves building from the top down, rather than the bottom up, which is how structures are built in the United States.

“Everything is sized from the top down. These poles would be sized and selected based on the roof beam, which had to be selected first,” she said.

She noted that Progressive AE, which did the engineering on the project, had the special challenge of understanding how to make the different structures using joinery, while still meeting local codes and permitting specifications.

“You can’t type it in a computer — ‘cedar tree of six-inch width’ — and get a loading factor from it.”

In fact, the method of joinery actually allows for greater weight bearing, even if it is harder to calculate.

In addition to the teahouse, the approach to landscaping also is very different from a traditional American approach.

Ken Wenger, FMG vice president of fixed operations and facilities, said guests might find it surprising that trees have been planted at an angle.

“We, as Americans, always typically want to plant everything perfectly straight. The Japanese are already anticipating what they want the plant to be in a special way,” Wenger said. “You’ll see some of them planted on an angle. That’s always intriguing to me because I’m an old landscaper and I’m like, ‘oh, that’s different, that’s quite different,’ but he’s thinking ahead and he knows what the intent of that plant is and it’s going to be really interesting to watch those develop and take shape in a typical Japanese form.”

None of the tree or boulder placements is made without landscape architect Hoichi Kurisu, president and founder of Kurisu International Inc., being present. There are more than 2,000 tons of boulders being placed in the Japanese Garden.

“There is a sense of art to it,” Haglund said. “He really is an artist.”

One of the Japanese Maples that has been selected for the Japanese Garden is more than 100 years old. Kurisu purchased it out of someone’s front yard and has selected it specifically for the Japanese Garden project. In addition, more than 200 trees were shipped from Oregon and will become part of the garden.

“There is so much theory behind it that Hoichi has explained to us, too,” Haglund said. “It’s supposed to take you an hour to walk around this pond … you could literally walk around it in five minutes, but when you are there it’s supposed to slow you down.”

Since it was first announced in 2012, much of the shoreline work has been completed, including boulder placements. Additionally, some of the structure foundations have been laid. The Japanese carpentry crew is scheduled to be onsite from July through November completing most of, if not all, of the structures.

The Japanese Garden is scheduled to open in spring 2015.

Many local companies have been or will be involved in bringing their expertise to the project: Progressive AEOwen-Ames-KimballGodwin PlumbingExcel Electric,Materials Testing Consultants and Dean Excavating.


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