The City of Vancouver Japanese Garden north side of City Hall, 453 West 12th Avenue
As part of the eighty year celebration of consular recognition between Japan and Canada, the head of protocol at the City of Vancouver , Sven Buemann wanted to do something special. From the 1970’s to 2013 most of the city departments were nestled in two buildings-the tall Art Deco/Moderne transitional style building built in 1937 by Townley and Matheson, and the annex-sometimes called the “box City Hall came in” an oblong concrete confection opened by Prince Philip in 1969. (The annex was declared an earthquake hazard and decommissioned in 2013, but the garden is still there).
There is an internal pathway at ground level between the two buildings, and a huge concrete planter box outside of the annex on the pathway. This had been cheerfully filled with rhododendrons and other shrubs in the 1970’s and had completely overgrown to the point that no “bones” of a garden were visible. Even though this was a major pathway used to access Vancouver City Hall east of Cambie Street, it was not walkable, or inviting to visitors or staff.
The concrete “planter box” outside of the City Hall Annex before photo
Sven had an idea. To celebrate the eighty years of diplomacy between Canada and Japan, Sven thought that transforming this space into a Japanese garden celebrating the relationship between these two countries was a good idea. He also knew that the mindful landscaping of this concrete box could become a focal point at City Hall, and also provide citizens and city staffers with an introduction to classical Japanese gardening. I was asked to project manage this work due to my interest as a master gardener, and as a member of the ASLA-the American Society of Landscape Architects. It was an extraordinary opportunity to also work as a team leader with master Japanese gardeners, and experienced City Works Yards staff from Engineering to create a new public space to walk to, enjoy and view for all Vancouver citizens and visitors.
These professional gardeners who were already working six days a week volunteered their time and talent to design and create a most extraordinary space. In the design, there are two rivers of stone, one symbolizing Canada, surrounded by plants native to Canada, and one symbolizing Japan, surrounded by traditional elements including a stone fountain and a black pine. The two rivers meet in the front of the design, symbolizing harmony and peace. The Vancouver Japanese Gardeners Association website still features an image of the gardeners standing in front of the stone lantern at the city hall Japanese Garden.
And this garden is to be viewed from the public pathway, not walked in. That is the way it has been designed.
It was a very exciting thing to work with these Japanese professional gardeners. The design of the outline of the garden was roughly drawn up. The concept and the layout of the garden included coring out a section of the concrete planter box wall, so that viewers could “see” into the mingling parts of the river bed. The site preparation was done by City crews, who came in on the weekend to do the work. The Japanese gardeners took over the ordering of all the materials, including tons of basalt rock. The basalt rock included “one man” “two man” and “three man” basalt uprights that were installed by the gardeners with the assistance of the City crews and a hoist. The gardeners travelled up to Huckleberry Quarry near Squamish and hand picked each and every piece of basalt for its shape, size and function. Using the hoist, the Japanese Gardeners carefully placed every rock, with an inner vision so profound that no rock needed to be readjusted or placed differently. The Japanese gardeners’ experience and knowledge of Japanese Garden technique translated into this innate ability to “see” the rocks being hoisted into position and placed just once, every time seated correctly in the design position.
There is a section of bamboo that has been carefully knotted as a screen behind the water fountain. The craftsman that worked on this screen spent days getting the meticulous pattern of knots just right. The fountain basin that is in the back of the garden was designed by one of the few people in North America that has this skill.
The plants and trees in this garden are placed with similar care and attention. There is a Black Pine bonsai that bows over the dry river-this is a gift to the City, and was grown by one of the Japanese Gardeners from seeds he carried to Canada in his pocket when he immigrated nearly fifty years ago. It is an enduring gift of kindness and tribute to this country.
The City of Vancouver Japanese Garden was opened in 2009 by the Mayor and Council in concert with the Japanese Ambassador to Canada and the Vancouver Japanese Consul. The photos below are of the members of the Vancouver Japanese Gardeners Association who designed and built the garden, with City of Vancouver Engineering staff from the Yards.
These are my favourite images of this remarkable undertaking.
Working with the Vancouver Japanese Gardeners Association was one of the highlights of my career, and I know that the City crew from the works yard also enjoyed this opportunity. The garden is now maintained by the City and will be kept in perpetuity, celebrating the unique and enduring relationship between Japan and Canada.
Taiko Drummers opened the ceremony held in the Fall of 2009 on the left. On the right, members of the Vancouver Japanese Gardeners Association stand with the Vancouver Japanese Consul and Consul Assistant at the dedication.