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American Society of Landscape Architects


August 2005 Issue

East by Northwest

Robert Murase’s wetland retreat showcases the sculptural use of stone.

By JM Cava

They say in Japan that the end interest of old men is stone—just stone, natural stone, ready-made sculptures for the eyes of connoisseurs.

They say in Japan that the end interest of old men is stone—just stone, natural stone, ready-made sculptures for the eyes of connoisseurs.

—Isamu Noguchi

East by Northwest
Marv Bondarowicz/The Oregonian

Robert Murase, FASLA, found the place while he was driving along the Columbia River to a project on the Washington coast. While investigating the less-traveled Washington side of the river, he stumbled on a stunning five-acre parcel of land overlooking a tidal wetland, 20 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean.

Gray’s Bay, the wetland, was named in 1792 for the American explorer Robert Gray. Thirteen years later, Lewis and Clark, rowing into the bay from the east, thought they were seeing the Pacific. In his November 8 journal entry, William Clark said the explorers sheltered in Gray’s Bay from a storm, from which “several of our party were Sea Sick...wet and disagreeable.” They nevertheless dined with local Indians on fresh salmon. Patrick Gass, one of the explorers, remarked in his journal on the “great many swans, geese, ducks and other water fowls.” Nearly unchanged since that visit, this ecosystem is a rare representation of the Pacific Northwest coastal landscape from 1805, when Sitka spruce and shrub swamps extended from Oregon to Alaska.

After three years of negotiations, Murase purchased the property and began construction of the place he calls Santi-ya (a name combining santi, Sanskrit for “peace,” and ya, Japanese for “place”). The result defies any definition as either garden or traditional landscape. It is, instead, a set of inhabitable constructions evolving over time. Murase and his son Scott—educated as an architect but now primarily a sculptor—design, plant, sculpt, teach, and build there.

At Santi-ya, the synthesis of art and landscape is commingled with American and Japanese traditional attitudes toward space and, in particular, toward stone. It is primarily in the sculpting and placing of stone that Murase’s practice has evolved, and in this garden, he is free to respond to his intuition. In As You Like It, Shakespeare said there are sermons to be found in stones: Murase is determined to find them. Having either directed or laid much of the masonry himself, he is viscerally aware of the relationship of rock to earth. In his book A Sculptor’s World, the Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi might have been talking about the stones at Santi-ya when he wrote, “Every rock gains enormous weight, and that is why the whole garden may be said to be a sculpture, whose roots are joined way below. I like to think of gardens as sculpturing of space.”

Santi-ya is a retreat, a gallery, and a place of exploration into the spatial and sculptural possibilities of stone. The Murase family spends almost every weekend here, making the two-hour drive either north from Portland or south from Seattle. Initially, it was built only for the family. “As we started to make these outdoor rooms, we thought, ‘what a great place to bring people and show them what we’re doing,’” Murase recalls. Clients for both gardens and sculpture now visit Santi-ya, either to purchase sculptures already completed or to discuss the character of new ones.

An artist’s best achievements often result from attempts to reconcile opposing forces, achieving something new in the process that transcends boundaries. Murase, a third generation Japanese American, has used his experience of culture clash to his advantage over the past 30 years—in landscape and, more specifically, in his designs of stone and earth. This cross-cultural modern/ancient synthesis began with his studies at the University of California, Berkeley, in landscape architecture. This was around the time of the well-known San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Exhibit of 1958 that featured the masters of the new American landscape on the West Coast—among them Lawrence Halprin, FASLA, the late Garrett Eckbo, and Robert Royston, FASLA. After short apprenticeships with both Halprin and Royston, Murase moved to Japan with his family in the late 1960s to more deeply explore the Japanese aspects of his heritage. His exploration included not only the traditional genre of garden architecture but also the ancient and spiritual arts of ceramics and the all-important tea ceremony, which after the sixteenth century revolutionized all Japanese art forms, promulgating the Zen idea that there is “greatness in the smallest incidents of life.”

Equally influential was Murase’s fortuitous meeting with Noguchi. Murase often visited the sculptor at his studio on the island of Shikoku, where the older man encouraged Murase’s studies of Japanese gardens, objects, and culture. After building many gardens in Japan (see Landscape Architecture, February 1989), Murase returned to the United States to teach at the University of Oregon. Fresh from his immersion in Buddhism and the art of tea, he was something of an enigma to American students. “We didn’t quite know what to make of him,” recalls Kim Ahern, ASLA, a landscape architect in Boston who studied under Murase. “He was marvelous to work with in studio, but several students were confused—they had gotten used to the typical American college classroom where the teacher was more of an entertainer; Bob was the opposite—quiet, but intense and focused on work. In the end, he was the best teacher I encountered.”

On the grounds of Santi-ya are walls and large carved individual stones made of hard sandstone from Montana, soft sandstone from the Oregon Coast, Pennsylvania bluestone, volcanic basalt from the Columbia River and eastern Oregon, and stone from North and South Dakota and California. The point of reference in the design and craftsmanship of the sculptures is primarily Japanese, although it is not culturally pure. Traditional dry-laid European work sits easily near a diminutive stupa form—also dry laid and built by Murase himself as an homage to an old apple tree near the bluff. This in turn is close to a low, flat, polished stone cut with abstract grooves that catch rainwater and reflect images of the sky. Even the materials of the house form a kind of sculpture; stone and Port Orford cedar frame larger planes of stucco made by a Japanese craftsman, who mixed in grasses, seeds, and small sticks from the site, giving the surfaces some of the texture, color, and light of the land itself.

Murase has placed stones in walls, as fountains, pools, sculptures, building supports, and paving—nearly always forming space or borrowing space and discovering new compositions in juxtapositions. In the low wall nearest the house is a niche with a small stone figure of Jizo Buddha, a popular patron saint of children that one finds everywhere throughout Japan. Opposite, flowers set into a cavity in a carefully carved rock create a dialogue with the little Buddha that animates the entry sequence into the house.

Scott Murase spends much of his time traveling around the country just to look at stone, partly because he is in charge of the public art projects in the office and partly because he has developed a great love of stone sculptures. “Scott has found stone in parts of the country we didn’t think stone existed,” Robert Murase says. The initial large pieces are trucked from their quarries to state-of-the-art fabrication facilities in Minnesota, after which they end up in a smaller fabricator’s shop in Portland. Eventually Scott finishes them by hand on the site.

Not long ago, the Murases invited Patrick McCaffee, master mason from Ireland whom Bob met at a stone conference, to come and give a stone workshop at Santi-ya. The mason chose a reasonably level spot on the property, and a low wall was soon built of small stones easily carried by the students—a traditional dry-laid Irish wall. At the end of the day, workshop participants began politely removing their object lesson, but Murase ran out to stop them: The wall had added a new contribution to the garden’s rich dialogue of space and material. In this way, Murase—though he can be as meticulous in the measurable requirements of his designs as any traditional sculptor or landscape architect—honors the unexpected results of spontaneity.

Although the focus here is how stone tells stories, implies space, and raises awareness of our sense of place, Murase is closely in touch with the ecosystem that surrounds his clearing. In particular, he has done everything but give names to the oldest trees on the site: the ancient Sitka spruce, a favorite perch to an eagle, the grand old horse chestnut underneath whose spreading branches they first had picnics, and the cluster of newly planted Japanese maples. The house was sited to be near the horse chestnut (the family was drawn to its shelter) and to take in as much of the view as possible without crowding the Sitka spruce or the bluff.

“It’s much easier to site a house when you only have one view,” says Murase. “When the views are good everywhere, you tend to get greedy and want them all.” The trees, the gravel plane around the house and garden, the views of the magnificent borrowed landscape beyond: All contribute to making Santi-ya a refuge from the Murases’ busy lives. But above all, it is the work that Robert and Scott Murase do with stone that transforms Santi-ya into such an unusual and extraordinary place. Stone creates boundaries of space in outdoor rooms, and sculptures of crafted stone create characters and moods, some of quiet beauty and others of great drama, set against the tidal forest of the Pacific Northwest coast.

JM Cava is an architect, professor, and author based in Portland, Oregon, who, while teaching at the University of Oregon, designs and writes about buildings and gardens in the Pacific Northwest.

Project Credits
Sculptor: Scott Murase, Portland, Oregon.
Stonemason: Patrick McCaffee.
Building consultants: Ireland Green Gables Design and Restoration, Portland, Oregon.
Landscape contractor:  David Ohashi, Seattle.
Japanese carpentry: Dale Brotherton, Seattle.
Historian: Rex Ziak.

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