By Jennifer Hooks
With respect for a fellow landscaper's original design, one man rebuilds a damaged waterfall to create a stunning Oregon Superior Site.
More than 35 years ago, landscape designer Takuma Tono honored the beauty of nature by creating The Heavenly Waterfall at the Japanese Garden in Washington Park, Portland, OR. Water gracefully spilled down the 35-foot-tall feature, flowed past moss-covered boulders and elegant plant displays and emptied into a man-made creek. Over time, this reflection of nature became a symbol of serenity and beauty for countless visitors. For some, Tono's design may have even offered a personal, as well as a public sense of history and fond memories.
In 1997, a severe ice storm struck the Portland area, destroying Tono's design and vision. It dislocated boulders, caused large native trees to fall and left unstable soil on a dangerous slope. In almost an instant, The Heavenly Waterfall had become a harsh reflection of its former beauty. What was once a peaceful place for guests was transformed into a damaged, unsafe landscape. What once brought serenity and beauty to those who came to visit now brought chaos. And for a moment, it may have seemed Mother Nature did not hold much respect for the Heavenly Waterfall at all.
Restoring the damaged feature would be more than a physical challenge. It would require the work of a company that valued tradition and held respect for the original design. It required the help of Kurisu International, Inc. Based in Portland, Kurisu International's mission is simple: to bring to life "gardens of vision…for lives of insight." With a commitment to developing serene gardens, the company is "dedicated to creating environments that recognize humanity's need for inspiration, refreshment and the renewal of heart." If any landscape needed to be refreshed, it was The Heavenly Waterfall. After being commissioned by the Japanese Garden Society of Oregon, Kurisu International set out to bring this fallen site back to paradise.
Rebuilding a Vision. While some designers may find the urge to redesign a damaged or aged landscape, Hoichi Kurisu, president and principal designer of Kurisu International, fought temptation - although he admits the desire was there. "[It had been] 20 to 30 years from original [design]," he says. "Here and there you like to enhance with a pond, add more rocks [or change] scale of waterfall to surrounding area to make it a little more unified."
But Kurisu was determined to stay true to the Heavenly Waterfall's initial beauty and scheme. "We respected the original designer's design," he says. "So 'restoration' is the more proper [word]." If Kurisu were to make any alteration to the site, it would only be to bring The Heavenly Waterfall a little closer to the clouds. Plans were set to make the 35-foot-tall waterfall 15 feet taller. This, as well as mending the damage caused by the storm, would require complete reconstruction of the concrete superstructure.
Restoring and adding height to such a large feature would require a great deal of planning, but other than looking at a few pictures of how the feature originally looked and one sketch drawn by Kurisu, no official plan was set on paper. "With anything in Western gardening, the idea is key," Kurisu explains. "If you don't have an idea in your mind, you can not go anywhere. Our company's strongest point [with this project] is already the idea [was] done. We spent a lot of time on what the idea is. So facing the difficulties [was] only a physical difficulty [such as how to move the large boulders]. Those [problems] are easy to solve." And with an idea of how to solve such difficulties, Kurisu and his team set out to rebuild a little piece of Nirvana.
The intent was to strip the damaged site and rebuild from scratch. According to Sadafumi Uchiyama, manager of the Kurisu design team, all boulders and damaged trees needed to be removed and stored on site. But removing the items was not an easy task. According to the company, the sites' grade was at a 60-degree angle, and using the common equipment typical of removing large boulders was not an option. So Kurisu turned to one of construction's more unusual creatures. "Only machine - the spider hoe - could do the job," Kurisu explains. "It was a little different, but without the machine, we couldn't do anything." Like a real spider, the spider hoe had the ability to climb up and down extremely steep slopes. According to Uchiyama, it can also load and unload itself without the use of a ramp. "It can squeeze its four legs into the body and narrow its width to about 6 feet," Uchiyama explains. "It can go through one section of a chain link fence. In fact, we took only one and a half sections of the existing fence behind the waterfall to let the spider how move into the site."
The metal monster carefully removed the several hundred tons of boulders one by one. The process was time-consuming and delicate, but according to Uchiyama, the spider hoe transferred each moss-covered boulder off the slope without leaving a scratch. Any other material removal was done "the ancient way," says Kurisu: "bucket by bucket." In addition to the uprooted trees and unstable slope, the storm had damaged the concrete structure that shaped the waterfall and creek. With the entire site stripped of its trees and boulders, only the concrete formation from the original design now remained. The crew - under Kurisu's supervision - was ready to begin the renovation process.
Framing for repairing and improving the concrete work was set into place (photo, page 44), and workers used Gunite, or sprayed concrete, to rebuild the waterfall track (photo, above). To make the surface of this concrete channel look natural, Kurisu's chief craftsman/quality control manager Toru Tanaka used what the company calls the "decoration" process: An application of black plaster, small stones, gravel and sand splash was applied to the concrete formation.
With the channel set, Kurisu and his crew could only go up from there. Literally. They started from the bottom of the slope, stabilizing the soil using the previously removed boulders. "Fortunately, boulders do a great job," Kurisu says. According to the designer, the concept was that each rock would support the other and build "the power to stop the other rocks so [there would be] no sliding problem. The easy way [would be to have] a concrete wall and concrete planter," he continues. "But this way, you don't have to use a container. This way, rocks are helping each other. That's part of the ancient way of using rocks."
Because the site is located in a shaded area that only receives sun three hours a day, Kurisu used shade-loving trees such as maple, camellia, yew and white azalea. These plants were similar to those used by Tono in the first design. "Again, we respected original design, so we tried to approach and enhance [the site] without destroying original concept," Kurisu says. To keep the Heavenly Waterfall looking as though it had been flowing undisturbed in nature for years, Kurisu used plants "as big as you can get."
With the rocks in place, the concrete set and the plant material installed, all that remained was to adjust the flow of water, which was to run at a volume three times that of the original waterfall. Once the flow was established, the pearly gates of The Heavenly Waterfall were opened for all to enjoy again.
Kurisu and his crew had finished the project within their 60-day window and ahead of schedule. "But we worked extra hours," Kurisu laughs. "We really scheduled and worked hard in an efficient way. We finished in the time window and were amazed in what we did in the time we had for opening the garden."
Perhaps one of the reasons the project went smoothly was Kurisu's knowledge of the site. "[Kurisu] was curator of the Japanese Garden from 1968 to 1972, so he was very familiar with all kinds of details of the site," Uchiyama says. To Kurisu, this request to restore the garden at which he used to work was a great privilege. "I feel very honored," he says. "Thirty years later I'm back to do the job."
But that wasn't the only honor granted to the designer. Kurisu work on the Heavenly Waterfall brought the company many awards, including the President's Award and Grand Award from the Oregon Landscape Contractors Association, and the Environmental Improvement Grand Award presented by the Associated Landscape Contractors of America.
Despite the recognition, Kurisu says what he has done to improve the landscape is not enough. "We have a lot f things to do yet," he says. "We strive to express quality in the landscape field. In this business [we] have to strive, otherwise the landscape business will deteriorate. For the future of our industry, we have to be involved."
The Heavenly Waterfall requires "constant maintaining - that's the challenge," Kurisu says. "Construction is 50 percent. Maintenance is 50 percent. Put [these] together and you have a complete garden. But 'maintenance' … I don't like the word, itself. It's more 'enhancing' or 'improving' [the garden]."
"I think [this project] exemplifies a sort of commitment of how a designer or company represents the industry - especially demonstrative [with this] difficult site," Uchiyama says. "It's done with respect to the original design or intent that's been ignored. People look for history or originals. One of the things we did was send a message that this is something we need to maintain. Otherwise we don't get history of any sort. So many gardens are changed or destroyed by will of [the new] owner. [Everything is] constantly moving and there's nothing there."
Kurisu can't respond to how he feels the project turned out. "[Making a] judgment of a project is not anything," he says. "A comment with any meaning [come from] judgment by others - how they feel. Judging from other people's comments [on The Heavenly Waterfall], we have done well."
Through honoring the design and vision of a fellow landscaper before him, Kurisu has brought history, beauty and insight back to the Japanese Garden - he has brought back a little piece of heaven on Earth. And for that the designer deserves everyone's respect.
© American Nurseryman