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Making a Space for the Heart

Hoichi Kurisu aspires to have his gardens change the way visitors think

FOR more than 25 years, Hoichi Kurisu has worked in stone and water, in trees and shrubs and flowers. His efforts have received many awards, and twice he has been honored at the White House.

But the results this master gardener is looking for go well past the artistry of landscape design, past the elements from nature in which he creates, to something ``indescribable ... beyond what you see with your eyes,'' he says.

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What he's trying to communicate is ``emotion ... inspiration ... intuition ... spirit,'' the consequences of which should be something ``peaceful ... inspiring ... uplifting ... awakening.''

A garden, Mr. Kurisu says, ``has to create a space for your heart.''

The tradition in which he works goes back hundreds of years to the early days of Japanese gardens, the principles of which remain to this day: simplification, or the reduction of nature to its essence (rather than trying to re-create nature); enclosure, either actual or implied; manipulation of perspective and scale; asymmetrical balance, or ``unbalanced balance,'' as Kurisu calls it, through the placement and relative visual weight of garden elements; and unity, often expressed through the use of stone and water.

But as he designs and oversees projects around the United States, Kurisu's true creativity may be the degree to which he pushes beyond tradition to build gardens that ``respond to this age,'' as he puts it.

Historically, Japanese gardens were designed to affect thought; they provided balance within the larger culture. But today there is an imbalance, Kurisu says: While technology has made rapid advances, concern for the intuitive, emotional side of life has not developed equally, resulting in an imbalance of spirit.

Just as the computer age has pushed through communication barriers to produce useful tools, so must all artists find a new vocabulary of inner space to meet more-spiritual needs. ``A garden is the easiest medium to touch the heart,'' he says.

``It's nice to know the design principles,'' he adds. ``But we've temporarily lost that element - that heart space. That's the invisible area that we have to pursue and express.''

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Kurisu was raised in a village outside of Hiroshima, Japan, where as a first-grader he saw the flash and felt the awful thunder of the atomic blast that ended World War II in August 1945.

Trained in landscape design and construction in Tokyo under the internationally-recognized Kenzo Oga- ta, he came to the US in the late 1960s to oversee the building of the Japanese gardens of Washington Park in Portland, Ore.

After four years as landscape director for the Japanese Garden Society of Oregon, Kurisu and his wife, Judy (a native Oregonian), started a garden design and construction company here.

Today, Kurisu International employs 70 people who have worked on residential and commercial projects in Washington, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin, Louisiana, and Texas, among other places.

In 1988 and again in 1992, Hoichi and Judy went to the White House to receive a National Landscape Award.

The first award was for a five-acre garden in Rockford, Ill., commissioned by John Anderson, president of Anderson Industries. The garden includes two waterfalls, a creek, a pond with two islands, a prairie area that uses more than 100 varieties of native Illinois plants and grasses, and an inner garden with raked gravel, bridges, a tea house, and a gazebo.

Kurisu and crew began work on the Anderson Gardens in 1978, and they have traveled there several times each year since then to continue the construction and maintain it. Last year, 7,000 people visited this private garden, which also includes a guest house and seminar facility.

The second National Landscape Award was for the Quintet, an apartment and condominium complex on 17 acres in the hills of Portland, Ore.

The landscaping around the five residential buildings and recreation center includes three waterfalls, seven levels of ponds, and nearly 3,000 tons of basalt boulders. Among the plantings are 105 pink dogwoods, 140 redwoods, 200 maples, and 36,000 azaleas.

Several acres of wetlands that had been stripped of vegetation were restored, and in the process an inspired yet natural scene was created. Although the hand of the artist is not obvious in what was perhaps the most challenging part of the project, nature has been rearranged and enhanced to create a better aesthetic.

The atmosphere of peace and beauty here (it shares space with 206 housing units) reminds one of a word coined several years ago by Harvard University professor of science E.O. Wilson. The word is ``biophilia,'' which, Professor Wilson recently explained in a Nature Conservancy publication, means ``the natural affiliation humans have for natural environments.''

In an accelerating and sometimes confusing high-tech age, an age of busyness and little time for reflection, it's this human affiliation for nature that Hoichi Kurisu wants to reflect and elicit. And not just for the moment when they experience what he has been able to do in stone and water, in trees and shrubs and flowers.

There is a sense of both urgency and humility in Kurisu's voice when he says: ``I hope their way of thinking changes.''

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