Mar 25, 2010

Manitoga and Japan

Following my last entry on Manitoga and the picturesque tradition, this entry analyzes links between Wright’s project and Japanese design traditions, particularly the parallels between Wright’s landscape design and the Edo Period “Tour Garden”. There are several dimensions to the Japanese influence on Wright’s design of Manitoga worth considering: firstly, Wright hired architect David Leavitt to build Dragon Rock specifically because of Leavitt’s Japanese architectural knowledge and experience; secondly, Wright traveled to Japan in the mid-1950s when the house and its surrounding landscape was being designed; and finally, what I’ll be analyzing most carefully here, Wright’s possible borrowings from Japanese garden traditions. While Manitoga might be seen as a mid-twentieth century version of English picturesque landscape design (and its later American iterations) in which nature serves as a model for art, the Japanese tradition, founded on a more nuanced encounter between the artificial and the natural, may align better with Wright’s design ideals. In this blog entry, I want to rethink Manitoga in these terms: if picturesque design creates an artificial “copy” of nature, Japanese design creates an idealized or “heightened” version of nature that is self-consciously artificial and yet natural at the same time.

Russel Wright and Japan

In 1955, after seeing Leavitt’s Japanese-styled New York City apartment in the New York Times, Wright hired the architect to design his dream home at Manitoga, Dragon Rock. Leavitt had extensive knowledge of Japanese design and architecture, having previously worked in Japan with the architect Antonin Raymond. Raymond and his wife, Noémi (also a designer), went to Tokyo in 1919 with Frank Lloyd Wright to work on the Imperial Hotel, and stayed to open their own practice in the 1920s. Leavitt worked with the Raymonds after the Second World War, an experience which was significant for Russel Wright and the construction of Dragon Rock. According to Christine Vendredi-Auzanneau in “Antonin Raymond and the Modern Movement”, “Leavitt’s wood post-and-lintel structure [was] based on the system developed by Raymond at the Kôgai-chô Studio” in Japan (Vendredi-Auzanneau, 60).

Beyond its structural construction, Dragon Rock contains other specifically Japanese elements, including a small “flower arranging room” which I presume was adopted from the Japanese ikebana tradition. In addition, Wright’s ritual transformation of the house’s interior décor in accordance with the seasons could be Japanese in inspiration, and the integration of the interior of Dragon Rock with the landscape might also be traced to a Japanese design sensibility (see my previous blog entry). While I am unsure of the role Leavitt might have played in these, I understand that he was influential in advising Wright to develop the system of paths through the property in the spirit of Japanese garden design. However, given Wright had already begun designing the landscape at Manitoga (at least to some extent) before meeting Leavitt, the impact of Leavitt’s Japanese experience and advice on the landscape design is difficult to gauge.

Wright’s trip to the “Far East” as a design advisor in 1955-56 may have also had an impact on the design of Manitoga. The trip lasted several months and included official stops in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, in addition to an unofficial side trip that Wright took to Japan. At this stage I am unsure exactly what Wright saw in Japan, but there are specific details in the house that relate directly to this Asian trip, such as his use of thin bamboo blinds in his studio, for example. While I assume Wright encountered Japanese architecture and garden design first hand in Japan, there were also sources closer to home that he may have been familiar with. In 1954, for example, MoMA curator Arthur Drexler (with the aid of Antonin Raymond), organized an exhibition of a traditional Japanese house and garden in the museum’s garden in 1954. The Brooklyn Botanical Garden contains the oldest public Japanese garden in the US (constructed 1914-15), a garden that Wright may have been familiar with, and, even closer to Manitoga, Wright may have seen the Japanese garden constructed as part of the Rockefeller’s Hudson River Valley estate, Kykuit (garden construction 1908-09). But to avoid further speculation, I will assume that Wright absorbed Japanese design ideas first hand through at least one of these sources and leave aside elements of Wright’s house and interiors that might display Japanese influences in order to concentrate on connections between Wright’s “Garden of Woodland Paths” and Japanese garden traditions.

Manitoga and the Japanese Garden

Like the picturesque landscape, the traditional Japanese garden had an emphasis on irregularity, asymmetrical arrangements, references to literary and painterly effects, and above all, a design derived from nature. But the attitude towards nature was markedly different in each tradition. The Japanese garden was seen as an ideal microcosm of the world, and design was used as a force that can potentially free what already exists in nature. For Teiji Ito, “the Japanese attitude towards nature is revealed as the continuous endeavor to extract the essence of a stone, a tree, a view.” (Ito, 197). Although often self-consciously “artificial”, garden designs followed natural patterns, and were designed to accommodated both the changing seasons and changes wrought by time. The Japanese garden was designed to contain nature in replica “both physically reduced and spiritually enlarged to suggest the proportions of nature.” (Ito, 139) The formal/informal divide of European landscape traditions does not apply to the Japanese garden, neither does the natural/artificial divide that is commonly used to distinguish designed landscape types.

While these general ideas might be applicable to Manitoga, a more specific category of Japanese garden, kaiyu-shiki teien, the “Tour” or “Stroll Garden”, may have provided a model for Wright’s design. A Tour Garden was not designed to be viewed from a house, pavilion, or static vantage point, but was designed to encourage “the kinetic experience of landscape” (Rogers, 305). The Tour Garden, which emerged during Edo Period Japan (1615-1867), was a composed experience created with stepping-stone paths that guided walkers on prescribed but winding and unpredictable routes, usually comprising a main path with branching paths looping from it. The paths were arranged around a lake or pond and offered the walker a variety of designed scenes to take in along the way.

The oldest surviving example of a Tour Garden in Japan is that of the Katsura Detached Palace in Kyoto (see image above). While the Palace’s architecture appealed to leading European modernists such as Bruno Taut, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier (who all visited and wrote about it), they seem to have had little interest in the Tour Garden. Ito describes the experience of walking in the Katsura garden as participating in a kind of drama, and his description is worth quoting at length:

“One is carried through this experience as though the course of footpaths had a musical rhythm. From the shadows of the thicket one suddenly emerges upon a spacious view; the sound of rushing waters incites curiosity and imagination; one climbs a slope in the shade and discovers at the crest a sunny panorama that seems vast.” (Ito, p.191)

Such a description could well apply to Wright’s landscape at Manitoga – the sound of the waterfall hidden by the pergola at the entrance incites curiosity, for example, and Wright’s deliberate use of surprise views and varied arrangements of scenes along his paths is surely Japanese in inspiration. Certainly Wright’s cultivation of a Moss garden above the Quarry Pond and his use of stepping stones paths here and there along the paths must have been influenced by Japanese garden design principles. Interestingly, the paths at Katsura were also known by poetic names like Wright’s “Sunset Path”, “Morning Path” and “Spring Path”. Lastly, while Japanese Tour Gardens such as Katsura included miniature mountains or suggestions of larger natural features in miniature (such as a miniature version of Mount Fuji, for example), Wright’s version of this might be the miniature replica of the Quarry waterfall in the driveway, created from ferns (see image below).

In an essay titled, “Designing with Nature”, a version of which appeared in House and Garden in 1971, Wright described his guiding principles for designing the landscape at Manitoga: follow the natural topography; make paths one way; utilize existing features; cut vistas slowly; and avoid panoramic vision (see Wright, 122-123). This latter idea in which Wright resisted utilizing panoramic visions in his landscape design certainly aligns Manitoga more with Japanese rather than European ideals. While in some ways a self-contained world, the Japanese Tour Garden also typically included “borrowed scenery” from the world outside the garden – designers would consciously incorporate distant mountains into framed views in a similar way to Wright’s exposure to the outside at his various “osio” points along the paths.

Despite these various aspects which may have been adopted from the Japanese garden tradition, Wright made no attempt to replicate a Japanese landscape topographically or to use Japanese flora. Manitoga was not a literal reproduction of a Japanese garden such as at Kykuit or the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, but it was instead an attempt by Wright to extract the essence of the Hudson River Valley site, its topography, flora and its cultural memories. Like a Japanese Tour Garden, Manitoga is a landscape to be traversed and encountered by the senses, and the experience incorporates the viewer into the landscape in an intimate way. As Ito writes of the Japanese Tour Garden: “In this garden-drama, one becomes the hero oneself because one ‘creates’ this garden by walking through it.” (Ito, 191) At Manitoga, embedded within rather than standing apart from nature, the visitor encounters a similar kinetic and tactile experience as in a Japanese garden, engaging creatively with the essence of nature.


Altman, Cynthia Bronson, “The Japanese Garden at Pocantico”, Orientations, May 2006, Vol. 37, No. 4, pp. 47-52. Online here.

Helfrich, Kurt G. F. and William Whitaker, eds., Crafting a Modern World: The Architecture and Design of Antonin and Noémi Raymond, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006.

Ito, Teiji, The Japanese Garden: An Approach to Nature, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1972.

Kuck, Loraine, The World of the Japanese Garden: From Chinese Origins to Modern Landscape Art, New York and Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1968.

Rogers, Elizabeth Barlow, Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History, New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang; London: Thames & Hudson, 2001.

Vendredi-Auzanneau, Christine, “Antonin Raymond and the Modern Movement: A Czech Perspective”, in Helfrich and Whitaker, eds., Crafting a Modern World: The Architecture and Design of Antonin and Noémi Raymond.

Wright, Russel, Good Design is for Everyone: In His Own Words, Manitoga/The Russel Wright Center and Universe Publishing, New York, 2001.

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