By Takeo Uesugi, Ph.D.
Originally printed in The Rafu Shimpo on Feb. 28, 2012.
The value of UCLA’s Hannah Carter Japanese Garden cannot be fully realized without an understanding of the chief landscape architect, Mr. Nagao Sakurai. Not only is he known for his Japanese garden design and construction practice, which began after World War II, but he has been recognized as a key figure who contributed to the global appeal and expansion of Japanese gardens developed in the latter half of the 20th century.
He worked on the Japanese garden exhibits at the 1939 Golden Gate and New York International expositions, which demonstrated the true forms of Japanese gardens as they existed in Japan. He returned to Japan upon completion of these exhibits, but then came back to the U.S. as an immigrant to restart his practice of developing Japanese gardens in the West. One can only imagine what high hopes and passion he must have held in advancing the Japanese garden movement in America.
We are able to observe the spirit and energy with which he constructed Shikyo-en Garden (presently Hannah Carter Garden) through the fine details of the waterfall, pond, stone bridge, water basin, tea house, etc. It is clear that Mr. Sakurai faced many challenges in working with the site such as steep slope conditions and extreme eastern sun exposure. As a professional landscape architect, I would have been reluctant to take on such a project!
On top of these difficult site factors, the landscape was covered with tropical Hawaiian plants by the previous owner. Mr. Sakurai, however, overcame these undesirable conditions and successfully completed a wonderful Japanese garden that captured the beauty of traditional Japanese gardens within the dry Southern California climate.
The name of Sakurai as a landscape architect spread throughout the West Coast and across the nation. He worked on notable landscape projects including the Japanese Tea Garden in San Mateo; the Zen Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park; the Japanese Rock Garden in Lodi; and the Nishinomiya Japanese Garden in Spokane, Wash.
Mr. Sakurai’s biography is highlighted by spectacular accomplishments. After having graduated from Tokyo University, he had an opportunity to develop his traditional gardening skills at the Imperial Palace. Mr. Sakurai then came to America to work on the international expositions in 1939 as a landscape architect sent by the Japanese government. After completing his work on the expositions, he returned home to Japan, and came back as an immigrant to America in the 1950s.
Mr. Sakurai was then commissioned by Mr. Gordon Guiberson to build a Japanese garden on a steep 1.5-acre hillside in 1959. The garden was completed in 1961 and named Shikyo-en. The steep east-facing site was not necessarily suited for a Japanese garden, but Mr. Sakurai turned the negative conditions of the site into a special garden with spectacular views and magnificent spaces. The success of the garden was made possible due to Mr. Sakurai’s imagination and creativity along with his passion for Japanese culture and gardens. His unique designs were truly evident in many gardens across America. The Carter Garden became a symbol of Japanese gardens in the U.S., and its importance and beauty are undeniable.
I visited the Hannah Carter Garden several times with my students during my teaching career in the Department of Landscape Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona University. I recall that the garden is suited for studying good examples of design and construction techniques with its details and maintenance. The garden docents kindly introduced the visitors with ample information of the site and traditional garden techniques.
The garden was opened to the public by reservation without any admission fee. Our students always enjoyed visiting this garden, but parking limitations due to its location in an exclusive residential community in Bel Air made it challenging to come with more than a handful of visitors.
I knew that there were maintenance issues that the garden faced, including budget and sufficient staffing. It was obvious that the Carter Garden needed operational improvements to sustain itself.
As the owner of the site, UCLA must recognize and consider the significance of this cultural landmark and understand the value it provides to education and community before selling this property. Thus, I would like to voice my opposition and regret to the university’s decision to sell the property.
My hope is that we can develop a tangible management system to sustain the Carter Garden, and to appeal to students, staff, and professors of architecture, arts, extension courses of landscape architecture, etc. at UCLA. I would like to do my best to support the creation of a strong vision and future for the Hannah Carter Japanese Garden.
Takeo Uesugi, Ph.D. is a professor emeritus of Cal Poly Pomona University and designer of the James Irvine Garden at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.