Portland’s Chinese Garden – Part 1

It’s been a while – 2008 – since I began this series on Portland’s Chinese Garden. In the meantime, as is the case with any garden, much has occurred. A very few plants failed, a few were relocated, some overly ripe stuff was replaced based purely on taste. For a notable period, a leak was found in the water feature part of the garden, chased down and then repaired – a relatively constant plague or at least a danger, for almost any water feature, anywhere.

Generally, however, little has changed overall. Eventually, the huge Weeping Willow will become problematic with its invasive root systems and the softer wood becoming perhaps snow – or ice – laden during some Winter storm and affecting its shape. But all in all, it has matured very gracefully into a focal point destination inside a gorgeous city.

I have revised some of these older posts, tinkering around with pictures and script, but altogether I am very happy with these posts. I hope they give as much pleasure as I got from writing them and from helping construct this masterpiece. This series deals with some of the tales of its emergence out of the city block-wide big hole where it began.

The Portland Chinese Garden was a combined effort between a company from Portland, Oregon’s sister city, the incredible Sou Zhou, and, well basically, the Mayor of Portland. It was at various points a hot political potato with mounting criticisms from all the usual political-type sources (which usually means an opposing party, naturally) in an era of average or worse¬†resources, following the ‘Dot Com” bust which negatively impacted Portland having long since gone “all in” on high tech. However, Portland was even then showing the strength of a reasonably well-planned expansion, complete with very innovative and successful local corporations, such as Intel, Nike and a million smart subsidiary businesses to Microsoft just up the road in Seattle.

We spent an interesting meeting in the Mayor’s office once, proposing an idea that she accepted with joy and hopefulness – naming various trees and baubles for the largest donors. For a price, of course. ūüėČ ¬†Well, it worked. But my favorite interactions were always with the Chinese who also worked hard on this lovely project. Constant smiles, elaborate bows and exclamations, tons of laughter and the joy of sharing and cooperation made it entirely special to me.

I’m going to recirculate an entire series of Chinese Garden construction factoids and tales from its construction, which I was integral to. It was easily the neatest gig I was ever a part of and I was fairly high up in the work and liaison stream, then working for Teufel’s Nurseries, a $40 million a year business in early 1996.

Enjoy a ride through some of the highlights of this project.

Oh – by the way – Portlanders are inordinately proud of this Garden. It gets heavy traffic 12 months a year.

(You can enlarge each picture by clicking – sometimes twice.)

Set solidly right in the very depths of downtown Portland, Oregon, the Chinese Garden is serene and mind-boggling at the same time. The fact that the locals understand this is implicit – basically placed smack in the middle of the Chinese District, it has a congruity within the city itself. Leaving the Garden, you can go shop at stores specializing in Chinese items or eat at any number of bordering restaurants. Portland is an immensely satisfying walking town, although an umbrella is de rigueur during the drippy Winter months.

But of course, that is not the entire story, and especially as it relates to this blog. That the Garden is a gorgeous feast for the eyes and senses is pretty much a no brainer. I will address that pictorially. How it relates here is my own small involvement with it and it may take a post or two to finish.

At the time, I was living in Portland and working for Teufel’s Landscaping, a very large and successful nursery and landscaping firm who counted their clients among those they have worked for or supplied for over 100 years. Among their clients were the Nike and Microsoft Campuses, golf courses, Intel’s booming Portland base and countless others. In residential landscaping, I have myself worked for some notable people. When the mayor of Portland decided she wanted this Garden in conjunction with Portland’s sister city, they tried and eventually found the approximately $12 million it took to make it work. I salute Vera Katz here and now for her wonderful addition to the city and her bulldog-like tenacity in seeing it come to pass. You da gal, Vera.

Well, Teufel’s got a contract to do a number of things under the project. Once again, my good friend John Stone was instrumental in all this and was my supervisor. John’s rather bizarre mandate was to provide the local landscaping expertise dealing with irrigating the grounds, locating all of the plant materials, installing the soils and planting the plants for a project no one wanted to look “brand new”. Naturally, what this meant was that fully mature plants were to be supplied which matched the specifications and artistic needs supplied by the Chinese portion of the engineering and landscape architect class who basically designed it. It implied some stuff you just couldn’t make up, it was so far fetched. For one example, I accompanied John in an expedition down to a plant who specialized in fabricating chains. Why? Because as we found and excavated the trees, we began seeing some intimidating issues with their weight. The root balls on some of these behemoths were in the tens of tons. We already knew we would be using a 180 ton crane for placement – at the time the largest vehicle made for street travel.

Portland’s Chinese Garden – Part 2

This is an installation perspective on Portland, Oregon’s Chinese Garden which last saw the light of day 8 years ago. I’ve edited and added a few things for this iteration, but the substance remains relatively unchanged.

We pick things up at the “chain design” section, as we prepared to lift and lower the months worth of acquired plants and trees into their positions, some of which were simply gigantic.

So John had the chain designed for our needs – we needed something that could handle the weight without snapping, obviously, while shuttling these massive hand-dug trees with gigantic root balls into their eventual homes. But we also needed something we could uncouple quickly, especially difficult considering the expanse involved: many of the root balls were up to eight feet across! Anyway, this was accomplished well. ¬†It turns out, we had learned, during a first hand tutorial at the surprisingly massive chain factory down the street of the wonders of the famous “Quick Coupler”. I pointed this small element out merely to indicate the unique problems besetting an enterprise like this. Imagine an entire city block and the numbers alone of mature trees needed to complete the look. Imagine as well a stationary crane grabbing these big suckers and then delivering them to the “holes”.¬† The word is, the crane nearly toppled handling this huge Magnolia for a really far spot.

When we got there and actually commenced the work, it was early in the process. The project was basically a great open massive hole in the ground with pockets of formed concrete piers and foundations for things such as the buildings as well as support structures for bridges and walkways.¬† Irrigating this mess was intense.¬† We spent nearly a week just coring holes through all the foundations walls with a diamond drill to poke pipe through and deliver water throughout the entirety. Fortunately, the service was to be completely drip irrigation so the pipes required tended to be in the 2 inch range. We complete a complete enclosed circle, which was always the goal, and then fed off that to supply the valves and the nearly above ground piping. I hasten to add, we also had the unenviable and often nearly fruitless task of running the electrical wiring for these remote vales to tie into a central control clock. Why “nearly fruitless”?¬† Because of the insane amount of construction yet to perform before the soil we supplied and introduced could supply the padding and insulation fro construction wear and tear. Those nasty things like boots of the workers, shovels and machinery is why, any of which could expose the copper wire by cutting through the plastic sheath and render it useless and an absolute bear to locate and fix – a common lament in irrigation circles. ¬†Indeed, it turned out we did lose a couple of wires by having them cut somewhere.

The most fascinating part of the project for me was when the Chinese workers showed up. There was supposedly 150 involved, but I think that included a substantial corps of engineers and architects as well. The workers were fun and very easy to get along with.  The fact that I smoked cigarettes turned me into a popular figure, lol. I swear, I believe they all smoked. Very James Bondish of them!  But they were all easy to get along with, talented as heck, focused and extremely hard-working.  It was a pure pleasure working next to them.

So many elements of this Garden were brought from China, it’s mind-blowing.¬† Indeed, the bridges themselves were made of granite, hand-crafted back in China, many by the same guys who installed them here. Needless to say, the awesome rocks featured here were all delivered straight from China as well, including those composing the entire water feature and small mountain.

 

 

Pebble Pathways – And Mosaics, Pebble and Brick

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Click all images to enlarge

Pebble Pathways are a specialty. I have done just a couple in my day but I have so enjoyed looking at those done by others, I’m actually late in speaking of them. The above is from the Portland, Oregon Chinese Garden and – to me – represents the absolute “state of the art” of the Pebble Path. Embedded in a loose layer of wet cement and arranged painstakingly (obviously!) the makers keep their supplies nearby and reach around to grab the pieces, then they fit them meticulously into position. It was interesting watching them make these paths – and I only saw them beginning rather than all the way through – but these guys were definitely specialists. What was perhaps even more remarkable was their speed. Believe me, they’ve had practice. I have mentioned before in this blog where I was involved in this project myself, along with a couple of other souls from Teufel Nurseries in Portland.¬† One of my mates on the project was John Stone, currently an independent and very good contractor in Portland and Southern Washington. Here is his website. In fact, I describe much of our role in this exciting and hugely rewarding project in this blog under the category of¬† “Chinese Garden” in my “Categories” section.

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Of some irony, during the construction of these pathways in Portland, a somewhat substantial amount of the pebbling had been accomplished when they were suddenly informed of a local building code which insisted that all “pebbled surfaces” were not to have more than a 1/8th inch depression. Since the ancient Chinese trait of providing such depths as a quarter inch – best for “massaging the feet” while traversing the -path – they had to redo what they had already done. The purpose, strictly non-judgmentally speaking, was for the ease of travel for wheelchairs and handicapped resources. Whether it made any difference whatsoever would be the question but – to their credit – the constructors sighed and went back to work.

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What led to me to this subject, in fact, was seeing the mosaic work of Helen Nock, who I featured below in this blog, the wonderfully creative British designer and maker of exotic and artful garden furnishings, among her other talents. I was reminded of a few projects we’ve done where we inlaid a rather “Mosaic” pattern of not only other pebbled pathways, but with bricks as well. When one does a mosaic pattern, one gets this sort of “Fractal Sense” of the smaller role of the mosaic pattern being subservient to the overall ambiance of the project – the macrolandscape – itself. By exploding in artistically free small patterns at the more “micro” level, we make fascinating details which are never necessary whatsoever, but which add so much of a human touch. Below is a simple sort of construction we laid by cementing bricks over a barren, glaringly white “porch scape” of plain cement. Note the circular pattern of the bricks by the doorway. In the bricky world, this is so much trouble as to be almost self-destructive to a budget unless it’s factored in. Naturally, in my case, I gave the sucker away! But the clients actually made up for it. They were somewhere beyond pleased. This picture can be enlarged quite huge by clicking twice, for the full effect.

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Here’s what it looked like from the front, after the lunch pails were removed:

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And one final look at paver mosaics, in this case the picture at the front of the Toronto Music facility, a public arena dedicated to music, as evidenced by the fascinating mosaic trends shown in the pavers out front. The designer used a computer simulation of musical chords – I bet Jazz, lol – to render this undoubtedly maddening project for his installers.

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Back To Pebbles:

There is a simply fascinating potential in constructing walkways and paths in these pebble finishes. There is literally no limit in possibilities. Indeed, Pebble Mosaics are a virtual art form of their own, some hanging in frames as representational art and others playful scenarios developed from the whimsical and fecund minds of homeowners and “amateurs”. I use the amateur term advisedly, as many of the best landscapes I have ever come across were done by the persons who lived where they worked. I’ve said this many times, but my respect for these folks is over the top. The best landscapes in the world can be those you happen onto visiting a party or dropping by for any purpose, into a back or front yard you never knew existed. Suddenly the floor moves. ūüėČ

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Patience, a good selection of stones for the project, a great base of, say 3-4″ of unfinished cement upon which to work (a surface and finish we in construction often refer to indelicately as a “rat slab”) and a slurry of moist cement is about all one needs to get tight with the Pebbling Art. Here are some random pictures of other pebble art projects – not my own. The first 2 are more of the Chinese Garden in Portland, with the first picture featuring a multifaceted quartz-dominated walkway:

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This one is made even cooler by the plantings alongside – never to be underestimated as the adjunct of choice:

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A close up –

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On a wall…………………………….

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From the amazing Janette Ireland, I present the utter Lunatic Fringe of the Pebble Mosaic Art:

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For more on this stunning artist, click here:  Janette Ireland

You’ll never look at a cute pebble the same way again! Below is from This Blog Check it out.

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Well, we’ve gone from interesting to wild. My work is done. ūüėČ

Last Year’s Chinese Garden Trip – Modified

The Sun came out today in Portland. Bar none, every man and woman Jack and Jill made their ways outside just to feel the strangeness. I took my standard half day trip to the Pearl District and the Portland Chinese Garden.

Remarkable stuff happened there.

(enlarge pictures by clicking on them)

For examples, ducks were born overnight – or during the morning…….. Check the little pile of brand new ‘expanded family’ under the yellow Kerria. Enlarged is best.

We got a splendidly elegant visit from a big Blue Heron……who swooped on in magnificently as we watched.

He preened for the multitude, shamelessly……….and we were quite grateful. What a gorgeous bird.

There have been some trees added since we worked on making this garden. Naturally, time and weather, accidents and bad luck accompany the lives of  plants here, just like real life. But the exquisite care and thought put into the updated plantings must have been thrilling for those responsible for replacements. They have done well indeed.

This weeping tree illustrates perfectly my point. What a stunning decision and oh how correct this setting, seen here in a closer perspective than above. This is a brand new plant for this aficionado and I am very captivated by its placement.

The pathways and surfaces of this splendid garden have always riveted my attention. I recall when they were first being installed, how the Chinese workers would be such intense studies in concentration but who also showed a stunning skill and speed. The failure of the first walkways to pass the City Inspection grabbed everyone’s attention. Having installed perhaps 300 square feet of surface, the indentations between the small pebbles were ruled “too deep” (at 1/4 inch) for wheelchair comfort. While we gnashed our teeth at having to see such a marvelous product literally ripped out – some was merely grouted deeper – the Chinese workers remained cheery and philosophical and simply went back to work with a new template. And asked for another cigarette, lol.

Below, we have a superb planter with utter professionalism extended to not just the choice of plant – a Wysteria, of course – but in it’s classical stylistic pruning and placement. This is beyond the Bonzai look – more utilitarian in releasing it to achieve a larger influence – and perfectly set against the amazing wood-working of the entire garden. The wood finishes are an absolute highlight anyway.

As yet another splendid example of the obsession with uncommonly gorgeous classical Chinese wood-working, check out this indoor section of the garden and the superb little chair and table set in the little building designed to look like a barge afloat in the lake.

I’m just having fun with diverse images at present, focusing on just a few little delights I encountered. I will post yet more pictures tomorrow and probably the next day. Lord knows I took enough pictures – I think something like 127 while there. ¬†ūüėČ

Needless to say, it’s one of my favorite-ever pastimes, this garden, and a huge treat I indulge in every visit.

Here’s a gorgeous Crabapple I obviously couldn’t get enough of. I just absolutely adore the bloom color, to say nothing of the setting.

Nice, isn’t it?

Told you I adored it.

There are innumerable newer plants with whom I am not that familiar, such as this beauty below.

A strictly personal note: When I visit here, I almost always tend to recall my incomplete plant knowledge, having invested so much of my landscaping history into the processes of actually getting to the point of finishing rather than of relishing the finishing itself. Yes, it has become lazy of me to express so little interest in plant types – nor is it true at all, not really. The right plant in the right place – and their stunning diversity – is a thrill of its own.

My crews were less than pleased finishing jobs with me on the sites we worked. Ha ha, finally, they forced me off the site, onto the next place, just to be rid of all my angst. An unfortunate factor of my construction persona was always about how¬†epic-ally¬†well I began projects and how frustrated I was at the always-slow process of finishing. I have often hired appropriately, using some ‘human backhoe’ with me at the next start and leaving experienced and more patient people to finish up.

Yet another gorgeous beauty of an early bloomer –

Finally, today, a word about the “windows” in to this little slice of Paradise. The following 3 pictures are taken from the sidewalk outside the garden. As one can readily see, each opening is unique, offering a fresh peek into the courtyard, hinting superbly to what interesting things lie inside.

Blooms, water, foliage and even the patterns on the windows themselves are just a terrific example of how special the designers wanted this city block in such a busy down town area to be.

Seasonally different yet promising, the views from these spaces were always designed to be alluring and tempting to step inside and experience the Peace and Serenity which is emitted from every single item of this great urban space.