One Stone Bridge, Well Rooted
“A bridge should be built in a garden at only the place where one is inevitable”
-The Magic of Trees and Stones by K. Saito and S. Wada
by Jessa Gardner
When you enter the Seattle Japanese Garden, you go through the gatehouse, past the laceleaf maple with its twisting branches, and just beyond the first curve, you’ll arrive at a split in the path, marked by a tall Nara lantern. Along the trail to the right are tall ginkgo trees, notable for their striking golden leaves in the fall. The left trail leads you straight onto a stone bridge, a popular location for photos and the passageway to the Shoseian teahouse.
It may surprise you to learn that this stone bridge was not part of the original Japanese Garden construction in 1960—in fact, the bridge predates the garden by 20 years! Within the garden, we affectionately refer to the large stone bridge as the “WPA Bridge” because it was built as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) project that funded the majority of early construction in the Washington Park Arboretum (then the University of Washington Arboretum.) Between 1935 and 1941, the WPA spent over $1,000,000 developing the Arboretum, and this effort included the 1938/39 construction of the “South Stone Bridge” over Arboretum Creek in the area that would later become the Seattle Japanese Garden.1
The stone bridge was already part of the landscape when the first plans for the garden were drafted in 1959. The landscape design team from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Department of Parks, including Juki Iida and Kiyoshi Inoshita, incorporated the bridge into the garden as if it were another natural feature of the land. This went against the traditional justification for putting a bridge into a Japanese garden—as evidenced by the quote at the beginning of this article. In fact, the first “manual” that exists on Japanese garden design, the Sakuteiki—written in the mid- to late-11th century in the Heian courts of Japan—makes no mention whatsoever of bridges, though it does have several pages of commentary on placing stones within ponds. In the Heian era, it was very popular for aristocrats to navigate their lavish gardens in flat-bottom boats—and presumably, bridges over the waterways would get in the way.
If you look at some of the “ishibashi,” or stone bridges, found in Edo-style stroll gardens in Japan—which our garden was modeled after—you’ll won’t see many bridges like the one built by the WPA. It’s more common in stroll gardens to find a stepping-stone crossing than a full-on stonework bridge. Wooden structures (like the “zigzag bridge” in the Seattle Japanese Garden), earthen bridges, and single-slab stone bridges are also commonly found.2 The only tie that our lovely bridge has to traditional Japanese gardens is that one of these gardens was built around it. Despite this, the bridge has been so beautifully incorporated into the landscape and plantings of the garden that something about it seems inevitable.
1 BOLA Architecture Planning, and Karen Kiest/Landscape Architects. Washington Park Arboretum Historic Review.
2 Wada, S., and K. Saito. Magic of Trees and Stones: Secrets of Japanese Gardening. 1965