JournalFrom the farm garden to the Japanese garden
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Christian Otto is a garden designer through and through - and has been for over thirty years. Since 2008 Christian has been chief designer at the “Königliche Gartenakademie” (Royal Garden Academy) in Berlin. At this Garden Academy Christian designs a wide variety of gardens ranging from the English garden to the Japanese Zen garden. But no matter what kind of design it is, be it a garden or a landscape, for Christian Otto the environment and its history always plays an important role.
Christian learnt a very particular garden philosophy while studying in Japan. Since this time Asian garden design has become one of his great passions.
In our interview with Christian he talks about the idea of the Tsubo garden and the philosophy and story behind it. He also answers our questions about his very personal take on garden design.
Mr. Otto, how did you come up with the idea of setting out a Tsubo garden on the Lorberg nursery property?
Christian Otto: It was during my initial visit to Japan that I first came across the Tsubo garden. It immediately interested and impressed me. Tsubo can be translated as “small pot”. The first gardens of this type were created in the Heian Period, which started 794 years after Christ.
So we’re talking about a very old garden style?
Christian Otto: It was mainly well-to-do merchants that were enamoured of this garden style. In the early part of the 16th century though it started becoming more common in urban areas. Taxes were levied according to the length of the street-facing portion of the property or house front, which led in turn to smaller buildings being built. At the same time an urge for an improvement in one’s living environment led to the integration of miniature gardens inside the house. The garden spaces were surrounded on all sides by the building. There was much use of miniature landscapes or even pure stone gardens.
For me it’s all about showing visitors to the Lorberg nursery that you don’t need a lot of garden space to create a landscape that calms the soul.
Japanese gardens and the art of bonsai usually create an idealised form of nature in miniature. Was that your goal with the conception of your Tsubo garden as well?
Christian Otto: Yes - in Kleinziethen it was also about creating a reflection of the landscape. But the quiet observation of the garden should also create a kind of tension. The real Tsubo garden, which is sunk 40cm below the level of the surrounding garden, also makes use of the placing of a single stone in its centre, the size of which is difficult to estimate. This creates room for your own thoughts. The stone I used for this garden spent around 25 years with me before coming to Kleinziethen.
What does Tsubo mean and what’s the particular characteristic of such a garden?
Christian Otto: This kind of garden can give off such a remarkable amount of energy. A couple of years ago I was visiting an old royal private garden, which had since been opened to the public. While wandering around this imperial villa I came unexpectedly upon a Tsubo garden. It was visible from all sides of the villa. No matter where you were there were always different views of the garden, and each view suggested a different aspect, a different mood, of it. That was good examples of how little garden you need to be able to create something that one can simply sink into.
You studied in Japan and got to know Asian garden designs in their places of origin. Are there basic differences how the Japanese and the Germans experience a garden?
Christian Otto: Japanese gardens are miniaturised reflections of special places and landscapes, as idealised versions of nature created to give off a three-dimensional effect. This is definitely THE particular character of Japanese garden design. Essentially, I believe that the difference in how Germans and Japanese experience gardens - how they appraise them and what function they have (e.g. as a representation) for them, are not all that great.
If someone designs gardens for over thirty years, as you have, can one experience nature without seeing it with a professional eye?
I can also experience nature without seeing it professionally.
This can have a very refreshing and relaxing effect on me and I go out of my way to find such places, when I go on holiday as well. Nature is of course also a great teacher. Many of my design ideas started in this way.
But seeing designed gardens or landscapes without considering them professionally is much harder. As soon as I see a designed garden I immediately start analysing it.
The questions I pose are then very often these:
And will you let us in on how your own garden is designed?
Christian Otto:Together with my wife and children I’ve laid out a small cottage garden, where we grow our own fruit and vegetables - but it’s also a place for personal retreat. And there’s also a small Japanese corner to the garden.
I’m planning a new garden design for myself at the moment. I’ll start working on it in the next 1-2 years, when I’ve found the right space for it. Of course it’ll be a Japanese-inspired garden, which we’ll also then open to the public.
Many thanks for the interview!