Hide and Reveal

The Japanese tend to work with tight spaces when they are designing a garden. After all, they have been on the same bit of ground for a couple of millennia at least. They have had a long time to perfect their version of garden building.

The very best Japanese Garden designers use three design “tricks” to make a rather small area seem infinitely larger. The first such design technique is called “hide and reveal.” A designer will use this method to not only create surprises, as one twists and turns through the space, but provide a way of moving through the space. For example, in Wellfield’s Island Garden, (currently under construction), the garden guest will be able to see the central pavilion on top of the hill from various parts of the garden, thus suggesting a destination, a goal, a place to work towards once they enter the space. However, the pavilion will not be very visible from the three entry points to the Island Garden as the trees around it grow. It is only as the guest makes the commitment to travel the path to it, will they be rewarded with a fantastic view.

The design of the West Promenade path already utilizes this technique. This space was designed to be a sequence of framed views of the Island Garden from different chosen points. The plantings in between each bench pad block views of the Island Garden. In this way, the designer controls the guest experience. This method will be further employed in the Island Garden using a combination of grade changes, plant screens and twists in the paths. The Japanese love to take their garden visitors on paths that enclose and then open wide over and over again. This is another example of hide and reveal. Sada Uchiyama, the Island Garden’s designer, also gives various things of interest to note as one walks around each turn. It might be a simple composition of stone and plant material, a beautiful Japanese lantern or a view outward to something more distant (the borrowed view). The whole goal is not only to control the view, but to slow the individual down and let their mind rest. The longer the guest lingers, the larger the garden space feels.

One other method the Japanese use to hide and reveal, and thus extend the visit, is through the choice of paving material. This is best exampled in the traditional tea garden, or roji. The garden path of a roji begins with a very formal arrangement of stone paving and transitions effortlessly to less formal and increasingly rugged path as one approaches the tea house. Long rectangular paths give way to stepping stones. The stepping stones are chosen and sited in such a way as to force one’s eyes down as they negotiate the terrain. One is force to slow down, forget about the cares of the outside world, and concentrate on the ground in front of them. If the designer wants the visitor to observe something in the garden such as a beautiful maple, lantern or stone, he or she creates a landing pad of some sort, such as another rectilinear stone pad, or nobedan, allowing one to pause and look up. The garden builder has controlled the whole garden experience through the simple device of a stepping stone.

Whether it is stepping stones, plant screens or twisting paths, hide and reveal is a simple and effective way of creating big garden experiences in small garden spaces.

Josh Steffen, Horticulture and Facilities Manager


6 comments

  1. I love the idea of hide and reveal. I will think about this and how to incorporate it into some of my designs. The photo iof the pavilion is lovely. Thank you for a great post!

  2. Domo arigatou gozaimasu! It is fascinating to read about the philosophy and strategy behind designing Japanese gardens. So glad Josh was able to go to Portland to learn from such a good sensei. Looking forward to seeing the garden next year.

  3. Pingback: Forced Perspective « Wellfield Botanic Gardens


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