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In the Garden of Good and Harmony

By Stephen Kelly, managing editor






The Oswego, Oregon residence: An intimate space near the pool incorporates Japanese-style fencing, mica slate, black pines fountain grass, and Japanese maples. The tropical plant was not planted by Kurisu.


“Harmonizing Japanese garden design principles with contemporary sensibilities to create landscapes that recognize humanity’s need for inspiration and renewal of spirit.”–Kurisu International

We’d like to share with you two residential designs of Kurisu International, both in relatively small towns with open spaces and some breathing room, but within close proximity to urban centers: the Los Altos Hills residence in Northern California, about 35 miles south of San Francisco; the Lake Oswego residence in Northern Oregon, just south of Portland.

Lake Oswego, Oregon

Lake Oswego, an area once occupied by the Clackamas Indians, lies between the Willamette and Tualatin Rivers in northern Oregon, just south of Portland. The town, founded in 1847 by Albert Durham, derives its name from his birthplace in New York. [The Oswego Indians lived in western New York. The city of Oswego lies on the southeastern shore of Lake Ontario and its namesake river is the second largest tributary into Lake Ontario.] Ol’ Durham built the area’s first saw mill on Sucker Creek, a colorful sobriquet that today carries the pedestrian descriptor, Oswego Creek.






This is a view of the Oswego residence from the boat house deck of the lower-level waterfalls. The boulders are of Columbia basalt sourced locally, ranging in size from 3'x3'x4' to 4'x5' and weighing from one-half ton to four tons. The plants include: Japanese maple (red), vine maple, huckleberry, “burning bush,” and various species of Tobira, Ilex, Acorus, Styrex.


The smelting of iron ore began here in1841, reaching a peak in 1890. Oswego remained a remote spot until 1914, when the Southern Pacific Railroad widened the narrow gauge rail line to standard gauge and electrified it, which spurred residential development in the 1920s and 1930s. In the1940s and ‘50s, the properties around the lake began to be gobbled up; in 1960, Oswego annexed Lake Grove, the land due west.






The Oswego, Oregon residence sits on the shore of Lake Oswego, Oregon. The only access to the construction area was from the lake. All equipment and material arrived by barge.Japanese black pines, red maple, and huckleberry are pictured. The cascading waterfall, a creek and pond were incorporated at the front entrance.


Lake Oswego is a small town, “green and clean,” as people living in Portland like to say. The city, siding the 405 acre lake, has a population of 35,750 spread out over 11 square miles. There’s a police station, one library, a senior center and, talk about green, 24 developed parks. Class sizes are small here, 23 students per instructor. The city proudly notes that more than 80 percent of the high school students go on to attend college. The parks and recreation department promotes Lake Oswego as a place to “live where you play,” an appropriate moniker as the city owns the sports center on the Willamette River, and manages the lake’s public swimming areas, the golf course, indoor tennis center, and the outdoor amphitheater by the river.

Lake Oswego Oregon Residence

Designer: Hoichi Kurisu, president & principal designer, Kurisu International
Construction: four months. Hoichi Kurisu and Kurisu International, Inc.

The initial contact with the client was to maintain the existing garden. In walking the pool and garden areas, however, it became apparent that the client was not happy with much of the design and materials of the garden. Kurisu International’s design team went to work with designs and material selection that would transform the garden, while working with the existing shell of the swimming pool. The focal element in the overall design was the illusion of a cascading waterfall on the upper level appearing to flow into the swimming pool. The swimming pool was reconfigured with a zero-edge spillway on the lakeside. “The two waterfalls and the swimming pool appear to be a continuous system,” explains Michael Ellena, general manager of Kurisu International.






The Oswego pool decking (above and below) features mica slate and Columbia basalt boulders. One-hundred tons of boulders needed lifting into place. These boulders originated from a series of molten basalt lava flows 17 million years ago along the Columbia River plateau. The basalt is composed of pyroxene (a black mineral) and plagioclase (a white mineral).







The only access to the construction area was from the lake, so all equipment and material was moved by barge. The boat deck had to be reinforced to handle the increased weight.

Demolition began on the existing cedar deck surrounding the pool. Retaining walls were installed to surround the existing pool shell and provide the foundation for the new slate pool deck. A special piece of equipment called a Spider backhoe, able to crawl up 45-degree slopes and level itself, was required for much of the work. The Spider backhoe was used for excavation, grading, material placement, 100 tons of boulder setting, and specimen plant setting. Gunite and concrete were pumped in from the street a distance of 150 to 200 feet for water features and the pool deck.

Los Altos Hills, California

Los Altos has a special meaning to me, as I spent my secondary school years in Palo Alto, which borders Los Altos. Yes, this is part of Silicon Valley, but the town still has a small, quaint demeanor. I used to visit the only cinema in town (we’re talking one screen), circa late 1960s, early 1970s, what we called a “walk in,” as opposed to the drive ins that dominated the landscape then. I worked at the grocery store near downtown before school, and spent one year at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, a campus designed by Kump and Masten & Hurd, called a “major work of architecture and planning” by the San Francisco Chronicle, which won the American Institute of Architects’ Honor award in 1962 and an Award of Merit in 1963.






View of the zero-edge pool (mica slate, or “Idaho quartz”) that cascades down several levels to Lake Oswego. The finish on the zero-edge wall is pebble-tech. In the background are Pinus contorta from the Kurisu Nursery.


I rode my 10-speed every day into the lovely hills that arose west of the city proper to attend college classes. Los Altos Hills had and still has marvelous winding roads through wooded areas, large parks and pathways and hill tops where people hike and ride horses unencumbered by the traffic and urban hubbub down in the congested heart of Silicon Valley. Those little hilly roads are picturesque, but do require attention. In my high school days, my friend who lived in Los Altos drove his VW off the side of one of the hills while adjusting the car’s radio. [He survived to became a lawyer for the raisin industry–no kidding.]








Youthful Los Altos Hills claimed city status in 1956 when the population “swelled” to 2,500. The residential community covers about eight square miles, plus another six square miles of unincorporated land. It has preserved its foothills (rising 200 to 1,300 feet), valleys, wooded areas, creeks, ponds and rural look and feel by careful, orderly, unhurried growth, not such an easy thing to do in the Bay Area. Of course, we’re not talking about, say, rural Alabama. No, this rural experience today, thanks to the “chip,” goes for about two million dollars per acre, the minimum lot size. That does tend to help control building and wild expansion. [I still bemoan my parent’s decision to sell the family home in Palo Alto, bought in 1962 for about $20K, just before the chip became king. Their modest single-story home on that quiet Palo Alto cul-de-sac, I’m told, was worth over a million dollars four or five years ago.]

The homes in Los Altos Hills (I keep typing “Lost”) these days are going to Silicon Valley executives. Many of the homes have pools or tennis courts or corrals or secondary units--or all of the above.

The Los Altos Hills Residence

Designer: Hoichi Kurisu, president & principal designer, Kurisu International
Construction: six months. Hoichi Kurisu and Kurisu International, Inc., are responsible for all landscaping, masonry, carpentry, and planting represented in the photographs, unless otherwise mentioned in captions.

The Los Altos Hills owner wanted Kurisu to design “something interesting and inviting in the Japanese-style, with a koi pond.”

In the Garden:

The long distance from the street to the main entrance of the house presented the first design challenge, plus an established landscape already existed. To satisfy the client’s design wishes, the landscaping was demolished and redesigned. [My favorite way to meet a challenge: Demolish it!] The devastation gave way to a front yard entry path done in China rose slate, designed by Hoichi Kurisu “according to Japanese garden design principles of proportion,” with Japanese black pine bordering the path and plantings of lace-leaf maple, azalea, Japanese maples and beech trees.






The China rose slate for the the Los Altos Hills front yard entry path designed by Hoichi Kurisu follows “Japanese garden design principles of proportion.” The trees in the foreground, recently pruned Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergi) from the Kurisu Nursery in Sherwood, Oregon, fill out into thick layers as they mature. Lace-leaf maple, azalea, Japanese maples and beech trees compose the background.


The second challenge? “We found that just two inches below ground was entirely clay. This posed planting and drainage issues, requiring us to import soil and install drainage with catch basins all over,” explains Michael Ellena, Kurisu’s general manager.

An overall challenge, in an aesthetic sense, was to harmonize the new landscape, including the koi pond, which of course relates to Japanese gardens, to the Mediterranean-style stucco house.






The Oswego front entry waterfall combines angular Columbia basalt boulders (3-5 tons); planting color-schemes, including red Japanese maples and Japanese black pine to harmonize with the architecture. Osamu Watanabe designed the foot bridge.


To unify the Mediterranean house with the exterior landscape, Kurisu used a “geometrical line approach, guided by Japanese landscape design principles of proportion.” Mr. Ellena explains: “Planting-wise, we incorporated reddish color schemes to harmonize with the house color. Fortunately this area is a microclimate that allows many materials traditionally used in Japanese gardens to grow–from Black pine to Japanese maple, and small plants like nandina to barberries, and so on. We created three water features, in addition to the swimming pool: a cascading waterfall, creek, and pond at the front entrance, one water basin, and one in the interior courtyard. Angular boulders were selected to fit with the linear, geometric design elements.”

About Kurisu International

Kurisu International, founded in 1972 by Hoichi Kurisu, president and principal designer, is a premier landscape design-build firm providing comprehensive consulting, site management, design, construction, and maintenance services.

Today, with offices in Portland, Oregon and Lake Worth, Florida, in the southern part of the sunshine state, Kurisu creates “healing environments,” whether the projects are designed for residential, commercial or municipal clients. Kurisu designs unique, naturalistic gardens of the highest quality that “harmonize Japanese garden principles with contemporary sensibilities to create landscapes that recognize humanity’s need for inspiration and renewal of spirit.”






The plantings in the Los Altos Hills back yard include: Acer palmatum (Japanese maple); Pinus densiflora (Japanese red pine from the Kurisu Nursery); hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtuse ); perennials; and flowering peach trees.


“Our gardens bring balance to hearts and minds by providing exceptional spaces in which to engage with nature,” says Michael Ellena, general manager of Kurisu International. Whether designing a simple pond or cascading waterfall, a dry rock garden, or public expanses, Kurisu garden design “draws on the integrity of nature’s forces.” How does Kurisu define its work? “Sensitive designs and superlative craftsmanship…gardens of vision for lives of insight.”






A view to the Los Altos Hills interior courtyard espies a water feature and “grove” of red and green Japanese maples: Acer palmatum, Shishi gashira (lion’s head) and seiryu (blue dragon). The ground cover is wooly thyme. (Kurisu did not design or construct the curved “wall” water feature in the center of this courtyard.)


The Kurisu team of artists, landscape architects, and highly skilled craftsmen bring passion and pride to its landscape design work and the quality of every aspect of creating and building. There is nothing mechanical about Kurisu’s garden designs. They are, the firm avers, a “collaboration of vision and the opportunity for perpetual discovery.”






You can see the small waterfall and hear its soothing sounds from the Los Altos Hills dining room and kitchen. The plantings are hinoki cypress, camellia, and “mock” orange.







Kurisu International owns a wholesale nursery in Sherwood, Oregon in the Willamette Valley, established 25 years ago to supply specialty plant material, particularly sculpted pine trees and mature specimen plants. Kurisu’s sculpted pines have been trained and pruned for 8-10 years in traditional Japanese style, producing 10-14 foot-tall specimen trees.



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June 17, 2019, 8:41 am PDT

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