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Creating Ellison’s Garden

East Meets West in the Modern
Interpretation of a Global Garden

By Jodie Carter, regional editor

The surface of this reflecting pool mirrors the surrounding Akebono flowering cherry and split leaf red Japanese maples. The dark surface of the pool causes a strong reflection, adding another dimension to the garden.

Oracle billionaire Lawrence Ellison may best be known for the rebellious vision that allowed him to evolve the landscape of technology.

But when Ellison decided to transform another landscape–the desert terrain surrounding his three California residences, he put the multi-million dollar projects into the hands of another visionary, award-winning landscape architect Ron Herman. “Ellison envisioned a modern Japanese garden, an escape from the everyday world–and he wanted something very beautiful,” says Herman.

Just as the complex intellectual, philosophical and creative elements of a spectacular garden must coalesce into unique form, so has Herman’s history prepared him as master of Ellison’s gardens. Growing up in North Hollywood in the 1950s, the son of a brilliant horticulturalist and nurseryman, Herman’s high-school resume already boasted of assisting his father create gardens for A-list clients like Jayne Mansfield, Steve Allen, and Peggy Lee. After high-school, Herman continued his study of landscape architecture, graduating in 1964 from U.C. Berkeley and opened his own design office a year later. At 24 years old he was set to begin a profitable, successful practice, but a persistent longing to expand his knowledge of Japanese culture propelled Herman onto graduate studies in Japan.

A Japanese black pine over a century old sits at the left of this beautiful formal gate leading into the Atherton garden and residence.

It was Herman’s father that first introduced Japanese culture into their otherwise very American world. “My father had Japanese American friends and a lot of the nurserymen and gardeners were Japanese Americans,” said Herman. “I attended their festivals and went to their houses on New Year’s–I was fascinated by Japanese culture.”

It seems only natural that while many recent landscape graduates headed to Europe for inspiration, studying 15th century gardens in Florence, Herman forged East, stepping even further back in time, surrounding himself in 7th and 8th century Japanese gardens.

Three years later, after soaking up the culture that would refine his talents, Herman completed graduate studies in landscape design at the University of Kyoto, returning to his practice in the states and to U.C. Berkeley, where he taught the history of Japanese garden design for over 20 years. During his 35-plus year career, Herman has created more than 400 full-scale garden designs, including many of the America’s largest and most intricate residential gardens where he integrates elements of Japanese design into projects like Ellison’s gardens.

The Atherton Garden

Herman has designed four spectacular and uniquely individual gardens for Ellison. Beginning in 1987, Herman started work on a two-acre garden at Ellison’s Atherton residence. By 1992 Herman had completed landscaping at the Oracle Corporations World Headquarters in Redwood City, Calif. The next year Herman began designing the cutting-edge garden at Ellison’s San Francisco “city home,” and in 1995 he began the first phase of an epic 25-acre Japanese country-style village created at Ellison’s Silicon Valley residence.

This very formal layout uses yellow viola mixed with New Zealand flax to provide a snap of color behind the vanishing edge pool. The distant mountain is used as “borrowed” scenery.

The Atherton garden was the first Herman created for Ellison as an escape from the stresses of the busy world of technology. As you enter the garden, brushing past a 100 year old Japanese black pine at the right hand of a framed redwood entry, stepping onto the winding path that begins your journey into the first of several courtyards, you sense the element Herman is perhaps most known for--his ability to create a cinematic experience. “I go to great lengths to bring people in obliquely so they turn through the door,” says Herman. “I want them to notice perspectives, and places that uncover themselves gradually.”

Outside the Atherton residence, white azaleas decorate the foreground while green leaf Japanese maples mirror the surface of this reflecting pool filled with koi.

As you continue walking through the courtyard at Atherton, the enchanting place revealed is the swimming pool. This is no ordinary pool surrounded by concrete and decorative ceramic tile; instead, this pool has all the appearances of a natural pond sloping gently down into the landscape. One of Herman’s secrets–using integrally stained plaster to darken the bottom and sides of the pond–intensifies the magical, mirror-like reflection of the surrounding red Japanese maples and Akebono flowering cherry trees. Boulders selected from the Yuba River in Northern California, placed with artful meditation by Japanese stone setters, finish the effect as they break the surface of the mirrored pool, adding another dimension to the view.

This tea house in the Atherton garden was built as a replica of the famous garden at the Kaysura Imperial Villa in Western Kyoto, Japan.

The sense of journey and ambiguity continue as you cross the granite bridge that ushers visitors from the swimming pool toward the expanse of a larger garden near Ellison's home. “As you travel through the garden, the cobble beach and pond move in and out of view,” Herman explains. “It makes the area seem much larger than it really is, providing a sense of mystery to the garden--prompting one to explore what lies beyond.”

If you get lucky enough to spend the night at Atherton, you’ll stay in the gardens tea house built as a replica of the very famous 17th century garden at the Katsura Imperial Villa in Western Kyoto, Japan. Built in part by Japanese carpenters brought over to ensure that the integrity and consistency of honor its famous predecessor, the tea house, which doubles as guest house, is a paradigm of anti-technology. “We used Japanese carpenters who had worked on the restoration at Katsura so they knew it very well,” said Herman who doesn’t think twice about importing materials and craftsmen to ensure the integrity of a structure.

The path is lined with red and green leaf Japanese maples that fan out at the bottom of the stone steps and draw you into the space.

According to Herman, inhabiting a garden is much more of a philosophical and emotional exercise than simply walking into a garden that is a panorama of open space. “It’s a big tradition in the West to not block the view, but I tend to close things in–to send people through a series of courtyards and spaces. I look at gardens as a series of themes in a play–you don’t understand or see the final garden until you get to the final act.”

Based on the famous Tofuku-Ji Zen temple in Kyoto, Herman takes his checkerboard grid design three-dimensional with Baby tears and Mexican river washed black pebbles.

The final act in the Atherton garden plays out in the reflecting pools where red and ivory calico koi swim circles in the shallow ponds that mirror Ellison’s home. Originally a paved service entry, Herman tore out the concrete, surrounded the home with connecting ponds complete with biological water filters, and used Alaskan yellow cedar to build an adjacent deck and released the homes view by adding glass windows and doors. The water element provides reflection and the koi, movement–and on a bright day they create a dynamic, moving mirror of sky.

The San Francisco Garden

“Most of my gardens are not Japanese,” says Herman. “They are creations that integrate Japanese characteristics in modern ways.” This integration between modern and medieval may best be seen in Herman’s design of the checkerboard garden outside Ellison’s modern San Francisco city home.

In his contemporary take on the checkerboard, Herman creates stunning dimension by stacking alternating squares of green and black using baby tear’s moss and Mexican river washed black pebbles. This garden, based on the famous 13th century stone and moss checkerboard garden at the Tofuku-ji Zen temple in Kyoto, takes a grid design and gives it a dynamic, third dimension as the squares move downward, creating a hierarchy of space.

Modern glass walls frame a stunning view of Herman’s checkerboard design.

“There’s a very complex underlying structural system to the checkerboard,” explains Herman. “The checkerboard is made of prefabricated, custom, bronze squares set on top of and attached to the underlying structural system of steel and concrete.” After the board is attached, the garden elements of stone and moss are added with precision that gives each block of stone unity and consistency.

Herman’s designs integrate the intangible elements of Western and Eastern philosophy with more tangible elements of Western and Eastern materials. “Bamboo and mondo grass we associate with Japan and Asia,” says Ellison. “Other materials like limestone and steel and water, we associate with America, but they’re used in a classic Eastern way for reflection. We use glass walls to give a sense of ambiguity as you look through them, so that nothing is really clear–just reflections bouncing around in space.”

The San Francisco garden is significant to Herman because it attempted to emerge East and West into a very elegant modern garden.

Dark rippling pools outside the San Francsico residence.

“I wanted to explore some new territory with materials and space–to create a garden that might be at home not only in San Francisco but in Tokyo, or Rome or in Paris–it has a kind of globalism, integrating elements and ideas from various cultures.”

The Silicon Valley Garden

Herman is now completing the finishing touches of Ellison’s epic, 25-acre Japanese style village in Silicon Valley, a mythical garden unlike any project completed in the U.S. or Japan within the last century. According to Herman what makes this garden epic, other than its grand scale, are the details.

“This garden is different because of the fine detail involved, everything is done very deliberately and precisely.” One unique aspect of the Silicon Valley garden was the creation of a beautiful, enchanting lake. “Ellison wanted a lake and he wanted to swim in the lake,” Herman recalls. Beyond aesthetics the lake posed design challenges because of the stringent water requirements involved. “We had to create sustainable water with biological filters and wells to recapture drainage water during the winter, and then there were seismic considerations–just the logistics of building it were a challenge.”

Azalea ‘Fielder's white’ decorate the foreground while Akebono flowering cherry trees flourish in the background inside Ellison’s Atherton garden.

Designing this mystic lake involved more than the magic of technology could offer. All Herman’s designs begin with detailed hand drawings that capture the artistic essence of the space. “It’s one thing to see the lake on paper, but it’s different to see it develop out in the field, says Ellison. “We go out and mark the lake, making immediate changes out in the field. As we dig the lake and it gains dimension we make even more changes to the shape and contour.” Herman proves that precision is more than a superficial exercise with the execution of the lakes finest details. “Each boulders around the lake is determined by Japanese stone setters who meditate on the energy of the garden, feeling the precise place where the ‘energy’ of stone is needed,” says Herman.

This cobble beach pond surrounded by Akebono flowering cherry red leaf Japanese maple moves in and out of view as you enter the garden. Azaleas decorate the foreground; native coastal live oak tower overhead.

The completion of the Silicon Valley garden this spring, concludes over 16 years of landscape design work Herman has performed for Ellison. “It’s very interesting and fulfilling to finish this final garden,” says Herman. “We had craftsmen from all over the world, from Japan and China and Americans–trying to get them all to speak to each other and do this in a logical manner--it was a major project.”

What summarizes the creation of one of California’s most unique gardens? “In the end, every garden should be beautiful refined space to look at, but beyond that, you can build in layers of meaning,” asserts Herman. “In merging cultures we create a very modern garden. Inside there is no context, no knowing where you are. It tries to mirror the globalization of our culture–to bring in memories, his [Ellison’s] memories--he is a global person.”

Award-winning landscape architect, Herman looks over his creation outside the San Francisco residence.

If landscape architecture can encourage a living dialogue with the past and the future, with our memories and our fantasies, offering not only a place to escape but also a place to remember and to reflect, then Herman has done it in Ellison’s gardens. “People are surrounded by technology and chaos,” muses a contemplative Ellison. “I view the garden as anti-technology–the garden is a place to escape.” For Ellison, and the rest of us, humming at hyperspeed in the digital world–what could be more essential than that.

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April 22, 2019, 4:00 am PDT

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