Pavilions of East: Traditional Chinese garden structures were built with a mortise and tenon technique, by which a tongue, or tenon, is inserted into a hole, or mortise. However, that wouldn’t work in this backyard. “Being on the west coast of Florida, in the possible stretches of a hurricane, we wanted to be sure that we didn’t have roof leaks down the road,” says Joe Jannopoulo, president of Synergy Building Corp. “Plus it’s surrounded by the 45,000-gallon koi pond on one side and a bamboo forest on the other, which does not really allow machinery to get close to the structure for repairs.” To make the pagodas as durable as possible while maintaining an authentic look, Jannopoulo constructed the pagodas of poured concrete and veneered them with the same wood and tiles used in the days of the emperors. “The materials were chosen to weather, age, mildew and look symbolic in the terms of a Chinese pavilion,” Jannopoulo says. Traditional pan and cover tiles were ordered from China.
Homegrown substitution: In part, a Chinese garden derives its look from the rock, traditionally a limestone extracted from Lake Tai. Each specimen has a unique shape and character. “It’s very twisted and not anything like the smooth, undulating, weathered rocks that you might see in a Japanese garden,” says David Duensing, whose companies — David B. Duensing & Associates and Aquatic Construction Services, both in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. — handled the pond. “This is almost like blasted lava rock. It looks like the rock had popped and ejected material away, [leaving] little cup-shaped areas.” The nearly jagged appearance gives a sense of motion and distinction. But that type of stone is not available in the U.S., and importing it was not viable. In its place, Duensing selected a weathered limestone mined in the Midwest, along the Mississippi River. Its stratification is bulkier than that found in similar varieties in Texas and Oklahoma, creating larger specimens. He chose pieces with the most character.
Softly ordered: Like the rockwork, the planting was done in a Chinese-gardening style, using locally appropriate varieties. For instance, the seven tabebuia ipe trees surrounding the pond were chosen because they bloom in February and resemble a treasured tree in certain Asian cultures. “They have beautiful pink flowers and don’t have a leaf on them when they bloom,” says Michael Gilkey, president of landscape architecture firm Michael A. Gilkey Inc. “So they very closely resemble what a cherry tree would do.” While a casual observer would never know, each of the trees was placed on axis with a walkway, to anchor the landscape. Conifers and cycads also were chosen for their appropriateness to the Florida environs. Smaller varieties are planted in a looser fashion so they help connect the space. “The broad scale is very organized, and as you get detailed, you get less and less organized,” Gilkey says. “In Chinese design, everything is thought about, everything is purposeful, but at the end of the day it looks very natural.”
Different perspective: To replicate the feel of the Chinese rock as closely as possible, Duensing set some of the limestone specimens in this waterfall differently than he would normally. In nature, rocks tend to be weighted toward the bottom. But here, he stood some pieces upside down, with the thickest part on top, to create the sense they were overhanging. “It’s just trying to find the best way to create the most dramatic look possible with the rocks we had,” he says. Needless to say, gravity didn’t make this easy, so Duensing had to quickly anchor the multi-ton rocks so they wouldn’t tip over. “Once we got them secured with steel and concrete it was okay, but getting them set and getting formations made without actually having them secured was dangerous and tricky.” In the case of the largest waterfall, which sits across from the main pavilion, Duensing made the falls more vertical than normal, both to create drama and work within the limited space. A combination of taller sheer drops and shorter falls added variety.
Special specimen: On this project, there was even more pressure than normal to find pieces with unique character. To do this, Duensing visited the quarry multiple times, even veering out into the woods to view the discards. There, he was drawn to one particular rock — a long, narrow specimen that formed an eye-catching arch. Even more special, it was weathered on all sides, rather than cut raw on one end, so it looked great from all angles. Duensing didn’t know what to do with it, so he kept passing it up. “Finally I said, ‘I just have to take it,’” he says. Eventually it occurred to him: the arch-shaped piece could serve as a bridge, in place of the geometric one originally planned. The rock (pictured center) also fulfilled a tradition in Chinese gardening, by which bridges have curves and pathways have turns, requiring the walker to glance down for a moment. This makes them more alert to their surroundings, and when the person looks up after taking a couple of steps, they will see a newly composed view.
The scholar: In Chinese gardens, the most interesting specimen often is chosen as a scholar’s rock and displayed singularly. This site contains three of them. Because of the variety of rock used in traditional Chinese gardens, the pieces often are relatively thin and very eroded, with holes in the middle that one can see through, or even several holes that create a lattice-like effect. In this case, the design team chose the most distinctly shaped and weathered pieces available. One is eroded on all sides and has an angular beauty, while another is more rounded and resembles a human face. The pond is waterproofed with an EPDM liner, attached to the base of the concrete pavilions. After the rocks were secured, a 4- to- 5-inch-thick layer of fiber-reinforced concrete was placed over the liner. The surface was then coated with black plaster. “It’s almost like seeing a botanic garden pool where it’s a nice, dark color,” Duensing says. “And it helps to accent the rocks and creates more reflections as well.”