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Cultivating the Japanese Garden’s Japan Institute

Nestled beside Forest Park, the former Salvation Army White Shield Center is set to become a whole new cultural campus, devoted to classes, lectures and artist residencies.

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The former White Shield Center provides the Portland Japanese Garden a new campus for its Japanese Institute, a home for classes, studios, and visiting artist residencies. Photo: Nina Johnson, courtesy of the Portland Japanese Garden.

By the time he first visited the Portland Japanese Garden eight years ago, while serving as the Cultural Affairs Specialist at the United States Embassy in Tokyo, Akihito Nakanishi had already been invited several times. Why travel away from Japan, he wondered, to see a Japanese garden? “When I actually did, oh my God, I was blown away,” Nakanishi remembers, “not just by the sheer quality of the garden, but the community that the Portlanders have managed to build over those close to 55 years.”

Yet in his current role as the Portland Japanese Garden’s curator of culture, art, and education, Nakanishi also knows they’ve run out of space for the lectures, art exhibits, and classes, an array of programming that has blossomed since completion of the $37.5 million Cultural Crossing complex of buildings (designed by famed Japanese architect Kengo Kuma) beside the original garden in 2017.


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“The garden was created on this particular topography that was gifted by the city of Portland. So as a steward of this very special place, we owe it to the community to keep giving back the way we think would benefit the city, the city’s cultural vibrancy,” Nakanishi says.

That’s where the Japan Institute comes in. Established in 2022 as a global cultural initiative of the Portland Japanese Garden, it’s a chance to offer a broader array of classes and studios devoted to traditional Japanese arts and crafts, as part of its International Japanese Garden Training Center, as well as to welcome artist residencies for Japanese artists to travel here as part of an ongoing two-way cultural exchange.

Left: Akihito Nakanishi, curator of culture, art, and education. Right: Cynthia Johnson Haruyama, the garden’s deputy director. Photos: Jonathan Ley, courtesy of the Portland Japanese Garden.

“When we built this Culture Crossing, we thought, ‘Oh, now we have the space for all of these programs.’ And very quickly the programs all sold out in terms of capacity,” says Portland Japanese Garden deputy director Cynthia Johnson Haruyama. “In a way there’s conflict between the hundreds of thousands of people coming to the garden and the 10 or 20 who want to come stay for four hours so they can do their class and make sure they have parking. We’ve always had this training center for Japanese garden design, to welcome people coming from around the world, and we needed land for that.”

Discovering Another Campus

The Japan Institute’s residence hall, like the entire 3.65-acre campus, is tucked quietly into the Northwest Portland woods. Photo: Nina Johnson, courtesy of the Portland Japanese Garden.

Haruyama, along with Portland Japanese Garden CEO Steve Bloom, knew the kind of site they were looking for was hard to find: “something that already had some infrastructure to it, that was already zoned for this; but it also had to have some magic to it, and yet still be close by,” Haruyama recalls. “We said to ourselves, ‘That might take years to find.’”

That’s when they found the White Shield Center, a small 3.65-acre campus tucked beside Forest Park in Northwest Portland, about three miles away from the Japanese Garden. For 100 years beginning in 1920, it was operated by the Salvation Army, as a maternity home and hospital for teen mothers, receiving patient referrals from the State of Oregon Department of Human Services and the Oregon Youth Authority (OYA) while partnering with Portland Public Schools to provide on-campus education. In 2020, The Salvation Army closed the White Shield Center due to reduced state funding.

The White Shield Center’s original brick-clad building was designed by Portland’s most acclaimed early 20th century architect, A.E. Doyle, known for landmarks including Central Library, the Benson Hotel, and Reed College. Additional dormitory buildings were added in the midcentury, as well as a Christian chapel and sanctuary.

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A sign from the complex’s White Shield Center past. Photo: Brian Libby

The White Shield campus, because of its mission, intentionally always kept a low profile. Haruyama, who grew up in Portland, says she hadn’t been familiar with the White Shield, nor had most any Japanese Garden staff members. And honestly, despite the very handsome Doyle building here, neither had I. Yet as was clear when I visited the White Shield last fall, even such significant architectural pedigree is only part of the picture. These are buildings in a landscape.

“The dormitory building is so beautiful, and allows us to accommodate students from out of town,” Haruyama says. “But it’s also that site, and its similarity to our original Garden site, or for that matter to garden and temple complexes in Japan, which have the native forest right there up against [the buildings]. It was an amazing opportunity. An expensive opportunity? A challenging opportunity? Yes, all of the above.”

The purchase took about 15 months of negotiations between the Garden and the Salvation Army to complete, and finally closed late last year. 

Room to contemplate and create amid the woods. Photo: Brian Libby

Institute Offerings

The Japan Institute has a three-part programming focus:

  • Its Global Center for Culture and Art explores the interrelationship of humanity and nature through the lens of Japanese arts and culture, with a combination of artist residencies, lectures and other events.
  • The International Exchange Forum focuses on the inter-city Peace Symposia series, which began last year in Tokyo and London, and features public civic talks with leaders from various cultural, intellectual, and diplomatic fields discussing the evolving role of public spaces as a platform for peacebuilding and community engagement.
  • Then there is the International Japanese Garden Training Center, which teaches the traditional Japanese garden design skills and techniques to learners of all levels through workshops, tours, school programs, lectures, and professional seminars.

When you put them together, “I don’t think there has been anything like this,” Nakanishi says of the Japan Institute. Searching for precedents, he recalls the artist-residency programs offered by the Institut Français (the cultural arm of the French foreign ministry) in three cities: the Villa Kujoyama in Kyoto, the Villa Medici in Rome, and the Villa Velazquez in Madrid. “But of course we are a 100% nonprofit organization, not supported by any government. Even the Japanese government doesn’t support us in a fully-fledged way,” Nakanishi explains. “So it’s a very unique venture.”

The new complex’s Artist and Administrative Building, viewed from the courtyard. Photo: Brian Libby

Nakanishi also cites another kind of institutional inspiration: art schools. “We want to be comparable to something like Black Mountain College,” he says, referring to the North Carolina liberal arts college with an alumni roster including iconic artists and designers including Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Buckminster Fuller, and Josef Albers, “but less avant garde, and more focused on classic rather than contemporary modes of expression. But in spirit, I think this is kind of an artist refuge in many ways. The garden is for everyone, obviously, but if you want to go for something more specific and more specialized, I think the Japan Institute is going to be the place.”

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The Institute will start with a variety of art and craft-oriented classes, such as flower arrangement, pottery, woodworking, metal and glass art, all of which are “not unique to Japan, but honed in Japan’s island nation for over 1,000 years, absorbing influences from east and west,” Nakanishi says. “The Japanese expression of these themes and these art forms, I think, is unique and very powerfully relevant to 21st century audiences from outside of Japan as well, from all over the world.”

It’s these programs that have proven especially popular. “Every time we put together a workshop with someone who’s been trained in a traditional Japanese way as an instructor, Japanese or non-Japanese, they sell out within minutes,” Haruyama says. “There’s a demand for the authenticity, and perhaps the fact that we are able to bring in instructors and artists beyond what could just be drawn from our community.”

Then there’s the relocation of the Japanese Garden Training Center. “We try to be that very intentional conduit medium through which non-Japanese speakers can come together to learn these authentic skill sets and mindset without having to apprentice for ten years in Kyoto,” Nakanishi says. “We are trying to lower that barrier by internationalizing but not necessarily compromising on the quality of the teaching itself.”

Renovation Plans

The White Shield Center’s old chapel space is slated to be redesigned by architect Kengo Kuma, who also designed the Cultural Crossings on the Japanese Garden’s main complex. Photo: Brian Libby

The first phase of the White Shield campus renovation will focus on creating the necessary workshop and studio spaces for Institute classes. The existing dormitory building next door to the original building has 22 rooms, which will be used for artist residencies and student housing. The on-site chapel is also available for public lectures.

“This is a relatively quiet place compared to the Garden,” Haruyama says. “If 100 people come to a lecture, and 40 people come at two different times of the day to two of the classrooms, and maybe there’s 20 students in the dormitory, that would be a high-use kind of moment.”

When the Portland Japanese Garden first announced its acquisition of the White Shield Center for its Japan Institute Campus, one plan and one name immediately floated to the top: Kengo Kuma, the internationally renowned architect who designed the Cultural Crossing as well as high-profile projects such as the 2020 Olympics stadium in Tokyo. While Portland firm CIDA has been hired as the renovation architect for the original Doyle building and the adjacent dormitory, Kuma’s firm signed on to redesign the chapel itself. Yet because it’s not the most pressing Institute need compared to classroom and dormitory space, Kuma’s redesigned chapel might have to wait until a second phase of construction. “There’s only so much budget to go around,” Haruyama says. “But they have a really cool vision. Of course they do.”

Japanese artist Kenji Ide’s exhibition “A Poem of Perception,” curated by the late Matt Jay, was on display at the Japanese Garden in January and February 2023. The Garden intends to continue the spirit of the End of Summer residencies that Jay assembled. Photo: Brian Libby

In fact, for the time being, there won’t be any gallery-exhibit space at the Japan Institute, either. That will remain at the original Japanese Garden campus, in the Cultural Crossing buildings and the nearby Pavilion Building.

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After acquiring the White Shield Center campus, the Japanese Garden anticipates beginning construction in 2024, and moving in the following year. The renovation budget of $15 million is less than half of what was spent on the Cultural Crossing. “Getting the design to fit the budget is ongoing. We’re close, but we’re not there yet,” Haruyama explains. “I think we have probably three to six months of design work left, assuming the fundraising goes on, because it’s not all raised yet.” Rather than the $15 million being low, however, she says the $37.5 million spent on the Cultural Crossing could have been done more affordably without compromising design.

Rooms with a view: Light streams into many of the rooms that will be redesigned for the Japan Institute’s new campus. Photos: Brian Libby

“I learned the hard way that if it’s an architect-led project, you really have to be vigilant as an owner about helping control costs. We didn’t do as good a job as we could have. We just weren’t as savvy,” Haruyama says. “This project is the opposite. It’s driven by cost, and I’m sure it’s challenging for the architects. The Cultural Crossing was part of this garden. It had to be a work of art. The Institute campus needs to be a functional place with some aesthetics. To be honest, this is not meant to be a tourist attraction. We can’t be attracting thousands of people to that site because that neighborhood street cannot sustain that.” Part of the Institute’s conditional-use permit, for example, requires valet parking and use of shuttle buses, due to the campus’s limited parking.

Even so, by expanding to a whole new campus, the Portland Japanese Garden is becoming much more than its namesake, even as the Garden itself continues as the attractor.

“One of the purposes of this garden is really to transport people to some place that they haven’t really experienced before,” Nakanishi says. “But for the Japan Institute we also tried to go back to the drawing board that spells out our mission as inspiring harmony and peace. That really encapsulates the spirit of what we are trying to do that we can’t quite do at the Garden. We’d love to be able to facilitate these creative conversations and keep attracting great talents from all over the world who we can then connect to the local arts community here. Without that big dream, I don’t think this many people would have jumped on the bandwagon.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brian Libby is a Portland-based freelance journalist and critic writing about architecture and design, visual art and film. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, The Atlantic, Dwell, CityLab and The Oregonian, among others. Brian’s Portland Architecture blog has explored the city’s architecture and city planning since 2005. He is also the author of “Tales From the Oregon Ducks Sideline,” a history of his lifelong favorite football team. A graduate of New York University, Brian is additionally an award-winning filmmaker and photographer whose work has been exhibited at the American Institute of Architects, the Portland Art Museum’s Northwest Film Center, and venues throughout the US and Europe. For more information, visit www.brianlibby.com.

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One Response

  1. How exciting! As a former board member of the Japanese Garden, I whole heartedly applaud this new effort to enrich our Portland community and Oregon. Kudos!

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