Asian Visions Everywhere

The C.V Starr Bonsai Museum at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (FlatbushGardener/flickr)
The C.V Starr Bonsai Museum at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (FlatbushGardener/flickr)

The skyscraper is a uniquely American icon, but a good portion of the city’s skyline and many signature Manhattan buildings were designed by Asian architects. In 1929, for example, architect Yasuo Matsui codesigned 32-40 Wall Street, an example of a classic 1920s Manhattan skyscraper.

I.M. Pei’s versatility is evident throughout the city, including an unusually positioned apartment complex at 100-110 Bleecker Street and the sprawling, glass-and-steel Jacob Javits Convention Center. Pei’s refined tower at 88 Pine Street (Wall Street Plaza) is considered one of the architect’s more significant works.

The contemporary architect/sculptor/designer Maya Lin (who may be most famous for her design of the celebrated Vietnam War Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, D.C., and who operates a design studio in New York) reveals her signature elegance in the streamlined spaces of the Asia/Pacific/American Studies Department of New York University and the Museum for African Art.

A modern update of a traditional Japanese garden can be enjoyed, believe it or not, in midtown Manhattan. Here, at Greenacre Park, is a little jewel of a landscape, packing into a small space woodland plantings, a soothing waterfall, and a stream; it was designed in 1971 by Hideo Sasaki, the former chairman of Harvard University’s Landscape Architecture Department, and his design firm.

When urban exploration of Asian art and design wears you down, escape Manhattan and discover a multitude of peaceful environments that reflect the serenity of Eastern design sensibilities. America’s oldest and most extensive collection of bonsai trees can be seen at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s C. V. Starr Bonsai Museum. Another revitalizing place to venture in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden, a small-scale landscape featuring cherry trees and other flora set amid classical elements of Japanese environmental design, including traditional Japanese torii gates, lanterns, shrines, and bridges. It was designed by the Japanese landscape architect Takeo Shiota in 1914 as a “mirror of nature” and was recently restored to its original glory. The Queens Botanical Garden offers plantings native to various Asian environs as well as the austere tranquility of its Cherry Circle landscape installation.

But it is in Staten Island, approximately a mile from the Staten Island ferry terminal, where one of the most remarkable public gardens in the metropolitan area can be found. Here is the country’s only authentic classical Chinese garden. Many of the elements of the New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center were assembled in Suzhou, China. The tranquil grounds include a Ming dynasty teahouse, a lotus pond, and bridges, all forming the perfect milieu for the latter-day Chinese scholar to meditate and plot the world’s future among original Taihu rocks from lakes in China.