Distance as an Illusion

John Yeon and the landscape arts of China and Japan

The self-trained Portland architect John Yeon is probably best known as a designer of houses that seem made for the landscape of the Northwest. Less well known is his passion for an art that was anything but local: Far Eastern landscape painting. In John Yeon's mind, however, these seemingly remote landscapes were very closely related. “People sometimes ask me why I got interested in Oriental art,” he explained in a 1983 interview. “It's because I knew the Columbia Gorge very well, and when I first saw a Chinese painting, which had crags and twisted trees and tall, vertical waterfalls, it was not at all strange. I just walked right into the painting. I was completely at home.”

Yeon's sense of the affinity between the scenery of the Pacific Northwest and the landscapes depicted in Far Eastern art was so strong that in 1934 he and a friend, Olivia Shepard, helped organize an unusual exhibition at the Portland Art Museum that included photographs of Oregon scenery juxtaposed with reproductions of Chinese landscape paintings and Japanese prints. In a later interview Yeon recalled: “I became so fed up with local artists who had no interest in the landscape. ... [Olivia and I] collected reproductions of paintings of landscapes very much like this: Japanese prints, Chinese paintings, European backgrounds of Renaissance portraits. And then we matched the geography in the paintings with photographs of Oregon as nearly as we could. ... In Chinese paintings and the Columbia Gorge, you can match formation for formation in many cases.” Catherine Jones of the Oregonian agreed, writing of the exhibit, “One finds in a Hiroshige print of a snow-covered gorge practically the duplicate in design and pattern of our most familiar Oneonta Gorge.” Although no photographs of the exhibition remain, the Japanese woodblock print Jones describes was almost certainly Utagawa Hiroshige's famous Kiso Gorge in New Snow, juxtaposed here with a photograph of Oneonta Gorge from the 1930s.

Yeon's fascination with Far Eastern landscape art was more than simply as an inspiration to local painters; however, as he explained, it was directly connected to his own professional interest in relating buildings and landscapes: “houses are very much absorbed into the landscape. They were almost invisible, and, of course, that's what I feel should happen in beautiful landscapes, too.” Indeed, in a 1986 lecture at the University of Washington Yeon described his approach to designing buildings in landscapes as “that of a landscape painter imagining what would look good in his landscape painting.”

There are many parallels between the ways that buildings and landscapes relate to one another in Yeon's work and in the Asian art he admired, designed exhibits for, and collected. Arguably the most striking, however, is the merging of made foregrounds with natural backgrounds. Borrowing a distant scenery is a favorite means of blurring the line between the built and the natural in traditional Chinese and Japanese garden design, and was first used in Sung Dynasty landscape painting. Generally it involves carefully positioned foreground objects, often a hedge or trees, being used to mask the intervening distance to a remote natural landscape, which has the effect of making the near and distant scenes appear to be parts of a single flat pictorial composition (image below left and middle). In Yeon's well-known Watzek House, for example, some existing trees were used in this way to mask the distance between the house and Mt. Hood, some fifty miles away. These trees were not actually on the Watzek property, but as Yeon's 1964 photograph illustrates, the positioning of the house exploits this natural foreground frame to seemingly procure the distant mountain as part of its garden.

Yeon used this device to even more dramatic effect at the site fronting the Washington side of the Columbia River he purchased in 1965. Revealingly, although he christened this seventy-five-acre property “the Shire” in recognition of its relationship to the English landscape tradition, former Oregonian architecture critic Randy Gragg reports that Yeon also used to refer to it as his “Chinese Landscape.” Here an artificial berm built primarily for flood prevention additionally serves to hide the river from much of the site, creating the illusion that the landscape on the Oregon side of the Gorge, including Multnomah Falls, is continuous with the land on the Washington side. In this case, as well as regularly photographing the effect, in a 1986 lecture Yeon confirmed that in his view “the two sides of the Gorge are an indivisible landscape.”

Multnomah Falls was not the only Oregon landmark procured for the Shire from across the Columbia Gorge. Another had more personal significance for Yeon. His late father, Jean Baptiste Yeon, had been a wealthy Portland timber man who played a central role in helping to create the Historic Columbia River Highway. In recognition of this, one of the highest peaks overlooking the Oregon side of the Gorge was named after him in 1916. At 3,300 feet, Yeon Mountain is a prominent feature in the view due east of the Shire, and the younger Yeon often photographed it using foreground elements to obscure the river, in the process seemingly unifying his made landscape with the natural one named for his father.

The actual landscapes of China and Japan were clearly beyond such direct visual borrowing here in Oregon, but Yeon nonetheless seems to have found a way of effectively procuring them for his clients, using Japanese screen paintings as a kind of long-distance picture window. The visual effect was essentially the same as at the Shire. By masking the intervening distance with foreground clouds, the screen painters made these landscapes seem continuous with the space of the observer, wherever they happened to be.

An important inspiration for John Yeon's concern with fitting buildings into landscapes, then, seems to have come from sources that were both spatially and culturally far removed from the Pacific Northwest. For Yeon, however, the novel viewpoint of Far Eastern landscape art seems to have enabled him to see his own surroundings more clearly. Distance, he found, both the spatial and cultural kind, was an illusion. “Here” and “there” were really one.

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Seeking and Finding

The Guilty Traveler

Neverland

The Crossing

Far from Home

Here, Not There

Distance as an Illusion

Irreconcilable Dissonance