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Future Perfect: A Walk Around the Japanese Garden and Tillman Water Reclamation Plant

Just like how Hollywood hopefuls hold down day jobs, one of science fiction's landmarks has been holding down Los Angeles' water since 1984.

By day, the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant and its surrounding Japanese Gardens is a wastewater treatment plant that serves nearly 800,000 people within the surrounding San Fernando Valley area. By night (or whenever the production call time is), the plant on some occasions turns into Starfleet academy, where the Federation molds young minds to be future space explorers.

Though I encountered no Starfleet officers while walking through the grounds, one look at the Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall-designed building shows just why location scouts found it to be a perfect spot to evoke the future.

Path toward the tea house

Set within a 6.5-acre Japanese garden, the Tillman administration and laboratory building is an "architectural swan" among "ugly duckling" public utility buildings of the time. A 1989 Los Angeles Times piece called it "the most attractive public service facility in Southern California." In its time, it heralded the increased design quality of public buildings around the city.

Metal-framed glass cascades down the elongated building's façade, much like a multi-level waterfall, to be tucked neatly into the structure's concrete base in the end. From afar, it seems as if the building is floating on a huge pond, surrounded by greenery and wildlife. Its marriage of the natural and man-made is the stuff of utopian futures.

The Tillman complex was the brainchild of city engineer Donald C. Tillman, who first thought to combine garden and utility. By providing a public amenity, Tillman was able to gain public support for the upstream water reclamation plant.

Today, the plant treats up to 80 million gallons per day of reclaimed water, ¼ of which supplies the Wildlife Lake, Balboa Lake, the Japanese Garden Lake, and the golf course in the Sepulveda Basin. The rest of the reclaimed water is released to the Los Angeles river.

Auspicious beings are said to live within the carved stone lanterns from Nagoya

Much of the complex's beauty lies in its authentic Japanese garden. Designed by Dr. Koichi Kawana -- who created botanical gardens for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, San Diego's Balboa Park, as well as Seiwa-en in Missouri, the largest Japanese garden in the country -- the garden is an easily overlooked gem in the San Fernando Valley, swallowed up by the larger Sepulveda Basin complex.

Entrance to the garden is through an unremarkable path on Woodley Avenue. After successfully finding your way, a guard will halt you to ask for identification. At least for these few moments, a trip to the Japanese garden feels more like a visit to a government office that it really is. But, the sight of the garden more than makes up for its awkward first impressions.

Hidden behind a partially opened wooden gate, the path throughout the garden meanders, offering lots of opportunities to explore. "Japanese gardens are an art form," says Gene Greene, the Japanese Garden's director. "Dr. Kawana created this garden with the philosophy of hide and reveal, so you don't see everything in one look."

True enough, the garden's treasures are revealed slowly with every step. More formally called Suiho-en (the Garden of Water and Fragrance), the garden combines three types of gardens in one: the dry garden, a Zen-garden kind of arrangement that most usually comes to mind; a stroll garden, which includes lakes, streams and carved stone lanterns gifted by Los Angeles' sister city, Nagoya; and a tea garden that sits beside the a Japanese-style residence.

Despite combining three types of Japanese landscape design, "it's not a hodge-podge," notes Greene, "It takes elements from different garden styles and creates an all-new authentic design."

Gene Greene, Japanese garden director

As we walked through the gardens, Greene filled me in one the many symbolisms that abound within the grounds. The stone lanterns from Nagoya are said to house good spirits; the Shoin building is a typical residence for upper-class monks and samurai; even tree types were meant to depict specific gender attributes.

I could easily see there was a lot to appreciate within the 6.5-acre site. Greene's deep commitment to his work was also evident. A fixture in the gardens since it opened in 1984, Greene has never felt the need to move on to a different position. "I have the best job in the city." He says, "I deal with the best people. It's just nice -- except for the paperwork -- that's a lot." Greene helped Dr. Kawana realize the gardens and placed six of the large stones in the garden himself.

Over the past three decades, Greene has been ensuring the quality of landscaping in the Japanese garden, as well as in other treatment plants around the city. For those uninitiated in the art of Japanese greenery, he recommends a docent tour and also imagination. "They're beautiful gardens but they're a lot more," he says.

As ducks, egrets and other waterfowl came to rest around us and the sound of water gurgles in the background, I think I begin to see why.

A young family plays in the garden

The Shoin building is a type of residence built for aristocrats, monks and samurai warriors during the 14th and 15th centuries

The tri-level waterfall represents heaven, man and earth

Top: The water reclamation plant within the Japanese garden

Photos by Carren Jao

About the Author

Carren is an art, architecture and design writer and an avid explorer of Los Angeles. Her work has been spotted on Core77, Dwell, Surface Asia, and Fast Co.Design. You can find her online and on Twitter. 
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