Project Zen: The Rocks

This extract from our Zen-inspired creative design exercise is all about the hardscape. From naturalistic rounded river rocks to geometric mountain ranges – all appearances are proudly deceptive.    

Stand by for a rash generalization. Artists and designers fall into two camps: those that thrive on creative tension and those that strive for harmony. The concept of the traditional Zen garden reconciles these contradictions by balancing the naturally wild with the tightly ordered and controlled.

Even though visitors are well aware they are being presented with an illusion, the illusion must still be convincing.

Our Zen interpretation borrows heavily from this idea and then adds an extra spin because while virtually every ‘natural’ element in the design is transparently artificial, they are largely manufactured from recyclable materials that are a little kinder to the natural world. Which leads us to the rocks.

There are four types of rocks in the garden: river rocks that look like giant softly-rounded pebbles, cave rocks that mimic the irregularity and texture of real rock, polygonal or faceted boulders that tread the borderline between naturalistic and geometric, and impressionistic mountain ranges that are completely flat shapes with regular angles.

Artificial rocks are inherently contradictory. Their real-life counterparts evoke great weight, solidity and stillness and so there is a pleasing irony that our fake versions are made from one of the lightest materials – wood fiber. But, even though visitors are well aware they are being presented with an illusion, the illusion must still be convincing.     

One of the difficulties of simulating rock (as old-time, pre-CGI, movie set designers will tell you), is that they must be shaped and texturized properly to imply the appropriate mass. In other words, they must look heavy

As putting visitors in a ‘real’ physical environment that they can touch and feel is a feature of this installation, we asked Account Service Manager, Zane Hale, (who conveniently happened to be a rock climber in his youth), how he would tackle the technical challenge. 

“For the rounded rocks, we’d take the mâché route, soaking and pulping recycled cardboard into a moldable fibrous paste and adding glue. We would then sculpt this basic pulp over a basic substructure to make the various forms and sizes.” 

How about the faceted boulders? “Their polygon shapes would be done slightly differently, using a layered build-up of corrugated panels with dowels and threaded rods. This would allow us to draw the layers together to create a solid effect with a hollow center.” 

Zane has a plan to achieve the right surface quality too. “After we’ve created a basic shape, our in-house paint booth would be engaged to optimize temperature and humidity for the mâché rocks as they cure. When they’re dry and workable, we’d use disk sanders and other detailing tools to texturize the surfaces with precision – either to a glossy shine or to give a more coarse-grained look.”

The seemingly distant mountains require a less intensive production process. These large, flat triangles, which form a backdrop to the garden, would be simply cut from fiberboard and frame-mounted in a staggered pattern to create depth and give a sense of scale and perspective.

If creating convincing rocks from wood fiber seems like a particular coincidence of opposites, creating a full scale tree from wrapped and crumpled paper seems, well, wholly fitting. Tune in for the next installment – Project Zen: The Tree – to learn more about this stately arboreal illusion.