Visual Perception in Japanese Rock Garden Design

Abstract

We present an investigation into the relation between design principles in Japanese gardens, and their associated perceptual effects. This leads to the realization that a set of design principles described in a Japanese gardening text by Shingen (1466), shows many parallels to the visual effects of perceptual grouping, studied by the Gestalt school of psychology. Guidelines for composition of rock clusters closely relate to perception of visual figure. Garden design elements are arranged into patterns that simplify figure-ground segmentation, while seemingly balancing the visual salience of subparts and the global arrangement. Visual ‘ground’ is analyzed via medial axis transformation (MAT), often associated with shape perception in humans. MAT analysis reveals implicit structure in the visual ground of a quintessential rock garden design. The MAT structure enables formal comparison of structure of figure and ground. They share some aesthetic qualities, with interesting differences. Both contain naturalistic asymmetric, self-similar, branching structures. While the branching pattern of the ground converges towards the viewer, that of the figure converges in the opposite direction.

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‘There is ... a basic issue that is only very seldomly discussed: What do we mean by “visual experience”? Very often the problem of vision is oversimplified, and to “see” a scene is identified with the task of computing a verbal description of it. This problem is difficult enough, but it is important to recognize that there is much more in visual perception than assigning verbal labels to “objects”.’

J.L. Marroquin (1976)

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van Tonder, G.J., Lyons, M.J. Visual Perception in Japanese Rock Garden Design. Axiomathes 15, 353–371 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10516-004-5448-8

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Keywords

  • figure-ground
  • multi-scale
  • segmentation
  • tree structure
  • visual grouping