Japanese Cat Garden

“Every creature, person, insect, star is connected and interdependent. Life is not to be lived as a pyramid with man on top and everything else below. Life is a circle, connected to all and ending where it began. ”

Design and construction projects seemingly ALWAYS change from beginning to end. despite the most assured of designers. Even the intently well-drawn plan encounters an unforeseen “field condition” when construction gets underway. And, what it looks like at the start is not often exactly how it looks in the end.

As an architect, I often look for the bigger picture item that a client may not see at first. When Michele S. contacted me asking if we could build something that she and her husband, Tim’s, two cats (Andre’, a rescued feral black cat, and Gaston, a black house cat with a neurological jaw issue that results in a hanging tongue) could use to enjoy watching the birds and the squirrels in the trees outside their Florida lanai, I had no idea what to do. Square Paws had spent its first four years building indoor furniture for cats. How would we make something for the outdoors? Especially an environment with extremes of both harsh sun and hurricane winds?

Meeting Michele at her home, though, the answer presented itself pretty quickly. At the back of their home was a Florida room with a sky-lit vaulted ceiling and sliding glass doors to the left and right. To the right sits a beautiful koi pond brimming with colorful fish. Looking upon them is a stone Buddha and a traditional Japanese stone lantern. And, though the screened-in lanai had fallen to disrepair, it was still surrounded by very lush greenery of ferns, date palms, and a host of other thriving fauna.

One of many Japanese garden images that inspired us

Then, seeing the three or four other Japanese stone lanterns and benches in their back garden, it struck me: a Japanese cat garden!

I quickly went to work drawing up plans and elevations and pulling imagery of Japanese gardens to help express my vision to Michele and Tim. They bought into the idea fairly quickly, giving me the latitude to proceed, even if they couldn’t quite see the whole concept in their minds.

Add to the mix an incredibly talented craftsman named Benedito, who has been working with me for more than a year…a man with years of construction and carpentry experience, and the lights were turning green to move forward!

“As an architect, I often look for the bigger picture item that a client may not see at first.”

Mario Arbore

Though the lanai space was modest, we wanted to fill it with items one would encounter in a Japanese garden: a river, a bridge, some benches, and a Torii (the traditional gate found at a Shinto temple). We also wanted to maintain room for the outdoor dining set, but I felt it could all fit very harmoniously together. Benedito and I worked at each design to provide for easy removal during inclement weather: lag-screw anchoring for the bridge, easily removed; mortise and tenon joints for the tea-house base and tea-house roof, each easily removable.

At the start, though, it was clear that the lanai required quite a bit of work to make it a fitting backdrop for the Japanese garden pieces, including re-screening, frame repairs, and re-paving. Benedito and I, with Michele and Tim’s assistance, quickly went to work!

Benedito and I setting flagstones in mortar

Gaston on his new cat-bridge

Field condition” #1: Stone Pavers

While the koi pond was outfitted with gray slate, a finish I had hoped we would replicate in the lanai, it turned out that the existing stone in the lanai was flagstone of a very red-brown color. Further, it was not nearly enough material to cover the area needed. The majority of the remaining existing pavers turned out to be concrete squares. None of this was apparent, however, until we had dug them all up and power-washed them. Enter Plan B: we would use the flagstones as decorative elements under the “bridge” and purchase new paver bricks with which to outfit the lanai.

“Field Condition” #2: Vistas

At the start of the project, I had only been considering the view from the Florida room. What I hadn’t accounted for was the Master bedroom window which also looks upon the lanai. Michele and Tim noted this to me, which made me question the strict and rigid orthogonal layout I was pursuing. Suddenly, the cat-bridge wanted to be turned slightly askew to create much more dynamic views. Back to the drawing board…, er, computer, once more.

“Field condition” #3: Scale

As we got underway constructing the bridge and adjacent wall-benches, I began to re-think the scale of the Torii. It felt like it would now be dwarfed by the cat-bridge, and I needed to re-consider it. As we finished the installation of the bridge, Tim and Michele felt they should let go of their existing outdoor dining set and, instead, purchase a smaller table more in keeping with the new Asian style of the lanai. This now left more space for a cat-tower to span along the south screen of the “catio.” Where before we may have had a crowded space, we now had a void to fill! Ultimately, we decided to make another bench: something like a meandering path but still with an air of honor and gravitas, up to a structure that would draw inspiration from the tea-houses in Japanese gardens, up several cat-perch-steps to the highest elevation in the lanai.

Disclaimer: “Field condition” #4 might be the addition of Gryfin, a black cat Michele’s friend had found abandoned by renters. Michele and Tim adopted Gryfin during our construction project. But adding a cat to the mix is a blessing, not a curve ball!

We rounded out the design with a hand-cut, black “Kanji” symbol that doubles as a cat-shelf. The symbol represents “sky” or “heaven,” which seemed appropriate for a client whose email signature includes the Steven D. Wolf quote you see at the top of this post. Would the cats understand the meaning imbued in this item, or would they just see it as a means to get closer to that squirrel that mocks them from the tree outside?

 Please enjoy the videos below showing the behind-the-scenes work that made this vision possible

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