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July 21, 2005

Robert Murase: 'a poet of stone and water'

Journal Staff Reporter

Robert Murase, a landscape architect who created tranquil, Japanese-influenced designs, died Monday at age 66 from a heart attack.


Described by friends and associates as intuitive and introspective, Murase had a gift for arranging elements in a way that others said perfectly mimicked nature.

"I always considered him a poet of stone and water," said John Nesholm of LMN Architects.

Murase's most high-profile Seattle project was the Garden of Remembrance at Benaroya Hall, which features a stream of water that threads its way from Third to Second avenues, a memorial wall, and several walkways that draw visitors into a peaceful setting.

"That project has a certain reverential quality, right along a busy urban street," Nesholm said. "It is a place to get lost in one's own thoughts."

Murase also used stream-like elements indoors, such as the Pier 69 headquarters of the Port of Seattle, which features a 400-foot long water runnel.

Associates said he was proudest of the Japanese American Historical Plaza along Portland's waterfront. The plaza commemorates the internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans and features bronze relief columns and poetry engraved on stones.

Photo courtesy Murase Associates
The Garden of Remembrance at Benaroya Hall was designed by Robert Murase.

"I felt that the memorial should not be a place that could be described as pretty, attractive, clever, a traditional park or a lyrical picture," he wrote in a book about the memorial, "but instead that it be a slice of life which interprets the Japanese-American experience with emotion and cultural sensitivity without sentiment."

His design of the memorial was influenced by the fact that Murase, who was born in San Francisco, was placed in a Utah internment camp along with his parents and grandparents, according to Dan Jenkins, a principal at Murase Associates' Portland office.

After World War II, the family returned from the camp to San Francisco. In his teens, he worked for his uncle, a landscape contractor, and he was further inspired by the 1958 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's Exhibit of Landscape Architecture.

He went on to study landscape architecture at Berkeley, and was hired by Robert Royston & Associates in San Francisco in 1965.

He delved into Japanese design during his seven-year tenure with a landscape architecture firm in Kyoto. Murase then taught landscape architecture at University of Oregon for three years, worked with EDAW in Portland from 1980 to 1982 and formed Murase Associates in 1982. He opened the Seattle office in 1989.

He was a fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects and an honorary member of AIA Seattle. His firm has won about 50 design awards.

Richard Cardwell of Cardwell Architects said Murase devised great designs working with "very tough programs."

The Garden of Remembrance "takes you out of the hustle-and-bustle, and provides a nice place to sit and enjoy life and think," Cardwell said.

"He had a very natural, innate skill," said Jenkins. "Bob was very thoughtful, in terms of his design approach. He would understand the site and the issues, and sort of let ideas gestate. Solutions would come up after a thorough mix of all the considerations. It was a very emotional process for him."

Mark Reddington of LMN, whose firm designed Benaroya Hall, said Murase "was fairly reserved in the way he presented himself, and clearly very passionate and very thoughtful. He was almost spiritual about the way he thought about the elements he was putting into his designs."

Cardwell, whose office is near the Garden of Rememberance, said he often goes to the site to gather his thoughts.

"He was the best at what he did," said Cardwell. "This is a huge loss for me, and for the landscape architecture community."

Murase is surived by his mother, his wife, Judy, and three children, Scott, Shawn and Aya.

A memorial service is being planned for late August at Murase's residence, Santi-Ya, in the town of Rosburg in Wahkiakum County. For information, call (206) 322-4937.

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