He is depicted as a quiet, intense Zen master in Provoking Calm, a coffee table book by prominent architectural photographer Patrick Bingham-Hall that details the former’s sculptural works and outlines the artist behind the fluid, organic-looking pieces that often grace the meditative spaces designed by his firm, Colin K. Okashimo and Associates.
Often, he is mentioned to be ruminating on life’s curveballs, while nursing a restoring cup of hot Japanese tea. After all, this is the landscape architect whose creative process involves visiting worksites an hour before daybreak, so that he can meditate and “experience, on an intuitive level, the calm the site already has”, as he himself puts it.
Yet, in real life, Colin Katsumi Okashimo is not quite the enigmatic sage dispensing wisdom in the form of cryptic haiku. His work cannot be so inaccessible if it has been recognised for its excellence across the world.
Apart from being honoured as a Designer of the Year at the President’s Design Award Singapore last year, Okashimo has garnered a long list of accolades for his landscape architecture projects. For instance, his work on Malaysian residential property 20 Trees in Taman Melawati near Kuala Lumpur swept five regional property development awards between 2011 and 2012.
In person, the Canadian of Japanese descent is straight-talking and guffaws at his self-deprecating jokes. He kids about getting great ideas when he relieves himself, because “you need to relax when peeing and, when you do, it unblocks something!” His speech is not harried but contemplative. His gaze is intense, yet his eyes are often squinching in mirth as he breaks into a wide toothy grin. He hasn’t always felt so at peace, he confesses.
Before he started meditating around 19 years ago, Okashimo was a hot-headed young man fuelled by adrenaline and attracted to extreme experiences. With aspirations to join the military, he joined the Scouts and took part in mountaineering and parachuting as a schoolboy in Toronto, Canada.
When plans to join the army didn’t work out (he failed the test because he arrived late due to a snowstorm), the high-school graduate started looking for other options and was drawn to landscape architecture. This was partly due to the fact that he had always liked being outdoors, surrounded by nature; and partly due to a scene of chaos he witnessed at a university studio just before the completion of a landscape architecture project.
“There were people sleeping everywhere; coke and beer bottles and cigarettes and old pizzas lying all over the place,” remembers Okashimo. “They were just killing themselves over a project! I loved it!”
“They were just killing themselves over a project! I loved it!”
– Colin K. Okashimo
And, before he knew it, the top graduate out of Canada’s three landscape architecture departments was killing himself over work. Just a year after he graduated in 1982, his former employer, Belt Collins, posted him to Singapore for a project. Within three years, he rose to the ranks of regional managing director, supervising offices in Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, and found himself on the fast track to burnout.
He recounts the moment of epiphany: “We were under a lot of pressure for a hotel opening in Bangkok. I was getting upset with the contractors, because things weren’t getting done and I was constantly yelling at people on-site. Then, one day, I realised: No one is yelling back at me. My angst didn’t affect them at all, and they would still take me out to dinner at day’s end.”
He realised that he needed to calm down – and went about seeking a way to do so. “I was curious why the Thai people were so calm, and my local friends told me to consider meditation.”
He was eventually introduced to a teacher by an ex-colleague based in Bangkok, and the 10-day course in Thailand had a dramatic impact. “What I remember distinctly from that first experience was the unexpected, physical sensation of meditation. The days were all about detoxing the mind and body through simple vegetarian meals, observing silence and not moving around much apart from going from our room to the meditation hall.
“And, when the things you are dealing with daily are minimised, you are able to focus your mind and experience your body in a way like never before. I describe it as feeling like being in a state of pure energy,” shares Okashimo.
Yet the sensation was also a revelation. “This feeling that I am but energy in an impermanent state changes the way I see myself. It makes me recognise impermanence, and how insignificant the individual is, in the big picture.” And though these new perspectives bear similarities to Buddhist philosophies, he does not look at meditation as a religious exercise but “a way for me to find my inner calm”.
While most think of calmness as still and passive, this new state of mind has had a far-reaching ripple effect on Okashimo’s life. To state the obvious: His work attire was simplified to an unchanging, all-black ensemble of T-shirt, leather belt, jeans and shoes.
“It’s my saffron robe. I don’t have to think about what I wear,” says Okashimo, who is a permanent resident here. He sleeps only four hours every night because – as scientists have proven – meditation allows the mind to restore itself more efficiently. And, while younger folk constantly groan of fatigue, the 58-year-old – with the physique of a bodybuilder who alternates between cardio and resistance training – finds himself exercising even more in the last five years, as he intensifies his meditation.
“The 80 steps to the men’s bathroom and back; sitting at my desk before I start work – these are all opportunities to meditate. Most people start with morning meditation, but what is important is also what you do to continue staying in the right state through breakfast, through the MRT ride, through the day.”
He can’t put his finger on exactly why he stayed on in Singapore, and theorises that it probably just means his work here isn’t done. And Okashimo’s “work” goes beyond the projects that his firm takes on. His calmness has influenced even the lives of people around him. In the office, he offers paid meditation leave, and more than one of his associates have been initiated into this ritual, thanks to him.
Hannah James, an associate director who has been with the firm for the past decade, had always had an interest in meditation – and it was Okashimo who gave her the push to delve deeper. “As someone who did yoga, I would do short meditations as well and always found it interesting that he used meditation as a creative process,” recalls James.
A few years ago, Okashimo came back from Bhutan after a meditation trip and wanted to facilitate other people’s journey into meditation – that was when the firm started to offer meditation leave for staff who completed a 10-day intensive meditation course.
“Chai Fong (the other associate director) was the first to take it up. She is in charge of contracts and numbers, and used to be a bit fiery when she got stressed out. But when she came back, she was literally skipping across the office!” shares James. “She didn’t realise how her emotions had taken control of her, until taking up meditation. For me, meditation has given me introspection, the detachment from personal emotions and clarity.”
Okashimo and his associate directors’ meditation practice has had a ripple effect on other members of staff. “I think it creates a calmer office environment,” reflects James. “We’ve had two ex-staff re-join us after experiencing, well, the other side at other offices. Of course we have our stressful moments but, here, there is no bitchiness or drama.” On an even larger scale, Okashimo hopes to help others find their inner calm – even just a sliver of it – through his work.
For the President’s Design Award ceremony held at the Istana last December, Okashimo showcased an uncommissioned piece from one of his latest sculpture series, created when he was studying the subject of duality. Two parts – one smooth and polished and the other with a rough, natural finish – carved from the same stone, hugged each other. When Singapore President Tony Tan Keng Yam saw Okashimo’s work, he remarked: “I can see that you meditate.”
And, indeed, meditation is a large part of his creative process – and even beyond. “Meditation has become central to how I live and make decisions. It is ironic because meditation is about denouncing all desires. But I am not going to get too hung up on that,” he says with a grin.
He can’t be hung up on that because that would mean giving up certain “privileges” – they take the form of single malts, craft beers and a good bordeaux, which he turns to when in search of ideas. “I have no problem ‘toxifying’ my body, while detoxing my mind,” says Okashimo with a chortle. “It keeps things in balance.”
There was actually a point when Okashimo’s friends worried about losing him. He had contemplated taking his meditation practice further, which would involve him taking residency in a forest monastery. And then they learnt that he would have to give up all his worldly pleasures – “and they laughed so hard! Oh man,” recalls Okashimo with a sigh. “There is something very appealing about relinquishing all worldly pleasures, letting go of one’s ambitions and denouncing everything, including my own ego.”
But whisky is one of those pleasures he isn’t about to give up. “It is like having a good wine; your experience unfolds in subtle layers,” he says. He started out with a Bowmore (“Some of the more peaty whiskies remind me of my childhood, probably of my father’s whiskies,” he says), and now possesses an impressive collection of Japanese whiskies.
“Appreciating a fine whisky is not only about the taste, but also about the time one takes to pause and experience the very moment the liquid hits your lips. There’s a sense of being in the present that is different from drinking water or tea. It provokes calm and this stillness take me somewhere that is relaxed but where I remain alert. There’s a difference between appreciating a drink to savour a moment and drinking to get drunk, the former being my objective.”
In a way, what these beverages do to awaken the senses for Okashimo is what he hopes to achieve in his work. Rather than gently lull his audience into a state of meditative calm, Okashimo prefers to “provoke” one into contemplation because “if something is completely calm, it may go unnoticed and you may not remember it”. To do that, he often employs the use of sculptures and stone is a common medium he uses in his sculptures and landscaping work.
“The material is so grounded that it centres me, especially when I am up in the air so much,” says the jet-setter who travels to his London and New York offices about 10 times a year, and even more often to countries around Asia for work. It is also what Okashimo often uses as a metaphor for calm; instead of preserving it, he has the boulders sawed through in a laborious process, pulling slabs out as if making cross-section slices for biopsy. His message: “The calm is in the stone. The cutting is what provokes it. I am provoking calm.”
Take his work in Kuala Lumpur’s Hotel Maya. A reflective pool dotted with glowing glass blocks shaped by the grips of the “hands” long-serving stafflends a sense of tranquillity to a third-floor poolside space. The blocks are a representation of the human element in hotel service. Yet it also mimics the tiny tombstones at a Muslim cemetery, which the space overlooks and, with this abstract vigil of sorts, Okashimo pays tribute to the duality of life – and death.
Subtlety is the key word for him here. “I detest the wow factor. Whoever came up with that term should be (pauses to inhale deeply)… ignored. I would rather a person go ‘aaaaaah’ when he steps into a space. He should feel like there is something special about it that will make him look forward to spending time in it, because it gives him a deeper understanding of that place.
“I DETEST THE WOW FACTOR. I WOULD RATHER A PERSON GO ‘AAAAAAH’ WHEN HE STEPS INTO A SPACE.”
– Colin K. Okashimo
“The tendency these days is to do things quickly without distillation, and simply fill up spaces with things. But our objective is not to overload and give the place the clarity it needs, so we say: minimise! This is actually a more cost-effective way of doing things and translates into savings for the clients.”
If he sounds almost like a different person who, just a few minutes ago, was speaking of abstract concepts of impermanence – this is the duality of Okashimo. Just as he recognises that there is no calm without chaos, he is well aware of the real world that he operates in.
“The reality is that business is business. If I have my head in the clouds, I might reach enlightenment sooner, but there is a need to come down to earth and influence people’s lives through these environments.”
5 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTS
01 We don’t just put trees and shrubs outside of buildings after they are built.
Some of us are appointed at the same time or before the architect, so the development harmoniously balances the built and natural environments.
02 Not all landscape architects work on the principles of sustainability and zero carbon footprint.
While this is very important, some of us also believe that the subtle appreciation of nature’s beauty is equally important.
03 Not all of us look forward to the annual garden and flower shows.
Some of us are more than horticulturalists.
04 Not all of us are vegans who wear loose-fitting clothes and reject mobile phones.
We are professionals who design experiences that balance the natural and built environment.
05 We don’t all hug trees.
Some of us don’t feel the need to go that far to recognise their importance!