Aquascaping can be described as gardening underwater –as it involves the arrangement of a variety of aquatic plants, rocks, stones, driftwoods and marine life within an enclosed space. One of the earliest recorded examples of the practice of aquascaping comes from the introduction of parlor aquariums in Victorian-age museums, in the latter half of the 18th century. Aquascapes were created by Dutch colonists who had collected various aquatic plant and marine life samples. Ultimately, it was decided upon to showcase the taxonomy of species by placing them into glass cases for the public to enjoy.
What contemporary practitioners of aquascaping work to achieve is a careful balance found between the initial artful designing of the underwater landscape, and the technical maintenance of what the type of environment and its inhabitant’s demand (cleaning, filtration, feeding and redesign). What this means is that there is not only a science involved in the conservation and preservation of the environment within the aquarium, but the birth of an aesthetic philosophy that historically unfolds as aquascaping moves from being the project of zoologists, botanists and marine biologists (beyond the spectacle of the museum walls) to the hobbyists and collectors.
From the traditional Dutch style (varieties of plants based on color, size, texture), to Jungle style (untamed), Biotopes (reconstructing a particular geographic regions habitat), Paludariums (half water/land) and saltwater tanks (usually housing reefs) aquascaping is not without its main proponents, movements and styles. One of these styles namely, the Japanese Nature style, was first introduced by Takashi Amano. Amano introduced the Japanese Nature Style onto the scene of aquascaping in the late 1980’s. The underlying philosophy behind his style was that the aquarium environment would aim to mimic a natural, organically unfolding environment—it is here the aesthetic and philosophical concepts of Wabi Sabi played an essential role. Wabi Sabi is a Japanese aesthetic philosophy that comprises a world view stressing minimalism, the suggestion of natural processes and an earthiness. The metaphysical basis of such a system is one centered on twin pillars of evolution and de-evolution—both born out of nothingness. In addition, Amano designed aqauscapes according to the laws of the Iwagumi system. This means that the focal point of the main stone or rock is placed slightly off-center in the tank. The location of the focal point in the aquarium, the Iwagumi, is usually determined by the asymmetrical but balanced placement of other stones around it.
The nature style is easily discernable from other aquascapes as it exhibits not only an ethereal quality, but a very “Zen like” feel. Going beyond philosophy and aesthetics, an important precept of the nature style is the focus on the cohabitation of organisms within the closed ecological system which in turn, creates sustainability and a flourishing environment.
So there you have it, for Amano, it perhaps not only starts with a vision and an empty glass case but a subtle intuition, maybe even an empty mind. However, as much as one adheres to such an aesthetic philosophy as Wabi Sabi and the aim of mimicking natural processes, we (humans) still have a hand in the process of creation and destruction. This is perhaps what strikes to the heart of the nature of aquascaping-both playing god and being scientists and artists (designing, engineering, collecting, classifying) in other words, being human.
What future practitioners of aquascaping can look forward to is something that can not only educate on the reality of being in nature, but bring nature into our own daily experience, where subtle appreciation can grow from care and responsibility to that which we often forget.
Here is a video that gives you an idea of the work involved in constructing high level fish tanks and aquascapes.
A slideshow of other award-winning designs.
- Lee-Michael Pronko