Wednesday, 29 September 2021

The true nature of Nature Aquarium and Diorama Aquarium


In recent times, one of the most striking questions I found myself making is related to the actual differences between Nature Aquarium and Diorama Aquarium. Yes, I am doing explicitly this splitting between the two because they differ in the very roots of aquascaping, which are utterly ignored when considering both types of works. You may ask many hobbyists around, even professionals, and you will find rarely a coherent or clear answer about what separates both branches.

The reason why this happens is because, historically speaking, the Diorama Aquarium has emerged as a splint of Nature Aquarium, which has grown up to overpass in popularity to his former discipline. This splint has evolved so much in the basics of the Nature Aquarium that they are no longer connected.

For me, this calls for a proper distinction between these two branches of aquascaping, which in my view, should also be evaluated separately in contests, and considered as separated disciplines within aquascaping. And this family of two is growing, as a more timid, but relentless, third movement is also starting to appear, which combines Nature Aquarium with Biotope Aquariums.

To understand in what they fundamentally differ, we must recap on the origins of the Nature Aquarium. As most of you will probably know, Takashi Amano is the person endorsed with the creation of the concept of the Nature Aquarium. Being Japanese in origin, Nature Aquarium is infused at full extend in the aesthetics principles of the Japanese culture, fact that Amano always highlighted, and that led to label his works in their origin, as the "Japanese style" for planted aquariums, in juxtaposition to the "Dutch style" or "Jungle style" already existing then.

Takashi Amano transferred to aquariums many of the well-known rules from the classic Japanese gardening, mixing them with the wabi sabi aesthetical perception of the world. To do so, he focused mainly in two types of aquascapes: based in stones (aka Iwagumi types) or in driftwood (aka Forest types), as main elements to create the compositions. One can actually see how Takashi Amano thrived for reaching a mastering in both types of aquascaping, by firstly trying with his intuition in his earlier works, to later on put some educated methods at practise in his peak of Iwagumi and Driftwood aquariums, and finally combining both intuition and educated experience along his personal view of the natural world, learned from his travels. It is only at the end of his life, when he started to combine the three aspects, that his late works appeared, crystalising in the achievement of the so-considered his master work of Florestas Sumersas, which has his unmistikable personal signature.

When studying the works from Amano, it is important to note that he was very influenced by his experiences in the lagoons, rivers, and ponds of Niigata, where he passed lot of time during his childhood. His eagerness to replicate nature scenarios in aquariums came from there, but that alone will not explain the birth of Nature Aquariums. Most other people with similar experiences drifted towards the Biotope aquarium, where the creator aspires to produce true replications of natural environments as they are, including selecting the right plants and fish species, along with the hardscape materials that match such environment. But instead, Amano focused on a spiritual recreation of the Nature. Inspired on it, making it credible to the observer, but not a mere copy. The origin of this is born in the cultural roots of the aesthetic perception of the Japanese people and their cultural legacy, and in particular, in the traditional Japanese gardening.

One of the literature pieces of the medieval Japan that has been passed to us is the book called Sakuteiki. Considered the most ancient text in gardening, and with more than 1,000 years old, it explains the basic principles that shall guide to the Japanese gardeners of its time. It is worth to mention that, at the time, gardening was not a profession by itself, rather than an aesthetic activity carried out by the noble and ruling classes of Japan. Also in that time, these rules were intertwined with the religious principles of the Japanese society, which were driving some of the most important guidelines in the planning of gardens. The combination of the Shinto (animist) with Buddihsim (ascetic) religions, led towards a set of rules that were allowing to the visitors of the garden and owners, benefitting of the energies of nature to nurture their spirits, and provide them with success, luck, happiness, and health. Thus, culturally speaking, there have been a strong connection between the aesthetic perception of the design of a garden and the wellbeing of people, in which the recreation of natural environments, based in the real observation of nature and its perception, along with the need for environments qualified for meditation, became in drivers of such aesthetics.

All this has a third leg connected to the idea or concept of wabi sabi I mentioned before. The term lacks of a proper translation, but it is composed of two ideas: Wabi is about finding beauty in simplicity, and a spiritual richness and serenity in detaching from the material world. Sabi is more concerned about the passage of time, with the way that all things grow and decay, and how ageing alters the visual nature of those things. This clearly explains this connection between aesthetics and the spirit, and how Japanese use aesthetics as a manner to infuse feelings in the spirit, even nowadays. The concept of wabi is infused with the principles of the Buddhism Zen, where simplicity is searched as a mean to disregard the attachments to the physical world and achieve true freedom. Sabi is infused of the Shinto culture, where the changes of the nature with the pass of the time relate to the spirits that govern the world. Being the kami spirits of the nature, they shape it, and they change it with the time. Appreciation of the ageing is a window to better understand our world and the space we occupy on it. Thus, the idea of wabi sabi involves the appreciation of the nature in its simplicity, as a mechanism able to nurture our spirit and lead us to a meditative state that enables to connect with the nature, our surroundings and to live in the present moment.

These ideas, whilst quite philosophical, are all very important to understand the works of Amano, and Nature Aquarium in general. And there are many proofs of it.

For instance, Amano put significant emphasis in the use and positioning of stones, as part of the hardscape composition for a Nature Aquarium. This is not casual. The title of the book I mentioned before, Sakuteiki, can be translated as "gardening" but also as "art of laying stones". Indeed, in the traditional Japanese garden, the layout used for the stones is one of the most important elements, up to the point that gardening, and stone-laying are under the same concept. Why the layout of the stones is important? It is not only for aesthetic reasons, but for its connection to the peace of spirit of the people enjoying those gardens. This is very clear within the Iwagumi aquascapes, where a main stone is selected with two other stones supporting it, somewhat laying each in other, as basic structure. This trio is seen as main stone composition of old Japanese gardens, and they represent Buddha and two companions. Quite often, the three stones were complemented by a fourth flat stone laid in front of the others, place selected for meditating. Indeed, during the adoption of Buddishm into the Japanese society, some elements of Shinto merged, and the spirits of nature represented by stones, trees, rivers, and cascades, also become elements of the mediation and as aids to reach the ascetics principles of Buddhism.

Example of triad of stones in Japanase gardens.


Iwagumi layout by Takashi Amano


Other interesting aspect is the famous sentence from Takashi Amano of "Learn from Nature, create Nature". This famous sentence has been assimilated way too literally in occidental cultures, where we tend to understand it as if Amano was inviting us to go to the countryside to take photos and learn how to replicate natural scenarios in the aquariums. However, this should be interpreted in a more spiritual manner, and as an invitation to connect with the Nature so that we can replicate such connection in our aquatic creations. It is not only to learn about the details where a moss goes in an aquascape, rather than finding out the aesthetic rules of a natural scenario, so to replicate them as a mean to connect with the observer. In other words: by studying nature and how its aesthetics impact our spirits, we can find manners to recreate such links in our works, so other observer of our aquascapes can feel the same as if they were in such natural scenario. This is the real challenge here.

There is other repetitive case in the videos, interviews and books of Amano that proves these cultural roots of the Nature Aquarium. For instance, the idea of ageing of the layouts. In his interview made for the Florestas Sumersas (see the interview here, and in particular from 0:50 onwards), he mentions a few times the need to allow the layout for ageing, so it gets the right feeling. This aging, in the case of stones and driftwood is achieved by the disposition of the hardscape and also in many other details. Like the cracks in the rocks or their erosion. Or the veins and craves within the wood. Or moss growing over stones and/or woods. Those things that, in nature, are synonym to be exposed to the elements for years. This has become kind of a key aspect of the modern aquascaping, no matter you are in Nature or Dioraman Aquariums. Still, in the case of Amano, this refers to the idea of wabi sabi I mentioned before: the appreciation of the pass of the time as of aesthetic value. Amano, quite often, mentions the importance of understanding "how a layout will look like on time", which connects precisely with this idea. For Amano, it is not just the mere representation of an "ancient forest" or "old mountain" what is looked for, but also to have enough perception of the pass of the time as an intrinsic aesthetic component of an aquarium, which shall happen, and not always under our full control. Indeed, again in Florestas Sumersas, he mentions that the layout will noticeably change with the time: he was not expecting that his original planning would remain as such, rather than accept this ageing and maturing of the layout as part of the composition itself. One could think this as if the perception and appreciation of a layout for Amano were not in 3D (the layout design and creation) rather than 4D (the layout design, its creation, and its changes on time): a true Nature Aquarium is not appreciated as a single photo, rather than as a travel where you witness how changes on time as part of the experience.


Other aspect that links with all the above is how Takashi Amano planned the layouts and how was using the hardscape materials. The main elements of his compositions were chosen according to an idea in mind, but one critical aspect in their selection was to respect their own nature and shapes. One will not see in most of his work an extensive use, but rather a limited one, of reshaping of materials. They were selected and used as they come, in most cases. This notion is, again, connected to the traditional perception of nature in Japan. Indeed, the book Sakuteiki explains well that stones should be used in gardens respecting their natural position, with the aged faces at view, and the original bottom surfaces hidden from the observer. It is considered taboo to alter the stones in any manner or not respect their natural dispositions. This can be seen in many works of Amano, where if well these rules are relaxed, he still strives to perform a disposition of the hardscape that use the natural flow of the stones and driftwoods to provide harmony to the layouts.


Example of stone layout vs water flow in nature. Image from ADA (c) 2021.

Finally, as a note of curiosity, one of the most popular ADA stones used in aquascaping is called seiryu stone. Seiruy in Japanese translates as "Blue Dragon" and refers to the Guardian of the East, which is joined by the White Tiger (Guardian of the West), the Black Tortoise (Guardian of the North) and the Vermillion Bird (Guardian of the South). Those symbols were culturally imported from China into Japan and were elements of the geomancy that were very important for divination and luck. In fact, places for setting houses of the nobility, temples and even cities, were selected based in the good disposition of these four guardians, which bring protection to the realm. Because of their roles as protectors, the four guardians were taken into account when designing the traditional gardens, impacting both the type of colours of the stones that could be used in each section of the garden, the type of plants, and even more important, the disposition of design elements, like where to put the ponds, or through which path the spring river shall run within the property. Thus, true seiryu stones are actually blue, not grey. I had some of them some time ago, and once the CO2 dissolved the outer layer of the stones, they were dark blue with nice white veins.

Now, the reason why I have described all these elements is to allow for a clear understanding of the governing principles of Nature Aquarium, and how the ones from Diorama Aquarium depart from them.

For instance, in Nature Aquarium:
  • The purpose is to create scapes that connect with the observer in a spiritual manner; your work is successful if manages to transmit the feelings you felt when observing natural scenarios, and not as much by merely replicating visuals.
  • There is a respect to the hardscape elements, which are not altered, but in minimal aspects, and always using their natural disposition to aid to construct the layout; one shall appreciate how the materials flow, how they link with the idea of ageing, and use the characteristics they already have, so to create the scenario.
  • The idea of aging shall manifest in the work with elements that represent the cycle of life and death in the aquascape, by combining both hardscape, plants, and fish in harmony. An aquascape where plants have not matured or are in excess will look too young, whereas another with not enough plants or without proper trimming/maintenance will look too old.
  • Balance shall be provided in all the aspects, including colours, lights and shadows and hardscape composition and disposition.
  • In overall, Nature Aquarium shall connect with positive feelings linked to a relaxed state of the mind. Dark, mysterious, or even aggressive layouts are opposing this principle.
However, in a Diorama Aquarium:
  • The scene can be fictional or real, but the purpose is to recreate quasi-realistic full scenarios, with substantial emphasis of perspective and textures. It is the visual impact what primes.
  • Hardscape elements can be fully manipulated, or even built-for-purpose, as demanded to achieve the desired image. Aging is forced from design, and not through aquarium evolution, which often leads to extensive use of moss and/or highly textured materials.
  • There is no need to reflect a full cycle of life and death in these works. Here, the key factor is measured in the degree of details the creator can put on the image, but without falling into feelings of "out of place". Elements within the composition must make sense between them, but they can be entirely inclined towards a side of the balance (e.g., represent poorly vegetated areas, or on the other hand, the wilderness of the jungle).
  • Balance shall be provided in all the aspects, including colours, lights and shadows and hardscape composition and disposition, as well. However, general impression of the hardscape is a main player.
  • There is no need to connect with feelings of relax. In fact, Diorama is successful whenever connects with the observer, quite often by appealing to the sense of danger, abruptness of nature or force of the elements.
Now, established those differences, one can start also to fit in where some other concepts fall.

For example, the so-called "Zen style" has actually nothing to do with the theme displayed in the layout, rather than how such scene or theme is achieved. Under zen principles, one shall use the less elements as possible but in a fundamental equilibrium that leads to a relaxing view/meditating state. A typical zen style composition would be an Iwagumi composed of three or five stones, with only one type or two types of carpeting plants. As such, the zen style is just a way to consider some of the Nature Aquariums. However, one can also produce a zen style aquarium using Diorama principles, whenever the ideas of simplicity and few elements are respected. Nobody really does this, reason why I consider zen style is just a variant of Nature Aquarium.

Example of Iwagumi under Nature Aquarium, Zen style. By George Farmer.

Example of Iwagumi under Diorama Aquarium, Wild style. By Fukada.

Similarly, the "Wild style" is again not really related to the type of scene, rather than a technique to achieve them. Wild style is opposite to Zen, and uses as many elements as can fit within the aquarium to fill the full scene. In this sense, it fits better within the Diorama Aquarium but is not restricted to it. However, generally speaking, Nature Aquarium allows for significantly more free space in the scenes, and tends to use much less elements, so this is the reason why I consider this style as a variant of the Diorama Aquarium.

Themes can fall in those styles with not much trouble. For instance, forest scenes can be produced using zen or wild techniques, and the same for mountain-like compositions. A good example is the Iwagumi composition, which started as a zen style, but has been progressively absorbed by the wild style, and nowadays we have many winning works where stones are the main driver of the hardscape, but that have departed substantially from the simplicity of using just a few stones, but well placed. Equally, some of the minimalistic compositions using driftwood from Amano, have drifted towards very complicated and rather architectural layouts generally achieved only using Diorama techniques.


Example of forest layout, under Nature Aquarium, Zen style. By Takashi Amano.

Example of forest layout, under Diorama Aquarium, Wild style. By Fukada.

As a rule of the thumb, the so-called zen aquariums fall all under the frame of Nature Aquarium, and the wild ones under the Diorama Aquarium. However, this is not a strict rule, as per the governing principles of each one. Nevertheless, it is behind why Nature Aquarium is in "decline" in the listing contests. As some people have pointed out, zen style is very complex to achieve with success, whereas wild one is significantly simpler. The reason is clear: in zen style, one must achieve a very fine balance between the few elements included in the composition, master the planting and trimming, and have an outstanding aesthetic perception of nature. Minimal errors are significantly and easily noticed because of this, and these layouts tend to score worse than other works, due to this better appreciation of errors. On the other hand, wild style benefits from filling so much the scene with details and elements that errors are much easily overlooked. The general impact is what matters, and small deficiencies are easily assimilated by the whole layout. Being zen style more predominant within the Nature Aquarium, Diorama Aquarium is nowadays the preferred option for competitions, as the more flexible wild style allows for good results. Other reason behind this trend is that the eagerness of Nature Aquarium to represent a fluid ageing of the nature, requires long-term running and maintenance of the layouts, where is more difficult to preserve the original layout, rather than the short-term running (but very demanding) required for the Diorama Aquarium, when one can add plants and fish at the very last minute, if needed to (and done very often in contest-level works, by the way).

Of course, this is not always black and white. Many Diorama Aquariums have elements of Nature Aquariums and vice-versa, but the reality is that they substantially differ in the basic principles and aims. Diorama looks for impressing people; Nature Aquarium looks for connecting them with nature.

As a final note, there are other aspects that are more contest-driven than actual choices for each type of aquascaping. For instance, IAPLC and some other contests emphasize the need to recreate the natural environment of fish. Truth be said that judges tend to take lot of freedom in what can be considered as such, but generally speaking, creating credible environment of fish is closer to get inspired in truly aquatic environments, rather than in landscapes. Most of the winners of IAPLC, however, fall in the second category. And even Amano produced many aquascapes that can be hardly considered recreations of aquatic environments. Those aspects are driving the theme of the work, and not as much the type of aquascape in which falls.

So, closing this article, and having all of this into account, I think a division of these two categories is in order: their challenges and purposes are different so makes no sense they compete together. The newer contests are trying to have some of those factors in consideration, but in my opinion, the real differences are not yet understood, reason why I decided to write this article, which I hope you enjoyed.

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