Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Thoughts on visiting Suzhou, China

Looking around classical Chinese gardens in Suzhou has been utterly fascinating. They are so different to any other garden spaces I have seen. What I love about them is the way that the challenge the axial symmetry, the obsession with perpendicular geometry and the perspective-focus of the European and Islamic garden tradition. If you like the sound of established paradigms being ripped up, and accepted notions being trampled underfoot, you will love these gardens.

Enclosure is a key part of the visual appearance of the Suzhou ‘scholar’ gardens, most of which date to the Ming dynasty -1368 – 1644.
Many western visitors are put off by the sheer unfamiliarity, the passion for extravagant rockwork, and the apparent artificiality and contrivance of much garden design and structure; to say nothing of a lack of grounding in the basics of Chinese culture.

The ‘rockery’ in The Mountain Retreat Garden is so vast that it includes a cave halfway up.

In fact, I think these gardens have an enormous amount to teach us, which is not to say we should all start building little pavilions with upturned roofs and heaping up rocks. What we can learn is a lot more fundamental, in particular about spatial relations, which, given that more and more of us are living in places with only tiny garden areas, is actually jolly important. There are also important lessons for a more integrated garden-as-art practice, as classical Chinese garden making was part of a rounded artistic practice which also involved poetry, painting, and often music too. They were created by a highly cultivated scholar-bureaucrat class, for whom an appreciation of landscape was central to their artistic interests.
A pavilion in The Mountain Retreat Garden – such places might have served either individual contemplation or a more social artistic activity.

Gardens are dominated by buildings, but very light, almost ‘transparent’ ones: pavilions with lots of windows or openings, and covered walkways, which play a major role in guiding garden exploration and understanding.
A covered bridge in The Garden of the Humble Administrator

Examples of window openings, and one door in the walls of covered walkways. The windows appear to be made of stucco.

Buildings often offer highly complex multiple viewpoints – the effect is often breathtakingly clever, and very tantalising, as you don’t know which one of the several proffered vistas to go and see. Covered walkways physically guide the viewer, and control how different garden areas are seen, which often means that an area will be seen from several different angles. Since the same elements tend to be repeated, the multiple viewpoints and the multiple pathways from point to point often induce a feeling of mild disorientation – the visitor is brought into a dreamworld.

A series of vistas in the Xian Yuan, Mudu, showing how multiple glimpses of different parts of a garden are visible from one point, using door-openings, window-openings, and spaces between pillars in walkways. The following shot of a model of this part of this garden illustrates this non-perpendicular spatial complexity.

The above two pictures are in the Master of Fishing Nets Garden, and show the centrality of water to garden areas. Water is not necessarily the centre of the whole garden, but is often found at a the centre of discrete and definable garden areas - it serves to link different garden features and to provide a way of seeing across areas without interruption. In fact in many ways it serves a similar function to lawn in conventional western gardens - but a lawn you don't walk on!
Bridges are nearly always ‘staggered’ – in fact it seems to be a fundamental rule of garden-making that you never go directly from one point to another; the effect is to slow down progress, enhancing the illusion of greater space, and encouraging observation of the surroundings.

‘Dreamworld’ is a key to understanding Chinese gardens. Much Chinese landscape-related art is about encouraging the viewer to imagine themselves somewhere else – the classic landscape art of mountains, forest, lakes and little buildings is designed to make the viewer imagine themselves to be in the image. The garden, with its rockworks evoking the extravagant shapes of the various mountain ranges dotted around the country and fragrant vegetation, is designed as space to help the viewer be transported somewhere else.

The Chinese love of rocks is something which we simply do not share – but it is very important. Single specimens are regarded almost as if they were pets, or friends, endowed with personalities, or seen as almost spiritual entities. Fine rocks are even set on tailor-made wooden pedestals and used as ornament in the home; I saw specimens priced at =£5,000 in antique shops. Rocks may also be combined to make miniature landscapes; at one location in Suzhou (Tiger Hill) there are several dozen such examples. Planted up with ‘bonsai’-trained trees they become true living miniature landscapes.

Right - one of the largest individual specimen stones in a Suzhou garden, the Lingering Garden.

'Bonsai' originated here, and you can't help feeling that some Chinese feel a bit annoyed that we think of them as Japanese. But of course, the period during which bonsai became popular in the west is the period when all traditional arts in China were under sustained attack; Mao Zedong is known to have denounced the growing of potted plants as a sign of bourgeois ideas. Seeing all these magnificent, and no doubt very ancient, bonsai, does make you wonder how they survived the destruction of the Cultural Revolution period, when anything old was liable to be destroyed or vandalised.

The bonsai collection here is at Tiger Hill, Suzhou.
Right - there are also 'giant bonsai'.

Left - and substantial dry miniature landscapes.
Most dry mini landscapes are tray size though:

Planting – liriope rules!
Plant interest in the gardens is actually pretty low. It may well have been greater in the past, but nearly all these gardens have been changed extensively since they were created, and have undergone periods of neglect. Restoration has been meticulous, but with little attention to diverse planting – landscape and amenity planting in China tends to be extensive but uninteresting in the extreme.

What the Americans call ‘lily-turf’ – species of liriope and ophiopogon, are used extensively in public spaces as ground-cover, often to great effect. I’m certainly going to start exploring their use much more. I do not know if they were used originally in the Suzhou gardens – possibly not.
Peonies are the classic perennial for these gardens, but they were generally grown in separate dedicated beds.

I would argue that the complex sub-division of space and creation of micro-habitats in the Scholar gardens is ideal for creating interesting planting spaces, so the lack of interesting planting in these gardens is not to be held against them. The Suzhou-style garden in Portland, OR, shows how plantsmanship and Chinese design work very well together.

Thanks to travelling companions, my partner Jo and friend Yue Zhuang, who has been with us on her annual trip home and has been a brilliant guide. My photos are on flickr:



    This has taken a long time to post - all my efforts to blog in China didn't work. One can get paranoid about the 'Great Firewall of China'!
    I have always been  puzzled by Chinese gardens. We don’t have any in UK, but there are some very good ones in Germany, Switzerland and Portland OR – the latter built by craftspeople from Suzhou, the garden city of China with which the lovely Portland is twinned.
    The aesthetic is very unfamiliar, and we westerners are all too likely to be offended by the piles of rocks which we find grotesque. We also find it difficult to approach a lot of Oriental sensibilities because of an intervening layer of interpretation  which sees so many classic elements: bamboos, willow trees, pavilions, as clichés – it is as if Chinese people, on seeing a herbaceous border, an urn, or pergola draped in roses immediately think “chocolate box” and switch off. You do really have to learn to look – appreciating other culture’s aesthetics is actually quite hard work (don’t mention the Peking Opera!)
    What interests me about the Chinese  garden is its totally different aesthetic to ours, particularly in the way the gaze is directed, an aesthetic which I believe is very good at maximising the use of visual space in a confined area – making it immensely useful for urban plots. Forget all that classical axis stuff, this is about  complex multi-directional perspectives, ‘transparent’ buildings, peeks through windows, a strong sense of a circular journey, and a rapid change of view from the macro to the micro. Its all so much more fluid, more intimate, more poetic than I am used to.
    Today we visited the Garden of Harmonious Interests at the Summer Palace in Beijing which illustrates all this beautifully. It still felt like winter, but the bareness was good for appreciating basic structure – isn’t it always. There was very little interesting plantlife visible, or likely, given how trampled a lot of the ground was, but the fact that these intimate Chinese gardens are actually very good for displaying interesting plants is brought home strongly by the Portland garden, where all the planting was supervised by Sean Hogan, who is an obsessive a plantsman as it is possible to get.
    There’s a lot to learn here.

My pictures are on:

There are also a lot of other good shots of this garden on Flikr too, taken by folks at other times of year.

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