Peter Schaudt and I recently returned from a trip to China where we are in the beginning stages of a project outside of the city of Ningbo. While on our visit, we had the opportunity to spend some time visiting several of the famous Chinese Scholar’s Gardens in Suzhou, about seventy-five miles west of Shanghai. Suzhou, a city with a population approaching five million people today, rose to prominence as the center of the silk trade in China. It was during the Ming (1388-1644 AD) and Qing (1644-1911 AD) Dynasties that the construction of gardens in Suzhou flourished, serving as private retreats for the scholar class.

A view across the pond in the master of nets garden, considered by an ideal example of the Chinese Scholar’s garden.

Built with the intention to provide a spiritual utopia connecting with nature, the Chinese Scholar’s Gardens draw much of their form and structure from the concept of abstraction and distillation of the landscape of China. Situated within walled compounds, the gardens use architecture, stone, water and vegetation to create a simplified, more perfect version of the outside world. The visual relationships between all of these elements are carefully calculated so that every view point within the garden is a thoughtful composition worthy of painting.

A mountain composed of Taihu stones arranged around a lagoon serve as the namesake for the Lion Grove Garden.

The typical Chinese garden employs a variety of effects that we as landscape architects still use today in the design of our spaces. Organizing exterior spaces as a series of interconnected rooms through which one moves, as well as using windows in walls and pavilions to ‘frame’ views of the landscape, were practices we witnessed in all of the gardens we visited.

A beautifully detailed window frames a small grove of bamboo outside a pavilion in the master of nets garden.

Intricate paving typical of a chinese garden.

While visiting the gardens, we were impressed by the level of detail and craftsmanship that we saw in many of the components of the gardens. Ornate pavilions constructed in a classical style served as gathering spaces or places of contemplation within the compounds. Intricate paving patterns composed of a wide variety of natural stone formed a richly textured mosaic across the groundplanes of the gardens. It would be easy to conclude that such a level of detail would not be possible in modern times, but we were surprised to see many of the historic details repeated in newer public and private spaces.

As designers, it is important that we continue to enrich our visual vocabularies through travel and exposure to new places; this is especially important when designing in a culture outside of your own. After studying the famous gardens of Suzhou in my landscape history classes in college, it was a true pleasure to experience them in person while expanding my understanding of the important role that gardens and landscape play in the culture of Chinese people.

A crooked bridge intended to confuse evil spirits crosses a pond at the humble administrators garden.

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