USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

The Garden Atmosphere

When we were given the opportunity to visit Suzhou this past weekend many of us knew from our brief introduction to garden landscapes in Asia that this was a must-see destination.  Suzhou has often been called the ‘Venice of the East’ due to its vast canal network and thriving river life, but its nine gardens make it a quintessential example of Chinese classical garden design.  With four of the gardens recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the city’s historic urban plan is very much influenced by the unity between Chinese culture and nature.  The gardens themselves are intended to emphasize the metaphysical  importance of natural beauty, and thus are designed as spaces of peaceful harmony and contemplation.

Upon arriving in Suzhou, this picturesque mental image was immediately disbanded by the reality of an increasingly industrialized city.  What was expected to be a quaint Chinese community, was now diluted with drab mid-rise towers and bustling multi-lane highways.  Where was the beautiful Suzhou I had witnessed in lectures and books?  The economic growth and development occurring all across China had obviously reared its ugly head in Suzhou, and although the gardens remained intact, they were simply a few diamonds in the rough.

Disheartened, I immediately headed for the first of the four gardens, hoping to find sanctuary from what I had witnessed of the city thus far.  The Master of the Nets Garden, with its intimate courtyards and meticulous landscapes was a fine introduction to the classical beauty of Suzhou’s gardens.  I separated from the group and meandered through the labyrinth of dark halls and sunlit courtyards.  However, just as I began to slip into a state of peaceful contemplation, I was barraged by two loud megaphones from a passing tour group.  How could one possible enjoy the intended serenity of this garden with a blaring noise echoing off every surface?  Once again, the illusion of Suzhou’s grandeur was eclipsed by the reality of a Chinese culture undergoing rapid change.  Our introduction to these gardens through text and images back home could not have been more deceiving, as they failed to capture the human element – the experience of actually walking through the garden.

This noisy atmosphere was not isolated to the Master of the Nets Garden, and got subsequently worse with each garden we visited. Starkly juxtaposed to the silent and serene gardens of Japan, and Kyoto in particular, Suzhou’s classical gardens were quickly becoming a bastardized experience of nature.  The very harmony these gardens were designed to embody was being undermined by the need for quick and satisfactory ingestion of experience through tour guides.

The following clip demonstrates the juxtaposition between the Japanese garden atmosphere and the disturbing phenomenon occurring in Suzhou’s classical gardens.

Bryn Garrett


Filed under: Gardens, Suzhou, Uncategorized

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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Andrew Liang
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu

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