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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Sensibility and Chinese Gardens

Two centuries ago a 19 year-old English author wrote a novel exploring romance through two related but contrasting lenses.  The first was purely practical, the perception and recognition of external happenings, and the second more abstract and esoteric, appreciation and response to complex emotions and aesthetics.  The novel was called Sense and Sensibility and its author, Jane Austen, praised for her evaluation of these two lenses through which we experience our lives.  The duality remains today in nearly every facet of life.  Four years ago we decided whether to pursue a professional degree (sense) or liberal arts education (sensibility) during our time at USC.  Today we are learning about Chinese world influence stemming from both its recent growth (sense) and its historical leadership in art, philosophy, and spirituality (sensibility).

Touring the Classical Gardens of Suzhou, which are collectively included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, proved instructive in exploring the sense/sensibility duality.   Each garden is rich in composition and symbolism, created by Chinese literates both as places of introspection and as spiritual monuments striking a delicate balance of influence between the heavens and earth.  Koi ponds, elaborate Bonsai tree arrangements, landscaped courtyards, complex layering, spatial hierarchies, and framed views are just some of the features contained within Suzhou’s gardens.  By even the most superficial and uninterested estimation, the landscapes are remarkable.

I find it fascinating in-and-of-itself then, to observe the various ways people interact with these gardens.  Some rushed through in a compulsory manner, attempting only to keep up with their megaphone-equipped tour guide and take as many photos as possible.  They were no doubt impressed by the beauty and serenity of the gardens, but did not observe either implicit signs invoking contemplation (attention to detail in the composition) or the more literal ones (deliberately meandering paths and bridges).  It would seem these tourists chose to explore their senses but delve no further into the type of sensibility so highly regarded by their ancestors.

Meanwhile it was the choice our group, though admittedly at the behest of our professors, to spend far more time exploring the gardens than others.  Without directly speaking about it beforehand, we slowly and naturally drifted apart from each other and began to experience the garden on our own.  Some of us put on music for this, others pulled out their sketchbooks, and still others their cameras, but in truly making an attempt to pause and contemplate the nature of our surroundings I believe we began to toe the line between sense and sensibility.

In my favorite Lingering Garden, which we entered with early morning light and thinner crowds, I was able to take ten or fifteen minutes in multiple locations to consider what I judged to be the intention of the garden’s creators.  While sitting in a courtyard no bigger than a small car, with indirect light leaving a muted shine on white walls surrounding me, a single young tree in the center, and nobody else in sight, it occurred to me that I must have looked as though I were doing nothing at all.  But as I continued to stare at the tree in front of me I also realized that for time being I was unequivocally content, and that perhaps taking a few minutes of each day to do nothing is something few of us do often enough.

Matt Luery

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Filed under: China, Contemplation, Gardens, Landscape

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AAU FALL 2013:

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

Director:
Andrew Liang
Instructors:
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
Students:
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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