USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

The Power of Nothing

Recently, as I was walking the city one afternoon, I came across a street vendor selling book copies.  I took a look at them, and after long deliberation, we had agreed to a price, and I was on my way with three new books for about three US dollars.  Being a woman traveling in a foreign country, I thought it ideal for me to pick up a copy of Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, as this book documents her travels throughout Italy, India, and Indonesia.  Although I bought it just for a leisurely plane or bus ride reading, the more I continued to read, the more I was able to draw connections back to my journey here in Asia.

One of the strongest connections that was made apparent to me was the power that the Chinese (and Japanese) gardens can have on a visitor.  This speculation took place in the Zen gardens in Japan, and of course happened again in Chinese gardens we visited last weekend, specifically, Shanghai Qushui Garden.  In her book, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “Generally speaking [though], Americans have an inability to relax into sheer pleasure.  Ours is an entertainment-seeking nation, but not necessarily a pleasure-seeking one.  Americans spend billions to keep themselves amused with everything from porn, to theme parks, to wars, but that’s not exactly the same thing as quiet enjoyment…Many Americans feel more happy and fulfilled in their offices than they do in their own homes.  Of course, we all inevitably work too hard, then we get burned out and have to spend the whole weekend in our pajamas, eating cereal straight out of the box and staring at the TV in a mild coma.”

The Shanghai Qushui Garden had a much different feeling than the gardens we visited in Suzhou.  Those gardens seemed to be over-crowded, not offering scenery for peacefulness and stillness of time.  The Qushui Garden, on the other hand, was much more open, as I was able to stray myself away from people, and rarely run into them again.  The benches were designed for a particular way of sitting that allows for a distinct view.  Such thought out details are what makes this so different from a park (for lack of comparable landscape) in the West, with benches and trees placed nonchalantly. I then came across a couple groups of elderly Chinese men leisurely enjoying a game of Chinese chess.  In another corner of the garden, there was a couple, sitting in silence, simply enjoying each other’s company while doing nothing. Scenery like this is rarely found in America…just letting everything be, keeping oneself in the moment.  I am not quite sure what is to blame for this, however.  One may argue that it is the pace of our Western culture, though China seems to be moving at a much faster pace, while we are beginning to trail behind.

Gilbert goes on to say how we work too hard, then spend the weekend in front of the TV, feeling like we cannot do anything.  Although, I am not sure that working too hard is what is preventing us Americans from enjoying the pleasure of doing nothing either.  For example, after reading this sentence of the book, I remembered a taxi ride home from the Expo.  Our cab driver was trying to learn English, and was therefore conversing with us, practicing.  As we got to talking, I learned that he works sixteen hours a day driving that taxi, seven days a week, so this “work too hard” idea does not seem like a good enough excuse either.

The power of taking pleasure in intangible things, such as scenery, a slight breeze or the smell of nature is extremely lost, or even non-existent, for many people in Western culture.  Perhaps our culture not having any architectural attractions such as these gardens is to blame?  Are there no other places in the US where this pleasurable silence and “nothingness” can take place?  Or if we were to begin designing gardens like the Japanese and Chinese, would they even be used in the same ways they are here?  Probably not.  It just goes to show how much value the placement or culture that a design (whether it is architectural, landscape design, or the design of a bench) is located in can affect the way it is ultimately used.




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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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