USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Finding your own path

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The above poem, The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost, is a theme I found constant within the Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou, China. If Japanese gardens are about sequence, borrowed scenery, and framed views while Korean gardens are about adding built into landscape while leaving nature as untouched as possible, Chinese gardens are about discovery. The Humble Administrator’s Garden is just that. Moments of contemplation and decisions that leads you to unexpected spaces. What I found most intriguing, in contrast to Japan and Korea where there is a defined path; here, you are able to wander and contemplate, to make your own path.

What made the Administrator’s Garden even more fascinating is its juxtaposition to Chinese architecture which is pretty strict. In the Forbidden City there is a distinct order of hierarchy and procession. Everything is dictated on movement from center axis to side entry/exit. The garden at the end of the Forbidden City is small and minuscule, emphasizing even more the non-importance of the garden to the overall procession. The same is experienced at the Temple of Heaven. There are no straight paths at the Administrator’s Garden. The only semblance of an axial progression at the entry but from that point it is a maze of split roads that go from high to low, then forward and back as you begin to experience the pavilions resting on top. Great examples of this are the bridges. Each one was a zigzag that did not allow for a moments easy walking. The moments of ease are only experienced at pavilions. The seats designed to make you look at the scenery beyond; this is the only time where anything is “dictated.”

Though Chinese gardens have a sense of freedom this does not mean that the spaces are not highly designed. There is a distinct play on soft versus hard within the space. There are moments of relief and moments of intensity. The notion of representation is introduced with naturally found rocks that stand on podiums and the rocks that created caves that compressed you and gave you the sense of moving through a mountain range. This break from the rigid is what made me thoroughly enjoy the garden. You saw a place where hierarchy was scratched and it became about the user and his journey. The one place were social class did not matter. In contrast to Japan where the gardens have a narrative that has been carved out for you and the discovery of the narrative is through the path you take from one frame to the next, the Administrator’s Garden left the narrative open for your own interpretation and allowed a sort of freedom that was seldom found in the manicured landscape of Japanese Gardens.

– Precious

Filed under: China, Gardens, Humble Administrator, Suzhou

Gardens as Objects and Subjects

In The Everyday and Everydayness, Henri Lefebvre states that “there were, and there always have been forms, functions and structures. Things as well as institutions, ‘objects’ as well as ‘subjects’ offered up to the senses accessible and recognizable forms.”

These objects and subjects that Lefebvre speaks of resemble the qualities of Chinese and Japanese gardens, respectively. Chinese gardens become objects that one interacts with, while Japanese gardens become subjects which interact with the user.

Lefebvre writes of “structures, some of them natural and others constructed.” While both Chinese and Japanese gardens are essentially entirely manmade, they each have different characteristics and feelings. While Japanese gardens hold a sense of control over the user, Chinese gardens allow the user to meander freely. Yet, this sense of control and freedom does not present itself as one might assume.

Both Chinese and Japanese gardens are constructed to appear as organic occurrences in nature.

Japanese gardens are entirely fabricated by man. Each entity is meticulously placed on the site. Although Japanese gardens are essentially completely a composed product, these gardens appear to be the most natural. While in the garden, one must follow a set pathway. Even though one is essentially not allowed to stray from this delineated path, it feels as if though one is able to meander through the garden because of the path’s execution.

Chinese gardens feature an “organized passivity…it means passivity when faced with decisions in which the worker takes no part.” The worker, or user, meanders freely through the garden, and is at time not aware why they are on a certain path, or how they arrived there. There is no set pathway in Chinese gardens, and the user is given the option to meander, but it seems as if the pathway is set in stone and one cannot stray from it. Although still manmade and planned out, Chinese gardens allow nature to take its course. However, even though nature is allowed to flow naturally through Chinese gardens, these gardens appear to be the most manmade and synthetic.

The vastness of Chinese gardens give the user many choices. However, the user is slightly mislead in this sense of vastness. Lefebvre makes the point that “production produces change in such a way as to superimpose the impression of speed onto that of monotony.” The monotony within Chinese gardens is masked by the speed at which your surroundings appear to change. While moving from an artificial lake, to a bonsai garden, this slight change in environment allows one to feel as though they are moving through to a different space entirely, only to once again find that one is pushed o a different synthetic body of water, only this time in the form of a river.

The small amount of nature which is allowed to prevail in Chinese gardens does not appear as organic, and instead, emerges with a manmade and faux appearance. While neither of the two garden typologies come anywhere close to a truly natural existence, Japanese gardens have the ability to appear as so. Where Chinese gardens fail at attaining a natural essence through a fabricated syntax, Japanese gardens succeed.

Sara Tenanes

Filed under: China, chinese, Gardens, Japan, japanese

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

Filed under: China, Contemplation, Gardens, Landscape

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


The views and opinions contained in this blog are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the views and opinions of the University of Southern California or any of its officers or trustees.



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