It’s been nice to take a few weeks after the craziness of the holidays to really mull over what I’ve learned from my trip to China. As I return to the massive virtual pile of photos I took, it’s easier to put some of the thoughts and reactions together into patterns. If you had told me a year ago that I’d be touring Chinese gardens and writing about them, I would have thought you were nuts. Running off to China with a film crew is something other people do, not me, with a kid in school and a business to run. But since the opportunity to see these gardens more or less fell into my lap, I want to squeeze every last drop of inspiration from the trip!
Not, though, by designing imitation Chinese gardens. So many people have asked if I will be designing Chinese-style gardens now! Nope, if you’ve taken much of a look around this site, you’ve probably figured out that straight up copying anything isn’t my style. I like to turn things upside down, shake them, and figure out how they work.
I never had visiting Chinese gardens high on my bucket list, because I’d only seen pictures (Great Wall, yes, Terra Cotta warriors, yes–but I’ve got to go back for that!) Let me tell you, no photographs can ever really capture these gardens well. Some of the plant specimens, sure, but not the way these gardens feel as you move through them, wrapping in and around the rooms of the buildings. I can’t wait to screen the documentary when it’s done to see if video does a better job.
Many of the gardens are quite large, but they’re broken down into small, digestible spaces strung together in a sequence that unfolds as you travel through. Not being at all a scholar of Chinese gardens, but simply an observer from a Western perspective, that’s the genius of these gardens! The well-crafted, intimately choreographed sequence of spaces. The French chateau gardens are masterful in their orderly domination of large spaces, English cottage gardens for their painterly attention to plant material and color. Chinese gardens master the intimate relationship between building and garden.
So maybe I’m not a fancy scholar of Chinese gardens, but I think there are some great lessons that California gardeners can take away from the gardens of Suzhou. I made a list of my top 10, and here’s the first one:
1. Don’t get straight to the point. The experience of passing through the garden can be organized and choreographed with design cues. Carefully articulating the path of travel can make the experience of a garden much more richly layered. It might not seem physically bigger, but that’s not the point. The point is the depth of the experience.
Le Notre, the designer of some of the most important French gardens (like Versailles) was famous for his enormous wide avenues. Great for parades, horseback drills, and creating impressive perspective views of the enormous amount of land you control, but not so great for creating an intimate experience. French chateau gardens emphasize straight lines, gravel, clipped boxwood hedges, and enormous expanses of lawn. That leaves California gardeners with gravel as about the only useful takeaway. Those gorgeous painterly English gardens with their voluptuous, thirsty blooms are often organized around paths of lawn. They look so lush and dreamy, and then we turn and look out our own patio doors to an expansive view of redwood fence boards.
“In Chinese gardens there is a relationship between the winding and the straight. The winding exists within the straight, and vice versa, and they should appear to co-exist naturally and with ease. Painters have said that when depicting a tree they ought never to make a line that is not curved. This is considered one of the basic techniques of painting. Winding bridges, paths, and corridors were originally intended to facilitate communication between places. The garden is landscaped on all sides and if the designer plans curving paths instead of straight ones the visitors will be surrounded by pleasant scenery. The route will seem longer and more interesting.” On Chinese Gardens, Implicitness and Appropriateness
The classical Chinese principles at work in these gardens were developed to maximize small urban compounds for peaceful recreation, entertainment, and meditation. What worked for homeowners in small lots bound by two story walls and the noise of the city 1000 years ago is still applicable for homeowners with small suburban and urban-sized lots today.
Stay tuned for the next practical takeaway from ancient Chinese design! Be sure to leave me a comment with your thoughts.