Late Night Kitchen: A gastronomic journey to remember
by Dhwani ShanghviSep 09, 2022
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Weili ZhangPublished on : May 18, 2023
In his book Craft of Gardens, the Ming dynasty scholar Ji Cheng famously wrote that “mountain or lake, countryside villa, house in the city—all are to be considered when selecting site for a garden.” For hundreds of years, the Chinese elites celebrated the garden as a spatial paragon which brings ultimate joy to the spirit. They spared no wealth to create perfection in its manifestations, the most lauded of which are located in the prosperous southern region (e.g. today’s Zhejiang and Guangdong).
It is best to note that by yuanlin or ‘garden’ in Chinese, one should not think of a single, independent entity built for crafting landscape or modelling nature itself. In other words, no single plot of land, however, vegetated, with definite boundaries could come close to this elusive spatial and landscape typology. The garden is, since its origin an integral component of residential schemes. Historical texts document royal abodes where pavilions were built upon pedestals, looking up to the deities. From the platform, the master of the house would admire exotic flora and beasts inhabiting the islets in a vast body of water signifying immortal retreats. The Chinese garden is a, thus, lexicon of symbols, layered upon built reality.
The collapse of the Machu dynasty brought imperial China to an end. In the decades that followed, palatial gardens were annexed to serve administrative or civilian purposes. The Beihai Park, for example, was a garden in the Forbidden City that contained a constellation of palaces and temples, some of which are placed on an artificial island. The famed scholarly gardens in cities like Suzhou and Yangzhou were nationalised and designated sites of heritage. Every year, millions of visitors stream through these once-exclusive worlds intended to wall off the mundane.
As with Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting, a tradition of mimicry underlies garden design. Studying venerated models or emulating the masters is a common practice. The ubiquity of imagery across different art forms heightens the garden’s formulaic aspect—bamboo pickets and cherry trees, craggy rocks from Lake Tai, the circular Moon Gate and zig-zagging stone bridges—the list of common elements runs long. During his southern tours, the emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty was so enamoured with the region’s sceneries and aristocratic gardens that he had court painters faithfully record them to be reconstructed in his palace. Many artists and intellectuals would find his taste rather uninspired, as exemplified by his elaborate eclecticism and sometimes clumsy imitations. Such criticism, coincidentally, could extend to the blossoming of neo-classical styles across China, since the Reform and Opening Up era in the 80s.
Pavilions, rockeries and bridges did not only become fashionable among the wealthy—in whose Greco-Roman concrete villas such objects could seem out-of-place—but also public parks where modern landscape design methodologies absorb ostensibly traditional symbols to produce debatable outcomes. Contradicting the simplistic visual logic of market-economy-meets-historicism, some Chinese architects embark on their own experiments. Wang Shu is perhaps best known in this regard, having consistently imbibed the aesthetic philosophy of ancient Chinese literati yet producing works that are original and complex. Transposing his reading of the past to architectural planning, Shu offers a personal interpretation of how it should inform the present. He demonstrates how garden-making is a concept that applies across scale and function. Rather than stylistic reference, his body of work serves as an intellectual catalyst for others.
The remaking of conceptual 'gardens' in architecture and landscape design began with early generations of Chinese architects who received their education abroad. Those, like Wang Da-Hong and I.M. Pei who were fortunate to spend time during childhood in the gardens of Suzhou, made buildings which reflect the same poetics. Shu’s own residence in Taipei is a Modernist exercise to restore the rituals that were once incorporated into appraising and circulating within Chinese spaces of living.
In Shanghai’s Songjiang district is a project much more monumental. The construction of Fangta Yuan, or the Square Pagoda Garden began in 1979 and the architect Feng Jizhong was entrusted with its design. A contemporary of I.M. Pei (they were classmates at St. John’s University in Shanghai in the 30s and both went overseas afterwards), Feng grew up with an intimate understanding of Chinese art and classics. When addressing the formidable task of creating a park around a Song Dynasty architectural relic, he chose to summon not the aesthetics but the ‘spirit’ of Song—a kind of benevolent, freedom-loving energy that according to him, “flows through the entire garden.” Feng’s strategies were influenced primarily by site and resource constraints, and attitude towards existing structures. While the pagoda was to be hallowed as a centrepiece, subtle changes in elevation, materiality, foliage and such form the spatial and atmospheric structure which determines physical experience.
When China was mired in Marxist-Leninist revolutionary movements in the 1960s and 70s, its society censured things that were considered bourgeois. But as political winds changed, the frenzy of those days melted into longing for the traditional and premodern. All that has made it possible for some to seek an idealised, solitary state of dwelling and being. In museums and restaurants, designers revel in making gardenscapes that derive from those in Suzhou or the Japanese karesansui. Residential hermitage quietly re-emerges in both the city and the countryside.
Recent projects by Dong Yugan, an architect and professor at Peking University, bring to attention garden-making beyond industrialised practice. Eschewing the dichotomies of function and form, tradition and modernity, Yugan works with a kind of irreverent ease. Symbolic, visual cues (like rockery and flora) are placed along planning decisions distilled by the architect who, after critically examining the dilemmas in creating a contemporary garden, bypasses them. Prioritising site as the key driver of design, his intentions (and perhaps ambitions) seem limited to individual projects but they ripple across the whole profession.
The result is stunningly simple. Every view and every rock is touched by the garden maker’s thoughts—be it laden with obsession or carefree as an accident. One must be freed from ideological incarcerations to see the same sublime sceneries as the ancients once did.
by Dhwani Shanghvi Jun 03, 2023
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