Small details create the bigger picture

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Small details create the bigger picture
A tower in the distance is part of the view at the Humble Administrator's Garden in Suzhou. [China Daily]

Modern architects have sought to revive the philosophical ideas behind the classical style of Chinese gardens.

Sourcing materials and landscape inspiration from nature, people in ancient China created an architectural system that is today known as the classical Chinese garden, backed by Taoist thoughts on achieving harmony between humans and universal rules.

The cultural and philosophical values embodied in such gardens are vividly preserved in centuries-old courtyard dwellings in Suzhou, Jiangsu province. The integration of natural elements with urban surroundings have influenced modern architects who have sought to revive the philosophical ideas behind the classical style of gardens.

Noted visionaries in this endeavor include late Chinese American architect I.M. Pei, who spent his childhood in an ancestral house Shizilin (Lion Grove Garden) in Suzhou. He viewed his final work, Suzhou Museum, blending the classical style with a modern sensibility, the "dearest little daughter" he raised with care, saying, "I gave it a lot of my love and my energy".

Wang Shu, the 2012 Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate, is another noted architect who advocates cultural depth by using the elements and methods of old buildings in his work. This includes the library of the Wenzheng College of Soochow University, a cluster of white, lakeside, low-storied buildings surrounded by hills in Suzhou.

In Beijing, with compelling imperial structures in the country's north, one can also experience a similar feeling at such public places as the Red Brick Art Museum. The contemporary art museum, located in a cultural compound, was designed by Dong Yugan, an architect and scholar, who insinuated an atmosphere of simplicity, serenity and naturalism in the reminiscence of a classical garden.

The museum officially opened in 2014 and gained wide acclaim for its redbrick buildings, where some contemporary works of homegrown and internationally renowned artists have been exhibited. Also, it owns an elegant garden, featuring gray bricks, paths, lakes, bridges and vines, and has become a popular spot for hanging out and taking photos among younger visitors.

The design of the Red Brick Art Museum reflects an ideal traditional lifestyle that people can be embraced by nature. But Dong says it doesn't mean to live in a real natural environment, which may have difficulties and cause discomfort, but it is to create a garden, a spiritual haven at one's home where one feels the presence of nature and meanwhile enjoys activities in different daily scenarios, keeping the urban hustle just outside the walls.

Dong says Chinese gardens show an important cultural idea-to explore the essence of details, "the kinds of trees to plant, the shapes of rocks and the way to arrange them, all efforts are being made to achieve a goal, to present a landscape", and ultimately to reveal the expansiveness of the universe.

Dong says the red-brick building allows people to "spend the time leisurely, free from anxieties of achieving efficiency in modern society", and when they have fun in the garden, they feel the same aimlessness, a carefree lifestyle, and stay close to nature as figures depicted in classical Chinese landscape paintings.

He says he wants visitors to feel the passing of time, "for example the rocks in the pools, after being washed by water and rain, will assume varying shades of color; and once I stopped gardeners trimming the vines of plants so that they would expand to both sides of the wall". Like landscape paintings, Chinese gardens have multiple highlights and perspectives, and "visitors inside will find delight in every corner and at every moment".

Yan Shijie, the founder of the Red Brick Art Museum and an art collector, views the space as one that connects the past and present, the East and the West, filled with stories about art, life and Eastern cultural spirit-"the best way for the public to accept contemporary art in a subtle, delicate manner".

Beijing-born artist Shao Fan is one of those, who, when choosing to live in a spacious courtyard rather than a storied apartment, turned the residence into a space imbued with classical architectural elements. By doing so, he has gained a close association with the simple, elegant lifestyle of ancient scholars and their spiritual world of richness.

Shao paints and designs furniture and gardens, for both himself and others. He held a solo exhibition at Suzhou Museum in 2019, showcasing ink paintings, installations and future designs in which one would feel like one is entering the slowly-paced, cultural world of ancient Chinese.

Shao has decorated his home and studio in Beijing's northeastern suburbs with antiquities. He has filled his courtyards with lush plants and trees that are carefully tended, and in one of those booming gardens he has designed a pavilion in the style of Chinese gardens, on rocks rising above the ground, to offer an overlooking view. Simply put, he has created a miniature landscape at his home.

Shao says "pavilion" pronounces as ting in Mandarin, which is the same as that of the character for "stop".

"People in ancient times designed pavilions as areas not only for rest, but also to gaze afar and stop for a moment to think.

"When one enjoys the vistas from the pavilion, one also becomes a part of the landscape for other people looking at it. And one can't help but wonder how things look from that alternative perspective," he says.

Through his artworks and garden designs, Shao has prompted enduring questions about the ultimate pursuit of life, eternity and human existence itself, just like people centuries back in the gardens in Suzhou.

Wang Xin, an associate professor of architecture at China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, says: "As a physical representation of Taoism, Chinese gardens were built as places for people to entertain themselves and heal, to engage in activities to keep fit and prolong life, and to find a life pace resonating with nature."

He says Chinese gardens show the subordinate roles of humans in the face of the rules of nature, and good architecture informs people of the moralities needed when dealing with the environment in human activities.

He says Suzhou's gardens also reflect the wisdom of enjoying life in a limited area, and it can be an inspiration for urbanites facing a similar situation today.

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