I have always been puzzled by Chinese gardens. We don’t have any in UK, but there are some very good ones in Germany, Switzerland and Portland OR – the latter built by craftspeople from Suzhou, the garden city of China with which the lovely Portland is twinned.
The aesthetic is very unfamiliar, and we westerners are all too likely to be offended by the piles of rocks which we find grotesque. We also find it difficult to approach a lot of Oriental sensibilities because of an intervening layer of interpretation which sees so many classic elements: bamboos, willow trees, pavilions, as clichés – it is as if Chinese people, on seeing a herbaceous border, an urn, or pergola draped in roses immediately think “chocolate box” and switch off. You do really have to learn to look – appreciating other culture’s aesthetics is actually quite hard work (don’t mention the Peking Opera!)
What interests me about the Chinese garden is its totally different aesthetic to ours, particularly in the way the gaze is directed, an aesthetic which I believe is very good at maximising the use of visual space in a confined area – making it immensely useful for urban plots. Forget all that classical axis stuff, this is about complex multi-directional perspectives, ‘transparent’ buildings, peeks through windows, a strong sense of a circular journey, and a rapid change of view from the macro to the micro. Its all so much more fluid, more intimate, more poetic than I am used to.
Today we visited the Garden of Harmonious Interests at the Summer Palace in Beijing which illustrates all this beautifully. It still felt like winter, but the bareness was good for appreciating basic structure – isn’t it always. There was very little interesting plantlife visible, or likely, given how trampled a lot of the ground was, but the fact that these intimate Chinese gardens are actually very good for displaying interesting plants is brought home strongly by the Portland garden, where all the planting was supervised by Sean Hogan, who is an obsessive a plantsman as it is possible to get.
There’s a lot to learn here.
My pictures are on:
There are also a lot of other good shots of this garden on Flikr too, taken by folks at other times of year.
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