Friday, November 18, 2011

A late season visit to Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland

The Painted Boat in Misty Rain pavilion. 'Boat hall pavilions' were used to express one's desire for secluded life. Fishermen in traditional Chinese culture were closely associated with hermits, and therefore boats became symbols for reclusive life. 

The Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland that has often been said to be the best Chinese garden in North America. It definitely stood up for its reputation when I visited last weekend. Despite the leaden skies and bone-chilling cold, I was smitten. A beautifully executed scholar's garden, the Lan Su Garden's latticed pavilions and covered walkways were connected by arching bridges that formed a sophisticated whole with the miniature lakes and ponds, sculptural stones, carefully selected plants and signs with poetic inscriptions.  

All aforementioned - architecture, water, stone, plants and literary inscriptions - formed the five main elements of a Chinese scholar's garden, and all of them conveyed meanings that invited the learned owners and visitors to endless contemplation about nature, culture and life itself. In addition to their intellectual dimension, Chinese private gardens were always a place for enjoyment of life; their covered walkways and other spaces provided perfect setting for strolling around, sitting in shade, playing chess and for calligraphy and painting. And that is why I find them so attractive and surprisingly 'modern'; they were created for outdoor living just like our contemporary gardens, only the pastimes of the upperclass of the  imperial Chinese society were far more sophisticated than our backyard barbeques, pool parties and trampoline bouncing. 

Countless books and studies are dedicated to the four thousand year old gardening tradition of China, so my attempt to describe some of the basic principles in my post about the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen garden in Vancouver is only a tiny scratch on the surface. Still, if you have time, please take a peek as both Lan Su and Dr. Sun Yat-Sen gardens were built in style of the Suzhou gardens in China so famous for their beauty. Only ten years apart in age, some experts and artisans from Suzhou worked on both gardens on this side of the Pacific.
As I also mentioned in my post about the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen garden, it is remarkable how few Chinese gardens there are around the world despite their huge influence on the garden art in both Asia and Europe. We are lucky to have so many on the Pacific coast of North America - in Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and San Marino in California - but otherwise they are few and far between. But with China's growing power and visibility on the world scene, there might be an increasing interest for its culture and gardens, too. I definitely hope so.
Courtyard of Tranquility, formed after 14th to 16th century private gardens for the wealthy in Suzhou, China. The Crabapple blossom doorway is formed after the Lion Grove Garden in Suzhou; the inscription above says 'Entering a wonder'. Gardens were a peaceful and inspiring escape of the daily life, and a traditional Chinese garden consisted (and still consist) of several areas of different sizes and functions, connected by openings that revealed borrowed, scenic views.

Entrance to The Hall of Brocade Clouds, where the imaginary family of this garden would have entertained their guests. Gardens formed an entiry with the house in China. Both were important means to show off the wealth of the family, so much thought and labor was put in creating them. Here, elaborate latticed glass walls protect visitors from heat in summer and winds in winter. 

Interior from the Hall of Brocade Clouds. In Chinese, a hall is called a 'tingtang', and it was the lavishly decorated major architectural and visual element of the garden; large gardens could have several of them. Here, Chrysanthemums, a favorite flower in China, are displayed on the table. As one of the 'Four Honorable Plants' - plum, orchid, chrysanthemum and bamboo -  it was revered and associated with autumn.

 Glossy, almost ripe Persimmon fruit that in Chinese medicine is thought to regulate Qi, believed to be the life force in all things.
Querqus dentata pinnatifida, a rare oak from China, Korea and Japan with large, serrated leaves. The Lan Su Garden has included a large amount of Chinese plants into the design, which is not typical for Chinese gardens in general. They usually contain only a restricted palette of plants, all carefully chosen to provide beauty, color, texture and fragrance, and for their cultural significance. The most commonly used ones are peonies, azaleas, bamboo, pines, Prunus mume, camellias, osmanthus, bananas and lotus. Given the extraordinary richness of the flora of China, this seems controversial, but gardens there were built to convey carefully contemplated meaning and not to be botanical showcases.  

"Most cherished in this mundane world is a place without traffic; truly in the midst of a city there can be mountain and forest" - Wen Zhengming (1470-1559). How well-suited for this view; in the middle of the city, the Hall of Brocade Clouds opens to the terrace and central lake.
 Decorative latticed windows frame views of the greenery outside the pavilions.
The teahouse, called Tower of Cosmic reflections. In Chinese garden two-or-more story buildings were used to relieve the sense of isolation created by substantial walls. Also, the women of the family could view the garden and the surrounding city from these higher buildings.

Artificial hills and water are essential parts of Chinese gardens, symbolizing in miniature form the mountains and waterways of China. Also, water adds sounds to a garden and diverts attention from the busy city life around.
The Scholar's Study; this is where the men of the family studied for civil service examinations which would ensure the family's prosperity. Also, they practiced calligraphy, read and entertained fellow scholars here.

The elaborate doors leading to the study; it provided an excellent opportunity to display one's wealth to colleagues and other visitors.

Detail of the paving in front of the Study; this pattern is poetically called 'Plum blossoms on cracked ice'.
View towards the 'Knowing the fish' pavilion.

View towards the lounge house, used for music gatherings, mah jong games and painting.
View from the 'Knowing the fish' pavilion towards the lounge house and a Lake Tai rock representing a mountain top.

Under the eaves of the Hall of Brocade Clouds, decorated with Chrysanthemums to celebrate the season.

A door opening with banana leaf form; bananas were often planted under the eaves to amplify the sound of water dropping down from the roof. Such attention to details ...

A winding pathway behind the "Painted Boat in Misty Rain' pavilion.

A moon gate leads out from the Scholar's courtyard. In the opening, small Penjing can be seen;  bonsai, like many other elements in the Japanese garden art, were inspired by these miniature trees that replicate natural landscapes.


Noel Kingsbury said...

A wonderfully detailed post about a really fantastic garden - its even better than may of the originals in Suzhou. Especially since Sean Hogan did all the planting which makes it a real plantsman's garden. The gardens in China are very disappointing for plants, they probably did have more variety originally, but lost them over years of neglect - China had a bad C19 and an appalling C20!! One of my Chinese friends also tells me that so many of the gardens in China were all restored around the same time and so look a bit the same. So Portlands is not only really authentic but has real originality too.

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Hi Noel, thanks for your comments! I loved the Lan Su Garden, it is so rich in detail and variety. And yes, the plantings are spectacular, but still give the garden an authentic feeling. I mean, without the 20th century happening, the gardens might have evolved into this kind of richness in plating in China, too...

James Golden said...

Thanks for this post. I find I immediately grasp Japanese gardens much more easily, but have a difficult time with Chinese gardens, lacking knowledge of their history, conventions, and traditions. This is certainly a complex and beautiful garden, and I appreciate this opportunity to see it "long distance."

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Thanks, James. I used to find Chinese gardens too decorated for my taste, but after studying them more, I love the way they were built to be lived in; for enjoyment and contemplation, studies, art, even games... it is so human. They really come to life when I imagine people loving and using them through the centuries. I am hoping for a trip to China sometime soon, I would love to see them in real life, just to get closer to the intent.

Jordi said...

wonderful blog and great job
un saludo said...

These images reminds me of a vacation I took in Greece few years back, I love the overall mood of your themed garden and I wish you will keep us updated on your future projects.