The Study of Chinese Gardens and Its Impact on the Pursuit for the Chineseness in Modern Architecture

Delin Lai, University of Louisville


The development of Chinese cities in the early twentieth century fostered the exploration of country as “the other” of urban life.  Tourist notes, outdoor drawings, and landscape photography flourished since the 1910s stood for the new interest in natural beauty, historical sites, and suburban scene in modern Chinese literature and art.  In architecture, we see the interest in gardens as they were frequented, appreciated, and studied.  This paper will investigate how the study of Chinese gardens since the 1930s has helped enrich the notion of “Chineseness” in architecture and further influenced the design of modern Chinese architecture.

Among Chinese architects in the twentieth century, Tong Jun (1900-1983) was the first who investigated private gardens in southeast China.  His work expanded the scope of Chinese architecture study from the timber structure and dynastic styles to the built environment.  Some of his comments on Chinese garden remain influential even today. Here are some examples:

The writer Lin Yutang’s works portrayed the coziness of life in Chinese garden-home.  His books and the photos in Henry Inn’s Chinese Houses and Gardens might have inspired the design of “atrium house” by oversea Chinese architects, such as I. M. Pei, Y. C. Wong, and Dahong Wang.

In the 1960s, the spatial character of Chinese garden was discussed by some scholars in light of the modernist idea of “flowing space.” Some of the architect Mo Bozhi’s designs showcased his effort of applying garden spaces in modern architecture.  In the early 1980s, he also put in use his understanding about “jing” (view) in Chinese garden in the design of the White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou.

Different from the spatial concern of Mo, another Chinese architect Feng Jizhong attempted to bring into his design a new dimension of time.  In his work the Square Pagoda Garden in Shanghai, he display structures and construction methods of today side by side with “antique” things, thus gave fresh meanings to both the new and the old.

The idea of creating newness out of antique has been adopted by Wang Shu, the 2012 laureate of the Pritzker Prize, who not only highly praises Feng’s Square Pagoda Garden but also is a keen admirer of Tong Jun. Some key works of Wang’s clearly echo Tong’s comments on Chinese garden, such as “a garden has no life without flower and trees,” “an old garden looks ingenious after the renovation, because ancient trees and new blossom are both natural,” and the holes on garden walls “take arbitrary shapes and subject to no regulation.”

In sum, the study of Chinese garden has casted new light on some aspects of Chinese architecture other than its structure systems and dynastic styles, such as environmental design, spatial experience, and the appreciation of “age value.” It has also opened new approaches for architects seeking for the Chineseness in their modern designs.