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Chinese gardens - Serenity, and the importance of an open center

With the latest scientific manuscript written and submitted I can at last return (with relief) to the contemplation of gardens, and to some final thoughts on the gardens of Suzhou though I have now been home these few weeks.

I have continued to ponder, since returning, the vaunted 'serenity' of oriental gardens. Chinese gardens are as ornamented and decorated as a Victorian parlor. It is definitely a maximal, rather than minimal, approach to the landscape. So whence the calm?

As I traversed these gardens, I found that my view was being constantly cast into an open center, which was most often a pool of water, the best example being at the Master of the Nets garden, below. See how the view *away* from the center is continually blocked by the walls and rockeries?

It's a bit hypnotic, as if you're circling at the edge of a whirlpool. The smaller the garden, the more compelling it feels. When I walked round a garden for a second or third time I would often be struck by features I had totally missed before, because my gaze had been turned only into the center. As seen on the map, even secondary and minor courtyards, without water, have a strong open center, with the busy-ness of rockwork and plantings and seating swept back against the walls.

These open centers actually serve as a negative focal point, guiding the eye in to an empty, and serene, space.

It puts me in mind, actually, of the Grecian fields at Stowe, which acts as the same sort of open center for a much larger landscape. The genius of the natural stylings of William Kent and Capability Brown in England was due less to their famed clumping of trees and more to the remaining empty (negative) spaces that these arrangements created.

Because barring quantum effects (and I speak here as a scientist, not as a garden historian) the negative space is the part of the garden that WE are in (and if you're experiencing quantum effects in your garden you should definitely let me know) .

China has made me much more aware of the importance of shaping negative space.
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Les, Zone 8a said...

Do I dare say that the American lawn with its green sameness surrounded by beds near the house and on the periphery is unintentionally similar.

Sylvia (England) said...

I have really enjoyed your posts on Chinese gardens, especially this one. Looking at the number of times your posts were 'picked' in Blotanical you had lots of satisfied readers. Well done and thank you.

This is an interesting post - Chinese gardens and English landscape couldn't be more different. I have recently put some gravel into a small area of my back garden intending to put lots of containers on it but I prefer it blank and now you have explained why. I just need to find somewhere else for all my containers!

Best wishes Sylvia (England)

Julia said...

Repeatedly, I have enjoyed your writing on this site. Please keep it going and publish books when you're able.
When it can be arranged, visit my garden in Pawling,NY and online at http://www.gardenlarge.com.
Duncan Brine
(my google account is in my wife's name-sorry)

Benjamin Vogt said...

I've gotta agree with Les--if Brown inspired American landscape design, we gotta say so. This negative space, of course, spans discplines, and makes me think of a lecture I give my poetry students all the time; basically, the strongest poems are 50% silence. This emptiness, created / framed / defined by the words and sounds and thoughts, IS the poem. A poem without negative capability and silence is no poem--it's prose.

arcady said...

Yes, Les, I think we daresay it is. Popular now, to malign the American lawn but it does have its place and its advantages. Though I think the fact that the *house* is usually in the center of the negative space makes it, rather than the emptiness, the focal point...

Chookie said...

After pondering this for a while (I"ve seen it in Chinese and Japanese gardens myself), I wondered if there was something in the proportions -- height of the "walls" to width of the open space. What do you think?

The Diva said...

This is a great post and something people don't often think about in the U.S. Thanks, and I'm glad you're finished with your scientific manuscript.~~Dee

Barbee' said...

The eye does seek a resting place.
I have enjoyed these posts so much!

arcady said...

Hi Chookie,
I think there is something in the ratio since the effect is much more compelling in the smaller gardens. But in my experience it had to do with how close I was to the wall rather than how high it was, I think. The walls in the gardens seemed to be a pretty standard height, except when the garden wall was also a house wall.

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