Shape of the City: Yuyuan Garden

February 22nd, 2011  |  by  |  Published in Shape of the City

Yuyuan Garden is an intricate interlocking of architecture and landscape, an excellent Ming-era garden best experienced as a multi-layered sequence in space.

Yu Garden, screened from the bustling tourist mayhem of Yuyuan Bazaar in the Old City, is the best-preserved Ming-era garden in Shanghai – an excellent example of Chinese garden design. While it may not rank high on the modern tourist’s itinerary, the garden is well worth a visit to experience the layered space characteristic of traditional garden design, and to reflect on some of the best-preserved traditional architecture in the city.

Yuyuan garden is a dense combination of landscape and architecture: between the small pools, it seems every surface of the ground is covered occupied – not just with planting beds and ground cover, but with covered zig-zag walkways, rock outcroppings, and small pavilions. There is no clear center, no central axis, and little hierarchy between the various spaces.

In contrast to the rigid axial symmetry of traditional Chinese architecture and urban planning, Chinese gardens are a study in chaos. The contradictory overlapping of disparate elements and the intricate interlocking of building and landscape create incredibly complex spatial sequences that eschew legibility in plan in favor of multi-layered three-dimensional compositions best experienced as a sequence in space.

It is never clear in plan which elements belong together, as porticoes flanking the small pavilions often peel off to become covered walkways, slices of garden seem to have become trapped in narrow courtyards behind wooden screens, and hallway ceilings are pulled back from the walls to allow sunlight to wash over small planters. In the garden, the landscape and the architecture are so integrated that it is impossible to consider one apart from the other.

Compared to the gardens of Suzhou, Yuyuan holds up admirably, and it is worth considering alongside some of Suzhou’s best. At Suzhou’s tiny, excellent “Garden of the Master of Nets,” space is extremely limited, and the one small central pool is surrounded almost entirely by interconnected pavilions and walkways. Pavilions seem to intersect one another: there are many shared walls, and most of the “landscape” elements take the form of small courtyards, visible – if not physically accessible – through layer-upon-layer of wooden screens between adjacent rooms. In the “Humble Administrator’s Garden” space is copious, the landscape is dominant, and most pavilions are freestanding structures, connected only occasionally by long covered paths.

Yu Garden occupies a fascinating middle-ground between these two Suzhou gardens. With a bit more room than the “Garden of the Master of Nets” and considerably less than the “Humble Administrator’s Garden” at Yu the pavilions become only somewhat disconnected, pulling apart to allow longer vistas and larger patches of uninterrupted plantings, but never decoupling completely. Though a visit to Suzhou is highly recommended, the best aspects of the gardens there are represented here at Yuyuan, where there exists a palpable tension between architecture and landscape, a rich sequence of alternatively compressive and expansive spaces, and the multi-layered visuals for which the Ming-era designers are famous.

Yuyuan Garden is in the Old City, accessible via the Yuyuan metro station on Line 10. [Map]

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