Shape of the City: Suzhou

July 12th, 2012  |  by  |  Published in Shape of the City

Suzhou’s outstanding gardens, unique architecture, and distinctly Chinese urban organization stand in stark contrast to the Western-influenced chaos of Shanghai.

Increasingly, Shanghai proper is only one node of an enormous urban agglomeration that extends from Nanjing to Hangzhou, encompassing several vibrant urban centers connected by efficient high-speed rail. While the grey fields and endless rows of industrial sheds between the urban cores are best appreciated at 350 km/h through a G train window, Shanghai’s neighboring cities deserve a bit more attention, and Suzhou in particular makes for an ideal day trip (though I’d recommend a long weekend).

Though Suzhou’s outstanding gardens, unique architecture, and distinctly Chinese urban organization stand in stark contrast to the Western-influenced chaos of Shanghai, the high-speed rail link makes it hard to argue that Suzhou is truly separate from Shanghai in any real sense, and a trip out is necessary to appreciate the role Shanghai plays in the interconnected megacity of which both are a part.

Suzhou’s old town is arranged on a grid and surrounded by a massive rectangular canal, and most of the major sights and gardens are found within this orthogonal matrix. Like most traditional Chinese cities, Suzhou’s streets are organized on a strict hierarchy, with automobile traffic limited to the major grid lines, along wide tree-lined boulevards divided into bus, auto, bicycle, and pedestrian zones. This clearly delineated structure is rarely found in Shanghai, and watching scooters and bicycles zip past crawling cars is a convincing argument for sustainable transportation. The large blocks circumscribed by the major roads are further subdivided by smaller lanes, and these are divided further by pedestrian alleyways. Many of Suzhou’s best gardens are hidden down these side-streets, one reason Suzhou’s flat expanse is best traversed by bicycle, the scale of the back alleys and canal streets is ideal for two-wheeled transportation.

For an overview of Suzhou’s street grid, the best vantage point is the North Temple Pagoda. From the top, it’s striking to realize that the tower remains the tallest structure in the old city, and on a clear day you can see to the four corners of the grand canal, the points between still filled mostly with the whitewashed walls and black tile roofs of Suzhou’s traditional houses and storefronts. Though development continues at a typically-Chinese pace, Suzhou so far retains a more traditional low-rise character and is thankfully free of the postmodern atrocities that comprise the majority of Shanghai’s skyline.

From the North Temple pagoda, it’s an easy bike or taxi ride to I.M. Pei’s Suzhou Museum, an excellent example of contemporary Chinese architecture, where the Pritzker Prize winning architect incorporates features of Ming-era garden design into a thoroughly modern museum design. The museum is an extension of an older palace, and the stark geometry stands in contrast to the complex collection of courtyards, pavilions, and small gardens that comprise the old building.

Like most of Suzhou’s gardens, the old portion of the museum is characterized by ambiguous spaces. The roofs of hallways are pulled back to reveal slices of sky, the narrow, light-filled courtyards occupying a vague conceptual space between interior and exterior, the lack of sealed enclosing walls and the prevalence of light wooden screens only serving to enhance the ambiguity. Solid enclosing walls are often punched with ornately-decorated windows, providing views into adjacent, yet inaccessible, spaces. The effect is that the relatively small garden complex appears much larger than it is, and the focused views through these windows ensure that one’s experience of the space will be different depending on the viewpoint, and it’s difficult to tell if you’ve seen the whole complex without taking at least two laps around the marked tourist route.

The museum is not the best example of traditional Chinese garden design, however, and it is worth seeking out the more well-renowned gardens, such as the “Humble Administrator’s Garden” or the “Garden of the Master of the Nets.” Both are worth a visit, as they occupy two extremes. The expansive “Humble Administrator’s Garden” is characterized by large ponds, rockeries, and planting beds, with free-standing pavilions dispersed around the largely natural landscape. In contrast, the “Garden of the Master of the Nets” is tiny, the overlapping garden courtyards and pavilions have seemingly grown together symbiotically, and it’s difficult to tell where one pavilion stops and the next one starts. The effect is like a larger garden has been compressed and folded in on itself to fit the small footprint. Suzhou’s other gardens all occupy points along this continuum.

Though the tourist literature proclaiming Suzhou “the Venice of the East” is wishful thinking at best, Suzhou’s canal streets are charming, and two in particular are worth a leisurely stroll. The flagstone-paved path of Pingjiang Lu runs north-south for several large city blocks, and the scattered tea houses, small craft boutiques occupying old shopfronts are a well-preserved vestige of a past era. A few bars and restaurants have outdoor seating by the canal. A few blocks from any major road, the lazy silence here is a pleasant surprise, especially when you consider it can be reached in about an hour from downtown Shanghai.

Another lively canal street is located outside the grand canal, to the north-west of the old city. Shantang runs from Changmen to Tiger hill, and the further from Changmen you trek, the fewer vendors you’ll see, as the street transitions from a typical tourist-ridden “ancient street” to a more residential one, as the glowing red lamps give way to dark alleys, illuminated here and there by the glow from a muted TV set. The tourist stretch of the road is certainly scenic, but the real draw here are the back alleys, where you could get lost for hours before finding your way back to a canal-side restaurant for a concluding Tsingtao.

This is only a brief summary of the sights of Suzhou: of course it’s difficult to summarize a city of 6 million in 1000 words or less. As China’s rail network continues to develop, the major cities will become more and more connected, and I for one hope that China’s older cities will be able, like Suzhou, to retain some of their charm in the face of relentless modernization.

More photos, as always, on the author’s Flickr stream.

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