Category Archives: Asian gardens and landscapes

From Srinagar to Amarnath and Ladakh via the Zoji La Pass


Should Ladakh be modernised? Can it be avoided? Anyone travelling to Kargil or Leh via the Zoji La must think ‘This CANNOT be the main road to Ladakh’, ‘It is inconceivable that most of the country’s fuel and construction materials are carried in on this road?’ ‘Surely it can’t be closed for six months/year?’ ‘Why in heaven’s name haven’t they built a tunnel’, ‘Is this country run by 3 idiots?’. But anyone who reads Helena Norberg-Hodge’s Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh may conclude ‘Please God, don’t let them build a new road over the Zoji-La’. She argues that ‘development’ is spoiling Ladakh. The men are giving up farming to become taxi drivers. The women, who lived in rural bliss in wonderful communities, are now finding themselves isolated in ugly modern flats with their husbands doing urban jobs, their young children in schools and their older children hanging about on street corners, taking drugs and thinking about motorbikes and larceny.
Though my sympathies lie with Helena Norberg-Hodge, I don’t know who is right. But I do know that work on an all-weather Zoji La Tunnel is scheduled to begin in 2012. Should it happen, the above video will be a visual record of the pass in July 2012. The longest delay was on a good section of road, just below the pass, near the turn-off to Amarnath (see photos), a stalagmite worshipped by Hindus as the phallus of Lord Shiva – which has melted because growing numbers of devotees are generating too much body heat. The number of pilgrims on the Amarnath Yatra has risen exponentially over the last decade. Almost 100 of them died this year and over 40,000 received medical treatment. They sleep in the largest camp site I have ever seen (which can be glimpsed on the video). I was travelling to the Druk White Lotus School and thinking about how it could have a Dragon Garden to go with its mandala plan. A landslide closed the road for a while, as though a local dragon had stirred.
Helena Norberg-Hodge Ladakh video Part 1
Helena Norberg-Hodge Ladakh video Part 2
Helena Norberg-Hodge Ladakh video Part 3

DWLS Dragon Garden in Shey, Ladakh, for the Druk White Lotus School


The architectural layout of the Druk White Lotus School, designed by Arup Associates, is based on a mandala. In the Sanskrit of the Rig Veda, the sections were called mandalas, meaning ‘cycles’ or ‘chapters’, rather as TS Eliot divided his Four Quartets into sections. The Rig Veda poems are often described as hymns and were receited by nomads on ritual occasions. When the nomads became settlers special places, including temples, were designed for rituals and they too became known as mandalas. Hindu and Buddhist sacred places, including stupas, are therefore said to have a mandala plan. In Tibetan and Ladakhi culture, which are Vajrayana Buddhist, a mandala is interpreted as a diagram which represents the geography of the cosmos.
The Druk White Lotus School (DWLS) was built in the desert outside Shey, the former capital of Ladakh. The buildings are nearing completion in 2012 and the next stage is to convert the school surroundings from desert to garden and landscape. Since the school was made under the auspices of the Drukpa Lineage, making a ‘Dragon Garden’ is appropriate. ‘Druk’ means ‘Dragon’ and ‘Druk-pa’ means ‘Dragon-person’, with the Lineage led by the Gyalwang Drukpa. What form a ‘Dragon Garden’ might have is yet to be determined.
The above video shows a school ritual (a morning assembly) taking place in a Dharma Wheel at the centre of the DWLS Mandala. Note that the children sitting beside the monk are using their hands to form the mudras. My impression is of kindly, enthusiastic and warm-hearted children – and I wish I had a similar impression when looking at school children in london.
Mandalas can take many forms and can be made in many ways. The below image shows coloured sands used to make a sand mandala.

A Vajrayana sand mandala shows the geography of the cosmos - 'Buddha-land'

A model of the mandala section of the plan for the Druk White Lotus School, by Arup Associates.

Arup Associates mandala plan for the Druk White Lotus DWLS School in Ladakh

Was the Aral Sea one of 'nature's mistakes', or was it the scene of an environmental crime?

Is this the site of a major environmental crime - or an enlightened development project?The left photo shows, I think, the Aral Sea as it was last week. Wiki reports that ‘Soviet experts apparently considered the Aral to be “nature’s error”… [So] ‘From 1960 to 1998, the sea’s surface area shrank by approximately 60%, and its volume by 80%. In 1960, the Aral Sea had been the world’s fourth-largest lake, with an area of approximately 68,000 square kilometres (26,000 sq mi) and a volume of 1,100 cubic kilometres (260 cu mi); by 1998, it had dropped to 28,687 square kilometres (11,076 sq mi), and eighth-largest. The amount of water it had lost is the equivalent of completely draining Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Over the same time period, its salinity increased from about 10 g/L to about 45 g/L’. Which view is correct? The lives of those who won their living from the Aral Sea have been devastated. But the population of Uzbekistan benefits from valuable exports of cotton.
PS I wish Google Maps was available on aircraft, so that passengers know their exact position in relation to the ground.

The placement of Buddhist stupas as landscape architecture

How are stupas sited in the landscape? Having wondered for some time whether the design and siting of the pyramids at Giza was conceived as a ‘stylization’ of sand dunes on the boundary between the Red Land (desert) and the Black Land (farmed land), I timidly kept the idea to myself until Charles Jencks put forward the same idea. Now I wonder if the largest stupa field in Ladakh (above, at Shey) was conceived as a stylization of a mountain range. The stupas have this appearance but there are many considerations:

  • Hindu gods are associated with mountains
  • Buddhism does not have creator gods but draws much from Hindus ideas
  • Stupas are symbols of the Buddha’s presence
  • Nirvana is represented in Buddhist art as being in a mountainous region
  • Mt Kailash is sacred to Hindus and Buddhists

An interesting aspect of Ladakh is that it has no tradition of making ‘pleasure gardens’ but the whole country appears to have been conceived as a garden.

The Buddhist cave at Phuktal Gompa (Phugtal Monastery)

Phuktal Gompa Buddhist Cave

Phuktal Gompa Buddhist Cave


The great cave of Phuktal Gompa in Ladakh has a sacred spring within. The monastery is said to have been built here because there was a forest on the slopes above, from which a lone tree survives. The cave is supposed to house the spirit of the first guru, Rimpoche.
Caves have a special place in Buddhism, because wandering monks used them for prayer, meditation and rest, and Ngawang Tsering (1717-94) wrote that: ‘Nurtured as sons of mountain solitude they dressed in clouds and mist and wore as hats deserted caves. Totally unconcerned with the world’s ways and mundane happiness they contemplated impermanence to create a sense of urgency and thus to make the best use of their life time. Meditation on the ominpresence of death served as a pillow and they wrapped themselves up in the cloth of mindfulness of karma. The mats which they spread were their awareness of the disadvantages of samsara which they likened to a whirlpool or a tapering flame. I sing my songs to induce kings to rule with the ten virtues, for the sake of the lowly so that each according to his capacity may rejoice in the Dharma, for the sake of the teachers pointing them to tantras, sutras and teachings, for the sake of earnest meditators that they may realise equanimity and insight, for the sake of the yogins with clear perception that they may be endowed with supreme vision action and function’
Image courtesy Kateharris

What are the conditions for good urban landscape design?

Edmund Bacon, in his 1974 book on Design of Cities, interpreted Rome's spatial plan in essentially geometrical terms (an axial movement system). Historically, it was created WITH temporal and spiritual power to symbolise these qualities. Are they still the necessary conditions for good urban design? No living planner or designer has the 'powers' of Sixtus V and Urban VIII. Is this why we are making such disappointing cities?

What are the social, political and economic conditions in which urban landscape design is most likely to flourish? I very much hope my answer to this question is wrong, but here goes: “in cities where an enlightened king was guided by spiritual beliefs”. Why should this be so? (1) Without temporal power, urban design is scarcely possible. (2) without spiritual power, objectives are likely to be short term and non-idealistic (3) short-term commercial and military objectives benefit rulers and disadvantage peoples. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed “Is it not true that professional politicians are boils on the neck of society that prevent it from turning its head and moving its arms?”. “It is not victory that is precious but defeat. Victories are good for governments, whereas defeats are good for the people. After a victory, new victories are sought, while after a defeat one longs for freedom, and usually attains it. Nations need defeats just as individuals need suffering and misfortunes, which deepen the inner life and elevate the spirit.”  The great urban designs were made in periods of faith and monarchy Beijing from 1293-1912, in Isfahan under Shah Jehan, in Rome under the Popes and in Paris under the kings and emperors. What comparable successes can be claimed by the faithless democracies and autocracies of the twentieth century? The great powers of the modern world suffer from not having been defeated in great wars.

Image courtesy RTSS

Concepts of sacredness and beauty

It is likely that the history of Japanese gardens finds its origins in Shinto traditions. In particular the sacred nature of rocks: “from the ancient remains of rock arrangement” of the fifth century AD, we find a resemblance to existing Japanese gardens. “However it appears they were used for the spiritual rituals and not designed as a stone arrangement for the beauty of gardens.”

The earliest known Japanese gardening texts are a medieval text, Sakuteiki, and an illustrated text dating from the Muromachi period (1333-1573). The origins of Japanese garden design principles are said to be traceable back to these two texts. The location of Shinto shrines were near striking natural formations, waterfalls, caves, rock formations, mountain tops or forrest glens reflecting the idea that kami spirits were located in nature. The earliest shrines were mounds, caves or groves. Kami occur in two categories (object kami) and mythical and historical persons (active kami). Illustrated is off-shore rock kami.

The following story is related of an off-shore rock just off Oshima:
“The kami enshrined here is Ichikishimahime, daughter of Susano, and eldest of the three Munakata princesses. Just off Oshima is a large rock protuding from the sea. The story is when Ichikishimahime heard she was going to be enshrined on Oshima, she was really excited and proud because Oshima means ‘Great Island’, but when she got here and saw just how small it really was, her tears formed the rock.”

With the introduction of Buddhism into Japan the earliest interaction saw local kami asking to be saved from their kami-state by means of Buddhist ritual.

Archaeologists wreck archaeological landscapes and ancient silk road cities

Better not to name it, for fear of attracting more tourists, but this is a silk road city in Central Asia. It was opened up by archaeologists and then left in this condition. The excavators will have published a learned report on their findings. Then they left it like this – as a tourist attraction which the government can put into guidbooks, hoping to create jobs and attract hard currency which can be spent on weapons. Now the rain falls on the mud walls, the sun cracks them, the wind blows the dust away. Far better if the archaeologists had done something useful with their lives, instead of running university courses to teach other archaeologists to support the tourist industry.

A landscape memorial to Saddam Hussein's "Victory" over the Marsh Arabs who lived in the Garden of Eden


Saddam Hussein’s Victory Arch in Baghdad is being restored – with mixed feelings among commentators. Meanwhile, the habitat of the Marsh Arabs is also being restored. But the Marshes, which are often identified as the geographical location of the Garden of Eden story, now have only a few thousand inhabitants instead of the half-million who lived there before the wicked Saddam Hussein drained the marshes. My proposal is to make an area of marshland around the Victory Arch in Baghdad to symbolise the victory of the wetlands over the dictator. It could also create a tourist attraction, a wildlife resort, a water management facility and a recreation area for the oppressed people of Baghdad. The name of the city could mean Bag “god” + dād “given”, translating to “God-given” or “God’s gift”. Or it could mean Bağ “garden” + dād “fair”, translating to “The fair Garden”.

Images courtesy pennstatelive james_gordon_los_angeles

Busy in the park

Sunday Afternoon in Fuxing Park

China is a busy country, even when relaxing. Shanghai’s public open spaces are particularly well used in the glorious late summer weather, and the emphasis is on doing something, even if it’s only watching what other people are doing. The only restriction that I have seen is on accepting money for singing or playing an instrument, so people do these things anyway, for free, and often to an extremely high standard. This is Fuxing Park, laid out by the French in 1909, 10 ha big. I particularly like it, because the activities that people choose are so much more charming than the parks at home, where jogging, football and grilling are the diversions of choice.

Parks managers, parks police and polite gardeners

Expert gardeners should maintain good order among plants and people in public parks and gardens

Expert gardeners should maintain good order among plants and people in public parks and gardens

I had a chat with a gardener in one of London’s Royal Parks this week and he was a nice a man as you could meet anywhere. He loved his work and he loved the visitors who admire his work. Talking about a park user who seemed troubled, and who he tried to look after, he remarked that ‘One thing I know for sure is that whatever you do in this world – you get it back tenfold’. His idea was that she must have treated some people badly and now she was experiencing the consequences. Anyway, he was such a nice man that it made me wonder about the park administrator vixen who shouted at Tian Yuan with the help of a portable PA system. I think it is wrong to have separate administrations for gardening staff and policing staff. Instead, they should give the gardeners more training and more money and more responsibility – and smartphones. If they have serious trouble they should film what is happening and call on support from the real police. The video could be recorded in the police station in real time. The advantages would be (1) the public tend to love and respect good gardeners who make beautiful places (2) there would be less expenditure on parks police – and less aggro to park visitors.

Contemplative places: watching and listening

Contemplation has been defined as thoughtful or long consideration or observation. In the East, Christian contemplation has been associated with spiritual transformation. “The process of changing from the old man of sin into the new born child of God and into our true nature as good and divine is called theosis.” The process has often been described by the metaphor of a ladder, with the acquisition of the state of hesychia or peace of the soul being the summit where the person is said to reach ‘Heaven on Earth’.

Perhaps the purpose of a public contemplative space might be to give visitor glimpses of ‘Heaven on Earth’? What might such a space look and sound like?

Natural spaces are most often associated with a sense of restfulness and peace. Water can create a sense of calm, while beauty can promote a sense of wonder.

Is Turenscape's Qiaoyuan Park in Tianjin a model for Chinese landscape architecture? 请看一看土人景观事务所的作品-天津桥园公园


Please have a look at Turenscape’s photographs of Tianjin Qiaoyuan Park – you can see why the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) gave Tianjin Qiaoyuan Park an award.  Then please consider the above photographs. They were taken on a crisp Sunday in April: the park is bare, dry and without people. Did the ASLA act in haste? Did the ASLA judges visit Tianjin? Are the ASLA judges regretting their decision? If the design was as good as it looks on the designers’ photographs, shouldn’t it be full of people on a spring day?  North China has long hard winters. When spring arrives, everyone wants to warm their bones, stock up on Vitamin D, and admire the spring blossom. So where were all the people? Presumably they are in other parks, with water features which do not dry up and with flowers which smile at their admirers in spring.
My second thought concerns the sources for the design ideas. Designers always borrow, so where might the  ideas have come from? I sense three parents, which is an unusual number: (1) Bernard Tschumi’s design for Parc de laVillette (2) Peter Latz’ design for Duisberg Nord (3) Herbert Dreiseitl’s Waterscape approach. The use of red paint is traditional in China but it is also found at Parc la Villette.
My third thought is that borrowing visual imagery is rarely enough to make a good design. Duisborg Nord relates to the industrial history of Germany. Parc de la Villette relates to the structuralist theorizing of Gitanes cigarettes and Left Bank Paris. The Dreiseitl Waterscape approach may have a worldwide relevance – but it must be adjusted to the rainfall regimen of every locality: water cannot, should not, must not be the aesthetic focus of a design if a place which is going to be dry for half the year.
My conclusion is that the Single Agreed Law of Landscape Design should be applied as rigorously in China as in ever other square millimetre of land which the gods have made. Alexander Pope expressed it thus:

That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.

请看一案土人景观事务所设计的天津桥园公园的照片, 然后你就知道为什么美国风景园林师协会授予天津桥园公园授奖。然后请再考虑一下上面的几幅图片。这组照片拍摄于今年四月一个舒爽的周日:天津桥园公园几乎是“赤裸裸”,干旱而鲜见游客。是不是ASLA草率地授奖了呢?ASLA的评审专家是否来天津参观过呢?ASLA的评委现在是不是在对他们的评审懊悔不已呢? 如果这个设计真的像设计师所拍摄的照片那样,为什么在春季美好的日子里公园中不是充满了游客呢?中国北方的冬季漫长而寒冷。当春季来临,每一个人都希望到户外晒晒太阳,贮存更多维他命D,并欣赏花开。但是,这里的人们都哪里去了呢?或者,他们都去了其它公园了吧,那里有春水和鲜花的微笑。

我的第二点思考是关于桥园公园设计理念的来源。设计师们总是喜欢“借用”。所以这个公园设计理念从何而来呢? 我感觉它至少有三个“家长”,这个数量还挺不寻常的:(1)伯纳德·曲米的維葉特公園设计 (2)彼得·拉兹的杜伊斯堡·诺德设计(3)赫伯特·德莱赛特尔的理水方法。红色是中国传统的象征,但是在维葉特公园也使用了红色。

我的结论是“园林设计单一约定法规”应该在中国被严格执行,正如在上帝创造的其余哪怕是一平方毫米的土地上执行一样。正如亚历山大·蒲柏(Alexander Pope)所言。

Understanding density?

Density is much more complex than its seems. U-Thant 7 Residences in Malaysia are described as luxury “low density condominiums.” In terms of their built form they would usually be considered a medium density form of living. The context, however, is more typical of low density or even rural or semi-rural settings with a formal park-like foreground setting and a natural background setting.

Undoubtably there are many more examples of this kind. The Cultural Centre design by Paul Eluard in Cugnaux, France attempts to address the contemporary needs of an historical low density city within the landscape.

Dublin is considered to be a low density city. The economic challenges it faces and the resulting contemporary waves of youth emigration suggests that Dublin may remain low density for some time into the future.

So, are we really viewing a population redistribution in global terms with some areas de-populating and others re-populating or increasing in population? What does this trend suggest for the future of our cities, for greenspaces and for wilderness?

Might King Will and Queen Kate restore pagan tree-worship to its rightful place in British culture?

Sacred trees entering Westminster Abbey and contemporary Britain?


The Daily Mail reports that ‘Miss Middleton, 29, who studied history of art at St Andrew’s, has devised a theme which she says ‘pays tribute to the Language of Flowers’ – an idea that is bound to have gone down well with her gardening-obsessed father-in-law, Prince Charles, who famously admitted that he talks to his plants’.
One wonders if her history of art course included what little is known of paganism in the British Isles. Prince Charles wanted to become the ‘defender of faiths’ (instead of merely the Defender of Faith (Fidei Defensor). As the AP photograph shows, she has used trees to decorate Westminster Abbey. Tree worship was common throughout Europe before the advent of Christianity. I might become a strong supporter of the monarchy if the King Will and Queen Kate restore paganism to its proper place as one of the world’s major ‘religions’. It has a kinship with Hinduism, Daoism, Shinto and the religions of pre-Islamic West Asia.
I wish the young couple well but was not pleased to hear that the Metropolitan Police would deal harshly with protestors. Why shouldn’t we protest against vicious despots being invited to Britain and protected with millions of pounds from the public purse? It made me wonder about a small protest of my own. The best I could think of was sticking a postage stamp to the pavement outside Westminster Abbey and taking a video of people treading upon it. Instead, I will remember the trees and send and send Will & Kate every good wish from Gardenvisit.com. Like them, I am an alumni if St Andrews University.

Is Ken Yeang's brilliant landscape architecture sustainable?

Or is Ken Yeang’s landscape architecture subject to the same criticism as Patrick Blanc’s green walls? I would of course be much happier if these approaches to landscape architecture were genuinely sustainable. But I have my doubts. My guesses are (1) the planted balconies will be great features for wealthy residents who have more than enough indoor space (2) less-wealthy residents, especially in inclement climates, would rather have more indoor space than a big balcony, though sliding doors would offer the choice of indoor or outdoor space (3) the extra habitat space will do a little good for biodiversity, accoustics, carbon balance etc (4) but all these benefits could be obtained at less cost by other means (5) real people would not produce the nice green fluff on Ken Yeang’s drawings: there would be no visual unity at all to the balconies. Some would be richly planted. Others would provide storage for mountain bikes, or washing lines, or bird cages, or plastic furniture and dead plants in ugly containers. That’s life.
So I am a sceptic who hopes to be proved utterly wrong.

Can landscape architects make a contribution to the safety of nuclear reactors, like Fukushima?

Large scale planted and reinforced earth mounds would provide use protection against Tsunamis

With much sympathy for the plight of North Japan, I make the suggestion that the Fukushima Nuclear Reactors might have been much better able to resist the force of the Tsunami if there had been a 50m+ planted grass mound between the four reactors and the sea: (1) it would have cost very little money in proportion to the good it might have done (2) it would have made the Fukushima site more beautiful, because most industrial clutter is at ground level (3) it would have had ecological benefits (4) the earth might have been of use in an emergency.
So if any of our readers manage coastal nuclear reactors and would like help with the design of a protective bund, please use our contact form and I will find a former University of Greenwich landscape architecture MA student to do the job for you: there are few countries without them. If the above suggestion is impractical, they will be able to help you with energy saving through sustainable landscape architecture and planning – so that your country will have less need for nuclear power.
Image courtesy Beacon Radio

Living green bridges are vernacular landscape biotecture

Living bridges? I found a nineteenth century drawing of living green bridge in 2009 and was delighted to find that they still exist. We can see it as vernacular landscape biotecture (using the word biotecture as a contraction of biological archiecture). The above example of a living root bridge is near Mawlynnong in the Khasi hills, in the Indian State of Meghalaya. Before you rush out any bridge construction detail based on this photograph please remember that ‘Meghalaya’y means The Abode of Clouds. Assam is to the north and Bangladesh on the south. A village near Cherrapunji in the Khasi Hills is the wettest place on earth with an annual rainfall of just under 12000mm (ie 24 times London’s average annual rainfall of 500mm). One could attempt a living bridge with willows in England, but I think it would turn into a dam, because the branches would root into the water.
Image courtesy Seema KK.

Panda pandemonium

China’s number one mascot the giant panda (ailuropoda melanoleuca) are only found in the bamboo forests of south western China. “They occupy 6 small forest fragments in the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi. (5,400 square miles).”

The panda is well travelled in popular culture, as well as being a local hero. With the recent release of Kung Fu Panda, the panda Po looks set to win over another generation of children to panda love.

Habitat fragmentation (by roads and railroads) and destruction and poaching (for their pelts) are still major threats to the Giant Panda, even though poachers and smugglers have received death penalties or long prison terms. Pandas are often injured in traps and snares set for other animals.

Emerging threats to the panda populations are mining, hydropower and tourism. A giant panda may consume 26-83 pounds of bamboo a day to meet its energy requirements.

See the entire world as a blazing inferno. Then, when all has turned to ashes, enter bliss.

I often light candles for people I know in European churches and cathedrals. I don’t really know why I do this because I am not a Believer. I am also fascinated by the use of incense in Asia. I like the habit even more now that I have just read this:

The practice of offering incense, with a bow, to the Taoist altar is called Baibai. As the incense burns, smoke rises, and ashes fall. The ashes represent impure air that sinks; the smoke, pure air that rises. So the offering represents the separation of pure from impure – the refinement and purification of internal energies. It also symbolizes the human body as being the meeting-place of Heaven and Earth: as the smoke rises, and the ashes fall, we make a connection with both earth and sky.

This temple is in the countryside around Chongqing and houses a rock Buddha some 9 meters tall, the building makes its own connection between the earth and the sky. The title quote is from the Vijnanabhairava Tantra.