Wither Chinese landscape and garden design in the twenty-first century?

Where are garden design and  landscape architecture in China heading?

Where are garden design and landscape architecture in China heading?

With over 3 months till the closing date for the Tiananmen Square landscape architecture competition, and many Chinese competition entries to admire, it is worth asking some questions about the direction of garden design and landscape architecture in 21st century China. The classically dressed beauty with the coy smile, above, seems puzzled as she looks out from a towering block in Shenzen. She knows that her country has a brilliant garden tradition and she knows that her country has to modernize. But, she wonders, ‘does our future really lie with the evocation of dreary Holywood sets from the 1920s? – is Hearst Castle really the best source of inspiration for modern China? – is there nothing of value in the past 5000 years of Chinese art, architecture and gardens? – or is the problem that too much Chinese landscape design is inspired by American models and implemented by thoughtless automatons working in sweatshop conditions outside China?’. Still, she reflects, ‘at least the garden doesn’t have a Spanish Theme – and at least it is my Dad who owns the penthouse with the roof garden’. Then, I hope, she will decide to study garden design and landscape architecture so that she become an expert in context-sensitive design. As a small encouragement, I will be happy to give her a copy of my book on Asian gardens: beliefs, history and design – and will be content if she reads its last sentence ‘The farther back you look, the farther forward you are likely to see.’ It is said to be a quotation from Winston Churchill – but it may only be the sort of thing he might have said when half-way through a case of claret – so she may prefer Confucius’ observation that ‘When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.’

7 thoughts on “Wither Chinese landscape and garden design in the twenty-first century?

  1. Tom Turner Post author

    I think China has many outstanding architectural projects but Chinese landscape architecture is, so far, not in the same league – despite the fact that there are some very good projects (eg the Tanghe River Park Red Ribbon by Kongjian Yu). The general problem for context-sensitive design in China is the same as elsewhere: how to be create a modern design which is both Chinese yet not a lifeless re-creation of a historic style. One sees the same problem with nineteenth century church architecture in America (and elsewhere – including England): the creation of high-quality gothic architecture was impossible without high-quality gothic craftsmen. Many of the new parks in China are the landscape equivalent of Victorian churches: dull and uninspired.

  2. Christine

    Why do you suppose Western cultural forms are valued over Eastern cultural forms as a reference point for designing in parts of Asia? Perhaps, viewing traditional culture is a positive light is the beginning of not racing towards a ‘modern’ form, which is usually Western, without grounding it in a local philosophical approach to designing? Or perhaps I am missing the subtle cultural naunces which motivate the adoption of Western forms?

  3. Tom Turner Post author

    There are many historical parallels eg (1) the adoption of Roman and Catholic and Italian culture in countries (eg Germany) which were not part of the Roman Empire (2) the adoption of Hindu and then Islamic culture in Indonesia – without military conquests.
    I think it is just that societies evolve and that more recent ideas often have advantages over older ideas. Buddhism was adopted in China and in many places outside India (as was Islam at a later date) because it did not restrict advancement/kingship to particular social or ethnic groups. So societies want to move forward and do so by taking on whatever happens to be ‘modern’ at a particular period. Chinese culture was adopted in Japan for precisely this reason at many points in history – but the Japanese were always skilled in producing a Japanese version of the new ideas. The identification of ‘English culture’ is possible but one can find the origin of most of the componen ideas outside England. Still, I think islands are a ‘good thing’ and the world would have benefited from having more of them. Perhaps landscape architects should set about making them!

  4. Broc Smith

    American Landscape Architect Writes Book About Working in China for Over a Decade

    “The Tragic Kingdom or; Prisoner in a Chinese Theme Park”, (found on most book dealer websites; Amazon, Barnes and Noble etc), is a behind-the-scenes look into the field of design and build in China. The book is a profile of the personalities, culture, and psychology of the world’s most massive looming superpower as seen through the eyes of an ex-pat American.

    “I have lived and worked in China for over ten years, competing within their system, making my way as everything from a freelance artist in small operations to a senior designer for large corporations. I have witnessed a formidable decade in which China has commanded a modern presence on the world stage. I have participated in the planning, designing, and building of mega-theme parks in Beijing, world-class aquariums in Shanghai, gigantic malls in the Pearl Delta, resorts in Tibet, and panda relocation projects in the foothills of the Himalayas”.

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    Broc Smith


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