Translating the past

Suzhou garden as a generator in architecture

  • Linfan Liu University of Pennsylvania


ABSTRACT: Until today, extensive studies on the traditional Suzhou gardens have primarily considered it a cultural artifact. The academic subject of garden history and garden art has crafted a rich narrative to define and refine the material culture of China’s past. This essay, however, investigates the use of the ancient gardens as a generative means in contemporary architectural practice in China.

The study mainly analyzes and compares two specific projects and their garden “prototypes” to explore the topic in detail. The first project is I. M. Pei’s Suzhou Museum (2002-06) and his childhood garden Lion Grove Garden; the second one is Wang Shu’s Library of Wenzheng College (1999-2000) and The Garden of Cultivation. Although both architects acknowledged traditional gardens as the major inspiration of their modern designs, the two architects revealed distinct focuses and approaches in the process of translation, which are explained in the thematic and comparative discussions, including the symbolic image and the spatial type, cultural narrative and bodily experience. The initial interpretive analyses of the two projects anchor on the articulated aspects of the individual architect’s interpretation respectively. The subsequent comparative study further demonstrates the complexity and parallels in the process of translation, thus realizing the comprehensive associations between the garden prototypes and architects’ own design philosophies.

Through this comparative study, the essay aims to shift the interpretative paradigm of architecture through the lens of Suzhou garden. In contrast to the narrative constructed through ideological frameworks, the essay reasons how this spatial art is re-defined within a design discipline, and how the extracted concepts and techniques further shape contemporary architectural practice. Continuing the narrative of traditional gardens. the essay proposes the same metaphor of generative role of architectural design.


KEYWORDS: symbolic image, spatial type, cultural narrative, life experience

How to Cite
Liu, L. (2018). Translating the past. ARCC Conference Repository.