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Pieces of China: Architect Didi Pei, Recap, 5.28.20

Pieces of China: Architect Didi Pei, Recap, 5.28.20
Pieces of China is an online series using objects to tell the story of China.

In this premiere episode, we wander through Suzhou’s Lions Grove Garden with architect Didi Pei, whose illustrious family once owned it. First constructed in 1342 during the Yuan Dynasty, the Lion Grove Garden 狮子林 demonstrates Chinese garden designers’ adept skills for synthesizing art, nature, and architecture to create unique metaphysical masterpieces. The garden is most famous for its elaborate grotto of taihu rocks and embodies the techniques of relative dimension, contrast, foil, sequence and depth, and borrowed scenery. Didi Pei’s great grandfather, Bai Runsheng, a Shanghai pigment merchant, bought the garden in 1917, and the family donated it to the Chinese government in 1949.

Quotes from the Program

The Lions Grove Garden was built in 1342, back in the Yuan Dynasty, and made its way to your family in the early 20th century. Tell us a little bit about the garden and the history of your family’s connection to it.

My family has been in Suzhou, we have a family tree that goes back 35 generations. The family was very well known in Suzhou, at one time was a wealthy merchant family, supplied the dyes for the silk industry, which was important in Suzhou. And in the early 20th century, my father’s uncle, who was a merchant, bought it. Nobody ever lived there. It was used for family reunions and events. My father used to go and play there when he was a child.

How did you start learning about gardens?

I went to China for the first time in 1976 and as part of a six week tour of the whole country, we went to Suzhou. At that time, China was closed. My father left China in 1935 and didn’t get to go back until 1974. I went with my father, and we went to Suzhou and all of the major gardens—that was my first exposure.

You have said that Master of the Nets Garden in Suzhou is your favorite. It was built in 1140 during the Southern Song Dynasty by an official who was inspired by the simple life of a fisherman. Tell us why you love that garden?

Master of the Nets in Suzhou.. It’s tiny for a Suzhou garden, sits on just one acre. I like this garden because it retains most of its original purity.

What is the big deal about the window in a Chinese Garden?

In Western design, a window is designed to let light in. In Chinese architecture, it is all almost entirely behind walls. The window, because so much effort is spent composing the garden, is used as a picture frame to look at the garden. It’s not to let the light in. When you look at it from the outside, you are seeing a carefully framed view. And you can have one view of something, and here’s a view, but can go around the corner, and you get another view, and it’s equally painterly image, and you can use one gesture in the garden design and (frame) it multiple times.

We exploited this when we designed the Fragrant Hill Hotel 香山饭店. We were trying to come up with a vocabularly that Chinese architects could use to build bigger buildings. The Chinese government wanted him to do a skyscraper, and to jump into the 21st century. But my father was very cognizant of doing something that was connected with the past.

It was quite difficult to come up with something. Chinese architects are still wrestling with this today. Mostly contemporary architecture in China is just kind of western architecture plopped into China. I don’t think you can keep borrowing .You can’t just keep borrowing the vocabulary; you have to understand the spirit. This is why the idea of the window is so important, because when you have a window, they are carefully framing what you are looking at.

How are Chinese gardens different from others around the world?

To me there’s a very big difference between a French garden and an English garden. The French are very much given to axes and symmetry. Think of Versailles, for example, it goes on forever, and its very symmetrical, with geometrical shapes. And in a Japanese garden, it is based around the perfection of what you see – somewhat similar to a French garden.  A Chinese garden does not have any of that. Chinese architecture—the Forbidden City, for example—is also very symmetrical and very axial.

But the gardens themselves are the opposite. English gardens are very natural. You see rolling hills and meadows, and way in the background you see a few sheep over there and maybe a folie off in the distance, or a fake ruin. The English garden is intellectually really like the Chinese garden. And all these gardens are manmade—and even more so in the Chinese garden. But it is meant to look like it is all natural. The Chinese will (even) build a mountain or a lake in their garden!


Full Video of Pieces of China with Didi Pei


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*Photo Credit for Black and White Images: Brad J. Goldberg