Yuyuan Garden is an intricate interlocking of architecture and landscape, an excellent Ming-era garden best experienced as a multi-layered sequence in space.

Yu Garden, screened from the bustling tourist mayhem of Yuyuan Bazaar in the Old City, is the best-preserved Ming-era garden in Shanghai – an excellent example of Chinese garden design. While it may not rank high on the modern tourist’s itinerary, the garden is well worth a visit to experience the layered space characteristic of traditional garden design, and to reflect on some of the best-preserved traditional architecture in the city.

Yuyuan garden is a dense combination of landscape and architecture: between the small pools, it seems every surface of the ground is covered occupied – not just with planting beds and ground cover, but with covered zig-zag walkways, rock outcroppings, and small pavilions. There is no clear center, no central axis, and little hierarchy between the various spaces.

In contrast to the rigid axial symmetry of traditional Chinese architecture and urban planning, Chinese gardens are a study in chaos. The contradictory overlapping of disparate elements and the intricate interlocking of building and landscape create incredibly complex spatial sequences that eschew legibility in plan in favor of multi-layered three-dimensional compositions best experienced as a sequence in space.

It is never clear in plan which elements belong together, as porticoes flanking the small pavilions often peel off to become covered walkways, slices of garden seem to have become trapped in narrow courtyards behind wooden screens, and hallway ceilings are pulled back from the walls to allow sunlight to wash over small planters. In the garden, the landscape and the architecture are so integrated that it is impossible to consider one apart from the other.

Compared to the gardens of Suzhou, Yuyuan holds up admirably, and it is worth considering alongside some of Suzhou’s best. At Suzhou’s tiny, excellent “Garden of the Master of Nets,” space is extremely limited, and the one small central pool is surrounded almost entirely by interconnected pavilions and walkways. Pavilions seem to intersect one another: there are many shared walls, and most of the “landscape” elements take the form of small courtyards, visible – if not physically accessible – through layer-upon-layer of wooden screens between adjacent rooms. In the “Humble Administrator’s Garden” space is copious, the landscape is dominant, and most pavilions are freestanding structures, connected only occasionally by long covered paths.

Yu Garden occupies a fascinating middle-ground between these two Suzhou gardens. With a bit more room than the “Garden of the Master of Nets” and considerably less than the “Humble Administrator’s Garden” at Yu the pavilions become only somewhat disconnected, pulling apart to allow longer vistas and larger patches of uninterrupted plantings, but never decoupling completely. Though a visit to Suzhou is highly recommended, the best aspects of the gardens there are represented here at Yuyuan, where there exists a palpable tension between architecture and landscape, a rich sequence of alternatively compressive and expansive spaces, and the multi-layered visuals for which the Ming-era designers are famous.

Yuyuan Garden is in the Old City, accessible via the Yuyuan metro station on Line 10. [Map]


  • Gudule

    Another very amazing thing about those Chinese Gardens, is the complexity of the little details in the whole general design.
    The old “literati”s who spent lifetimes designing their perfect gardens would think about the path of the visitors, the way your eyes move and will be attracted to one point to another and lead your wanderings, the “Yi Bu Huan Jing” effect (windows through a wall with funny shapes that will emphasize the landscape behind), the way elements reflect into the water, and the yin-yang process : perfect balance between nature/architecture, water/rock (minerals are one of the main components in old Chinese Architecture), light and shadow, sky and ground. Chinese gardens are not Chaos. To a Western mind they seem to, but they are a deep research of the perfect Taoist balance.
    By the way, when you study Chinese language, the importance of couples of caracters is crucial, when you learn river, you learn mountain, then old and new, then light and shadow… everything goes pairs, balanced.

    I agree for the multi-layered spaces : up-down, going upward, backward… in the Couple’s Retreat Garden (one of the smallest in Suzhou) I almost lost myself wandering 3 times in places I couldnt recognize because they are so well-designed they seem very different from another point of view!
    But I definitely think balance is the key of the gardens, mixed with a bit of the Chinese superstitions : zig-zag bridges and non direct access to a building both come from the old belief that bad spirits always wander on straight lines… The square courtyard and inner patios to “own a bit of the sky” and collect the water from the heavens into your pavilion. Sky is the main “god” of China and Chinese people are its children.
    Am still thinking about all this…wish I had more books to read…

    ANYWAY, I like the blog and your articles. Keep posting 🙂

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