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Secret Garden in the City
A classical Chinese garden uplifts Portland's Chinatown
By Mark Hinshaw

One of the things that makes the city of Portland, Oregon, unique is its system of small, square blocks. Portland's blocks are 200 feet square—an exceedingly small dimension and shape for a city in the western United States, if not all of North America. Typically, urban blocks are 220 to 240 feet in one direction, but considerably longer in the other.

For example, in midtown Manhattan, blocks fronting the north/south avenues fall in the short range, but on the east/west streets, dimensions can be 600 to 800 feet. In Seattle, the nearest big city to Portland, most blocks in downtown are 240 by 320 feet, a proportion that is more common. Moreover, in most cities, two sides of a block often front on larger, more commercially active streets, giving rise to differences in intensity, scale, and character for different block faces. Not so in Portland, where each block face is potentially equal in these attributes.

It is astonishing how many ways this small block size affects the ambience of Portland's downtown. First, the overall pattern of development has a relatively fine grain. In older parts of the city center, there are often no more than two to four buildings per block. In newer developments, with the need for larger floor areas, there is typically only one building per block. Walking around downtown Portland is like being on a gigantic chessboard: scattered small pawns interspersed among towering bishops and knights.

Everything seems quite precious; nothing is huge or overwhelming. Each block face is interesting, with a plethora of shops and services, art galleries, cafes, and coffee bars. In recent years, the city has added to this richness by allowing scores of food vendors to line the sidewalks. Some have small vans lining the perimeter of parking lots; others have tiny cooking carts dispensing a wide variety of freshly cooked ethnic foods. Downtown Portland seems to be hosting a perpetual street fair.

City agencies such as the Planning Bureau and the Development Commission fanatically enforce codes that ensure sidewalk orientation and retail activity. By contrast, downtown's numerous "park blocks" serve as verdant oases amid the hustle and bustle of the urban core, allowing for quietude and contemplation. Some park blocks occur in a series; others are singular or in pairs. These public spaces, most filled with towering trees that form lacy canopies, make for a very livable and green urban center. The one hardscaped space, Pioneer Courthouse Square, serves as the principal public living space and is almost constantly filled with festivals, displays, or live music.

Clearly, over the past 20 years, Portland has devoted a considerable amount of energy and resources to making its public realm safe, diverse, and lively. Private investors have responded with restoration, renovation, and redevelopment of dozens of buildings. However, the one area that has seemed to escape this dynamic transformation is the Chinatown district.

Whether because of absentee owners, cultural differences, or simply a stock of older, less charming buildings, the district has continued to be drab, dingy, and seemingly abandoned. Few first-class establishments are located there and many storefronts are empty or boarded up. Indigents going to and from nearby missions have added an unsavory atmosphere, keeping away some customers. Even the efforts of public agencies to locate their buildings on the edge of the district has not had a major regenerative effect. For years, the place has seemed simply forlorn.

But, finally, comes a project that promises to change the district dramatically, to lift it out of its doldrums. What's more, the scale and nature of the project is an entirely appropriate fit.

In a word, the Classical Chinese Garden is breathtaking. Opened in September 2000, the walled garden has become the new centerpiece of Chinatown. And it follows Portland's pattern of using green spaces as self-contained areas of respite and relief from the surrounding commercial context.

What a true "secret garden." Consuming a full block, the place is enclosed by whitewashed walls punctured with grilled openings that allow passersby glimpses of the delights inside. It is not unusual to see someone facing the wall, peering through an opening, and gazing, open jawed, at the view.

The garden was designed by Kuang Zhen Yan of the Institute of Landscape Architectural Design in Suzhou, China, and was built by a team of 65 artisans sent from China. He Feng Chun of the Institute personally selected, placed, and supervised the installation of each tree and plant. The Chinese team was supported by a Portland team led by the architectural firm of Robertson Merryman Barnes. Landscape architects Nevue Ngan and Associates and translator Jin Chen, together with horticulturalist Sean Hogan, assisted the Chinese team in executing the design concept.

Ben Ngan sits on the board of directors of the Portland Chinese Classical Garden and headed the design and construction committee. According to Ngan, "The project benefited from the generosity of many corporations, organizations, and individuals. Some gave substantial amounts of money; others donated plant materials. Several local plant growers and collectors contributed rare and exotic plants." In one case, a resident of a neighborhood in another part of the city allowed a mature tree—a 100-year-old holly leaf osmanthus—to be transplanted from her front lawn. Clearly, the garden was an effort that captured the imagination of people throughout Portland.

Suzhou and Portland became sister cities in the late 1980s, and the garden is the result of collective efforts and contributions by organizations and citizens in both communities. The result is both an incredible gift to Portland and a stunning symbol of goodwill between two very different nations.

The Chinese name for the garden is "Lan Su Yuan," which translates as Portland Suzhou Garden. The Chinese characters also mean "Garden of Awakening Orchids." Regardless of what one calls it, the garden is a stunning blend of art and craft, horticulture and architecture.

Passing through the forecourt and into the framed entry portal, one discovers an entire world behind the walls. It is hard to believe that so much was done within this site, which amounts to less than an acre. The design skillfully creates places within places within places. It creates views within a distance of yards, using classic methods of framed openings, forced perspective, and partially concealed views to give the illusion of infinite distances. Reflections of plants and buildings in water add a vertical dimension.

Some facts: The garden contains more than 500 species of plants and trees. Five hundred tons of stone were shipped from Suzhou. Building the garden took 10 months and involved scores of artisans from both the United States and China. Local designers had to ensure than the traditional methods of construction were adapted to meet local codes and laws. The city donated the land. The total cost was $12.8 million, paid for through a fund-raising effort that was led by the mayor of Portland, Vera Katz.

The garden contains 8,000 square feet of water, which is one-fifth of the site area. But water seems to permeate the entire place, with much more of a visual presence than the actual area might suggest. It feels like a floating garden in the middle of a city. Taller buildings occasionally poke up above the walls, betraying the garden's location, but it is otherwise a place that seems introspective, self-contained, otherworldly. It is possible to lose yourself in this place—both literally and metaphorically.

Some people wander the serpentine stone pathways in hushed conversation. Others sit in solitude, gazing into the pools, at a pavilion, or at a flowering tree. One is conscious of walking; every pathway is a meticulously crafted composition of inlaid stones and pebbles, and each part of the garden has a different pattern. You know human hands have lovingly created every single aspect of the place, from its burnished woodwork to its carefully placed and tended plants. Gardeners quietly scuttle about, making adjustments, pruning, weeding, refining, and caring for the place.

Craggy stones evoke coral formations. A grotto with falling water creates a rushing sound that softly drowns out any other noise from the surrounding city. Flowering water plants greet you at every turn. Balconies, bridges, and overlooks invite you to stand and look. You quickly become aware of where your body is in relation to plants and stone, water and wood.

There is so much to delight the eye, excite the nose, and stimulate the sensation of touch. Indeed, the garden is a rare example of landscape architecture as an act of seduction. The place transports you. It charms you. It both conceals and reveals itself, as seductions always do.

Winding pathways lead to nine pavilions, each with a different design and name that celebrate an aspect of nature such as rain, the moon, fish, flowers, clouds, reflections, or scents. One twists and turns. Moving a foot or two any direction produces a completely different array of water, plants, and buildings.

This is truly a magical place, of a kind that I cannot recall seeing elsewhere on this continent. It is in the same realm as fine Italian gardens. Or Monet's Garden in Giverny. In such places, the landscape is a display of pure, unbridled sensuality.

I had expected to react to the garden in a somewhat jaded fashion. I was expecting a sort of landscaped theme park, with a kind of hokey, tourist-draw tone. But what I was not prepared for was the powerful sense of human touch that permeates every square inch of the place. It is a profound demonstration of how we can lovingly work with nature to create spaces within our cities that are suffused with intense, emotional impact.

In our culture, we have so often treated our land as disposable, expendable, exploitable. We cover immense amounts with asphalt, slathering petroleum products over the earth just to be able to drive and store vehicles that consume even more petroleum. In the process, we have created places that are crude, wasteful, and degrading to the human spirit.

That is why this garden is so special, so very precious. It reaffirms that we have the capacity to blend nature and culture, to create places that nurture the soul, that cleanse the mind. The garden may be in Portland, but it is really a gift to all of us. And it is a vivid demonstration of the power of landscape architecture to renew and enrich the soul.

Mark Hinshaw is director of urban design for LMN architects in Seattle and writes a regular column on urban design for The Seattle Times.

Suzhou Institute of Landscape Architectural Design: Kuang Zhen Yan, project lead and principal designer; He Feng Chun, project landscape architect.
Suzhou Garden Construction Company: Hou Hong De, Lu Yao Zu.

Portland Consulting Team
Landscape Architects: Ben Ngan, Nevue Ngan and Associates.
Architects: Robertson Merryman Barnes Architects (lead consultant of Portland team).
Structural/Civil: KPFF Consulting Engineers.
Mechanical/Electrical: Interface Engineering.
Pond: Tetra Tech/KCM, Inc.

Portland Contractors
General Contractor: AC Schommer & Sons.
Landscape Contractor: Teufel Landscape.

Translator/Coordinator: Jin Chen.
Office of International Relations: Phyllis Oster.
Portland Development Commission: Bruce Allen.
Bureau of General Services: Richard Ragland.

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