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Talking Plants: Chinese Garden
November 28, 2000

Chinese Garden
(Click for Larger Photo)
Oregon's recently opened Classical Chinese Garden - also known as The Garden Of Awakening Orchids -- is in the heart of downtown Portland. Its a 17th century re-creation of a garden style popularized in Suzhou, China. In her Morning Edition report, Ketzel Levine captures the magic of the place, but as she tells us here (she wouldn't dare admit it on the air), the story was a hard one to tell.

  • Here's more on the radio from Ketzel Levine

    audio button I'm not sure I've ever had more difficulty describing a garden on the radio than this one, Portland's Garden Of Awakening Orchids (which, incidentally, is so full of visitors, it's no wonder the orchids can't sleep).

    Lan Su Yuan (the garden's Chinese name) is much more than just a physical space. I kid you not, it is centuries of philosophy condensed into a city block. How do I invite you into such an intensely stylized world, where a rock is a mountain, a plant is forest, and a bridge across water a flight of the mind? This is a place where concepts such as the balance of opposites -- water and stone, light and shadow, yin and yang -- play a bigger role than the plants.

    Truth is, you could remove every single plant from this Chinese Garden and you wouldn't weaken its sense of identity. Such is the power of its architecture, and the deliberateness of its design. Please don't think me a traitor to radio if I say it's a great relief to now work with pictures, as we step into this square block of Ming Dynasty architecture.

    Red street lamp
    The great wall surrounding the garden
    (Click for Larger Photo)

    The magic of Lan Su Yuan begins even on the sidewalk, where window-sized openings in the garden wall beg for peeking. It's easy to make out little vignettes inside -- a big-leaved banana, a section of mosaic-tiled floor -- enough to make the place irresistible. If you've got $6 in your pocket, you're in.

    View across water
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    We're looking across the great lake, at a covered bridge in the foreground and a wing-tipped gazebo in the background. Check out the play of shadow on the water, one of the infinite details that add to the aesthetic complexity of the garden. And how about the rock to the left with the buck-toothed head of Porky Pig? (O.K., so what do you see?)

    Moon-Locking Pavilion
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    This shot was taken from the second story of the tea house (run by a local Portland business, The Tao Of Tea -- is that Northwest or what?). It's the Moon-Locking Pavilion built over the lake in the middle of a zigzag bridge. You can just about make out the city rising in the background, not necessarily intrusive, but always in view.

    Pebble Floor
    Close-up of pebble mosaic
    (Click for Larger Photo)

    Nothing left me more breathless than the walkways and courtyard floors -- precise, repeating mosaics of rounded pebbles that swirl like flower petals across the ground. A bit ambitious for the home gardener (figure two months to complete a courtyard mosaic), but worth borrowing as an idea, if on a less sophisticated scale. Notice the pattern of the sun on the pebbles as it streams through a nearby lattice window.

    Gardens are for people
    (Click for Larger Photo)
    Soft water and hard rock animated by visitors. The lake is massive, 140,000 gallons of water meandering through one-third of the garden. The water is pristine right now - you can still see clear to the bottom -- but it will soon turn opaque to encourage mystery and inner reflection. Nothing, but nothing in this garden is without intent.

    For More Information:

  • Homepage for Portland's Classical Chinese Garden

  • A wonderful article on the garden by Oregonian garden writer Kym Pokorny

  • Background on the garden by Oregonian architecture critic, Randy Gragg

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    Copyright © 2003 National Public Radio, Washington, D.C.