It had been a while since I last visited the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland’s Old Town. Today I ventured into the garden to look at the small spaces. For any who have not been, the Chinese Garden is, for the most part, a traditional Suzhou style garden built by Chinese artisans with materials and stones imported from the Suzhou area. It is said to be the most authentic Chinese garden outside of China. The garden is situated on an over-sized Portland block in the central city that is completely walled in from the outside. Inside, several elaborately built buildings sit around a large meandering pond with bridges and covered walkways in-between. This, being January, is my favorite time to go to the garden due to the low volume of other visitors and the openness created by the loss of deciduous leaves.
What I admire most about the garden is the use of numerous small spaces to make a whole. Every corner, every bridge, every room one goes into changes to the delight of the viewers senses. Here is where I see opportunity, opportunity to learn from age-old masters of space-making in the creation of much needed small spaces here in Portland and the US. America is such a new country, a very large new country, and had to build quick to keep up with growth. I feel we, as a society, are starting to grow up and are able to now start rebuilding what was so hastily strewn about. We have laid the ground work: separated public and private lands, built roads, dredged waterways, and made laws of the land. Now we are ready to start making our places better. We are tearing down infrastructure and buildings that have proven detrimental, building new infrastructure in different places, we are now paving over railways to make walking and biking paths, and we are adding artwork and trees to our streets. We are ready to make useful small spaces out of those ruins of the last century. These ruins could be barren and toxic lands from long-gone industry or small bits of land left over from a freeway ROW acquisition. These spaces are ripe now to be re-imagined, and that is where I see inspiration at the Chinese Garden.
From my travels through Europe and Asia, the older parts of our human world, I found that the most intriguing places were those small, well-thought out spaces that offered a busy persons life a short rest. Usually these spaces included a place to sit and something to look at. In Europe this was usually a glossy-painted bench perfected angled to take full advantage of a view down the canal/street/woods/river/fountain/etc… In Asia, much like the garden, I find less actual furniture and more built-in sitting places that offer multiple views of multiple things both man-made and natural, more of a wandering eye or meditative moment than the perfect photo op. In Portland, like most other American cities, small spaces are already being created. Although, more often then not, the small spaces are just spokes on a larger wheel. An example would be the Eastbank Esplanade in Portland, with its many distinct areas and mini-plazas, or the LA river revitalization project, with its similar approach of interconnected spaces of individual merit and purpose. There are countless spots within Portland alone to add more small spaces however, many places that now sit unused or underutilized. Many of these places are already in public hands such as small triangular shaped lot created by the turning radius of a highway on ramp or the covered dead zone under an overpass. Other places could be on private lands like set-back office entryways or underused parking lots.
The space is there, now all we need is the time, energy and motivation to build something new. For this to happen we need really good ideas and really visionary people. Another necessity is to build to last, too often I see projects being built with only a 10, 30 or 50 year life-expectancy, we really need to start thinking in terms of 100’s of years. The Chinese Garden, with minimal maintenance, could last a thousand years. There are a lot of projects, like New York’s High Line, that have wonderful small spaces, but require so much upkeep that the prospects of it staying unchanged in the next 20-30 years are slim. There is also the issue that no one person can or should be involved in the creation of any new small space, the great plazas of Italy and the pagodas in every Chinese garden all took a multitude of people and a dialogue between them to create. Most of all, the really great spaces all took time, sometimes generations, and nothing is ever truly finished.