Lan Su Chinese Garden (photo by Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
"Most cherished in this mundane world is a place without traffic," reads a poem by 16th century poet Wen Zhengming inscribed in a rock formation at Portland's Lan Su Chinese Garden. "Truly in the midst of the city there can be mountain and forest."
The quote seems fitting for my visit to the Lan Su Garden on a recent sunny early-autumn afternoon. I'd gone at the invitation of a friend, music and arts writer Brett Campbell, a frequent visitor there, and was reminded how enlivening and soulful an oasis the garden is. But it's somehow easy to forget Lan Su is there, even though it's much more centrally located than, say, the Japanese Garden in the winding depths of Washington Park.
"I go to the garden at least once a month, and often once a week in the summer," Campbell told me. "I love tea and really admire the way the teahouse fits so well in the garden. It makes it a real destination for lunch and socializing, which is why I always bring visitors. sometimes I just sip tea and meditate, staring out at the pond from the teahouse. Sometimes I read, or just stroll the familiar paths, because the garden really does change with each season (there's red period and a yellow period and a green period etc) and evolves each year."
When Campbell and I visited, he also took off his shoes to walk barefoot over the garden's cobblestone pathway.
It was the first time I had been to the Classical Chinese Garden (as it was originally known) in several years, and the sense I had of nature flourishing all around within its 40,000 square feet of walled space was greater than it had been when I visited in the past. The garden, with more than 400 species of plants, mostly species native to China and Asia (but procured in the United States), from orchids and water plants to perennials and bamboo trees has now had a chance to grow into itself.
Pond and pavilion at Lan Su (photo by Brian Libby)
Occupying a full city block in the Old Town/Chinatown district, the garden was completed in 2000 as a result of Portland's sister-city relationship with Suzhou, China, where these elaborate gardens of water, stone, folliage and poetic symbolism originated.
Over 65 Chinese artisans spent about nine months working on the garden, articulating with cobblestones, pavilions, horticulture and water the vision of Lan Su's Suzhou-based designer, Kuang Zhen Yan. Portland firm Robertson Merryman Barnes (now called Merryman Barnes Architects) helped translate ancient Chinese means of construction for contemporary local building codes.
As Joan Kent Kvitka explains in the Oregon Encyclopedia, classical gardens in China traditionally emply a variety artistic effects with symbolic importance, all in yin-yang harmony. "Water and stone, shadow and light, inside and outside are balanced to manifest the Dao, or Way of Nature," Kvitka writes.
"The sound of water cascading among the piled rocks drowns out the noise of the city; and the fragrant blossoms of jasmine, wintersweet, and osmanthus are intended to awaken the senses throughout the seasons. Serpentine walkways, a zig-zag bridge across the lake, and open pavilions provide visual structures from which visitors can observe or wander through a living landscape painting."
Teahouse and pond and Lan Su (photo by Brian Libby)
While standing in one of the pavilions looking out at the large pond at Lan Su's center, Campbell told me a story of once seeing a hawk swoop down and snatch up a large koi fish out of the pond. Apparently, the pond had to stay under a two-foot water depth because anything deeper would have triggered a regulation requiring a guard rail all the way around, which would have compromised the design and the delicate setting. But at only two feet, the fish can't get deep enough to avoid such birds of prey. Luckily, the inherently violent state of nature was missing when I visited, and the fish were swaying gently under the lily pads.
In the 12 years since it opened, I'm not sure there has been much evidence that Lan Su has prompted change in the surrounding neighborhood or the streets that it borders: NW Second, Third, Everett and Flanders.
The broader Old Town neighborhood has certainly progressed during that time, with a University of Oregon outpost along the waterfront, numerous restaurants and shops, and the addition of a second MAX line. But the area surrounding Lan Su is, except for cars on either side coming on or off the Steel Bridge, seems to lack energy.
Maybe that's because as wonderful a local treasure as the garden is, in following the traditions of traditional Chinese place-making it is inwardly focused. For all the hundreds of plants and the tranquil watery setting inside, on the sidewalk you're looking at a big blank stone wall.
That's not to say every building has to be made of glass or must follow in lock step in facing the street; to have such diversity of places makes for a richer city. Like the Wen Zhengming poem says, we need to have places in urban areas that act as alternatives to the high-traffic spots: quiet, green places in an otherwise noisy concrete city.
Particularly in Portland, surrounded in every direction by natural beauty, the notion of bringing a little bit of mountain and forest here, not just physically but (at the risk of sounding hokey) spiritually speaking.
"It's probably my favorite place in Portland," Campbell added, "and really does give you that feeling of calm otherwhereness that makes living in the city (I live downtown) so pleasurable. Its like that intertwine philosophy - that nature should be a part of the city, not apart from it. I always emerge kind of buzzing from the tea and the sort of mental cleansing that happens every time I'm there."