US architects work on a Qing dynasty garden in the heart of Washington

Yangzhou's Geyuan and Heyuan will be the models for the US$60 million complex to be built in the US National Arboretum

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 November, 2013, 5:12am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 November, 2013, 5:12am

If all goes according to plan, in a few years' time a part of urban Washington will resemble a sprawling Qing dynasty classical garden, complete with pavilions, lakes and ponds, ornate bridges and Chinese fauna.

The ambitious project, a collaboration between China and the US, is finally kicking into gear as money is being raised to break ground, and design and architectural plans are being finalised.

At the top of the agenda - ensuring the almost five-hectare National China Garden will retain the authentic look and feel of an archetypal Chinese garden, the odds of which are pretty good given that it is being modelled on the Geyuan and Heyuan gardens in Yangzhou, a city in Jiangsu known for its classical gardens.

The garden complex will be built within the US National Arboretum, a 180-hectare haven for nature buffs that includes a national agricultural research and educational facility and a living museum.

The project is being pitched as a "cultural bridge" between China and the United States, says Sandra Gibson, executive director of the National China Garden Foundation in Washington.

"If you think about the concept of a garden in Chinese culture, it's about much more than going outdoors and watering a few plants and flowers," she says. "It's a much more robust concept than that. It should be a place for beauty, equanimity and shared interests, for the long term."

To that end, the foundation brought in international architecture firm Page Southerland Page, which outside the US has offices in the Middle East and London, and has been involved in designing US embassy compounds in countries as far flung as Madagascar and Rwanda.

Thomas McCarthy, a principal at the company, is working with partners in China to ensure the authenticity of the environment, including an adherence to the principles of fung shui and placing various structures relative to the wind, water and mountains.

"The work is predicated around the essential recreation of a classical Chinese garden and embodying those fung shui principles that are already encompassed within a Chinese garden," he says.

Geyuan Garden is known for the use of bamboo and rocks as its principal elements, with the rockeries representing different seasons. The Washington gardens will also be inspired by the Heyuan Garden, which is known for its winding pathways and corridors and Western architectural flourishes, as well as halls, pavilions and green landscapes speckled with vivid flowers.

"There are very specific portions of these gardens that are being replicated," McCarthy says, adding that this extended to water features like the famed narrow lake that meanders through Yangzhou and the equally well-known White Pagoda, a city landmark. Pavilions, terraces and bamboo gardens will all be diligently recreated at the National China Garden.

Although the land was donated by the US Congress, China will be supplying labour for the landscaping, rockeries, lighting fixtures, art objects and furnishings. Gibson says that China will also provide the materials for 22 structures on the site - buildings designed in keeping with Chinese traditional architecture and where calligraphy classes will be held, classical music will be performed, and photography and artworks will be exhibited. There will also be two teahouses, one overlooking the lake.

Because of the National Arboretum's vast collection of plants, trees and flowers - including an Asian collection - the flora and fauna for the National Garden will come from its own mix, including bamboo, maple and pine.

"The goal is to make the landscape as close as possible to that in Chinese gardens, and we can use the stock of Chinese ornamentals that has been cared for at the arboretum," McCarthy says.

The China Garden project was first initiated almost a decade ago in an agreement between the US Department of Agriculture and the State Forestry Administration of China, Gibson says. But a number of factors - primarily economic - caused things to stall.

In 2008, a new US farm bill allowed for private fund-raising and provided the almost five-hectare undeveloped parcel of land at the arboretum. A few years later, China's former ambassador to the US, Zhang Yesui, and American agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack moved things forward by signing a new memorandum of understanding. The US$60 million project will now be funded in its entirety through corporations and individuals.

From a design perspective, McCarthy says that the goal is to offer a "synthesis of Eastern and Western concepts of how to shape space".

"Classical Chinese garden design provides the opportunity for contemplation of mankind's relationship to nature and the strength and perspective that insight offers," he says.

"The thing that excites me the most is the interaction of the landscapes and the buildings. The rocks and the rockeries are going to be absolutely spectacular, and if you consider rocks as embodiments of mountains, and combine that with pavilions and other structures in that interaction with nature, it can be really profound."