Yueyuan Courtyard | How Classical Chinese Design Adapts to the Modern Age
Article by Alexis Alvey – Yueyuan Courtyard, designed by Z+T Studio, in Mudu, Suzhou, China
Yueyuan Courtyard, designed by Z +T Studio, is a small courtyard within a new development at Mudu Village in Suzhou. Suzhou is a historic city in eastern China that sits between the Yangtze River to the north and Taihu Lake to the south. It is known for its exemplary collection of classical Chinese gardens. These gardens date from the 11th to the 19th centuries; nine of them are listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The classical Suzhou Gardens are meticulously designed and reflect the central importance of natural beauty in traditional Chinese culture. These private gardens were originally inspired by royal hunting gardens and are limited to the physical space within a private residence.
In Yueyuan Courtyard, Z+T Studio successfully blends traditional Chinese aesthetics with a modern functional approach, utilizing water as the central design element. Like the classical Suzhou Gardens, Yueyuan Courtyard artfully simulates nature within an urban living environment and creates a microcosm of the natural world by integrating water, architecture, stone, and vegetation.
Before entering the interior space of Yueyuan Courtyard, one is presented with a wide, plaza-like promenade that leads patrons to the Sales Center of Mudu Village. The promenade provides a larger-scale introduction to what one will experience within the courtyard.
The white and gray pavers are arranged in a subtle monochromatic pattern. Both sides of the promenade are lined by irregularly shaped islands of trees with groundcover below, and the tree islands are edged with raised black material. Four wooden benches accommodate the need for seating, but the limited number emphasizes that this is a space to walk through.
Once inside the center, one can see the courtyard through large glass panels. The courtyard is designed to be viewed from all angles of the surrounding structures, which also include the clubhouse, restaurant, and commercial area. Being able to look out the glass and see the courtyard’s water features would surely have a calming effect on individuals inside the structures.
The Lake Garden
The courtyard was conceptually divided into a Lake Garden and a Creek Garden. A large reflecting pool dominates the Lake Garden, where both greenscape and building are reflected in the lake. One portion of the pool has terraced plantings, reminiscent of how one would find plants in nature growing along a riverbank. Square block stepping stones enable visitors to have contact with the reflecting pool.
The Lake Garden alludes to Taihu Lake, a large freshwater lake that borders Suzhou on the southwestern side, which at one time was an important source of Taihu stone, a porous limestone commonly used in classical Chinese gardens as a viewing or scholars’ stone.
The Creek Garden
The other portion of the courtyard is the Creek Garden, which has a serpentine water feature running through it. The “creek” begins at a raised large stone basin, where a tranquil and meditative atmosphere is fostered as the sound of water drips into the dark granite creek and eventually flows into the reflecting pool.
The banks of the creek drop incrementally from the surrounding pavers, creating topo-line bands of small elevation change. The designers were inspired by the geological process of erosion on the site and created a highly detailed model of the creekbed, which enabled its finely executed construction.
Erosion can also be understood allegorically as the marked passage of time in stone, and like in the classical Suzhou Gardens, would add a deeper and more poetic layer of meaning to the design. It is likely that Z +T Studio was also referencing the nearby Yangtze River, which has carved out its serpentine path through both the land and Chinese culture for millennia.
Additional small elevation changes subtly delineate spaces within the gardens, creating distinct seating areas in the courtyard. These covered seating areas seem to be an extension of the building and allow for respite and completion of sales.
Materials and Plant Palettes
The monochromatic materials palette ranges from white to dark gray, providing a sophisticated and decidedly contemporary feel. It also helps integrate the courtyard with the white-and-glass surrounding structure and allows the eye to discern other differences, such as texture.
The plant palette complements the materials palette and is also understated. It also focuses on texture, as evidenced by the twisted naked branches of the trees in wintertime and the coarse-textured groundcovers. Small purple upright blooms from what appears to be perennial sage (Salvia spp.) bring in a bit of understated color throughout the summer months.
Yueyuan Courtyard successfully provides a contemplative, nature-inspired space for residents and an elegant introduction for prospective residents by building upon the long-held design traditions of the past. Like the classical Suzhou Gardens, Yueyuan Courtyard harmoniously blends built residence with an artfully contrived abstraction of nature.
Have you visited any of the classical Suzhou Gardens? How do you think contemporary design projects in other areas of the world can successfully integrate or adapt traditional design aesthetics? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
Full Project Credits For Yueyuan Courtyard:
Project: Yueyuan Courtyard
Location: Mudu, Suzhou, China
Size: 980 square meters
Year Completed: 2016
Client: Suhang Real Estate Inc.
Lead Designers: Z+T Studio — Dong Zhang & Ziying Tang
Landscape Designers: Qiang Du, Yanjie Fan, Peixun Lin, Jialin Zheng, Hongchao Liu
- Becoming an Urban Planner: A Guide to Careers in Planning and Urban Design by Michael Bayer
- Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design With Nature by Douglas Farrs
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