Due to the influence of urbanization, a significant amount of small courtyard gardens have been razed in Suzhou Ancient Town. The increasing building density in Suzhou since the 1950s and 1960s has also caused the size of historical courtyards to gradually shrink. Now, very few retain their original size. Meanwhile, houses are being divided up, and their courtyards are allocated seemingly at random. The existing mini-courtyards therefore require a new set of construction strategies to retain their special characteristics. The renovation of two private mini-courtyards is the design team’s first attempts to add new life to these historical elements. Utilizing the concepts of perspective, depth of field, cascading, blurring, and masking, as well as the introduction of natural light, the spatial scale of the courtyards is magnified. Lessons were drawn from the freehand brushwork style of landscape painting and the rockery technique of traditional Chinese gardens to create a comfortable natural atmosphere. Courtyard 1: Lakeside Rockery Courtyard This private courtyard is located next to Shen Shixing’s (a 16th century Chinese politician) former residence in Suzhou Ancient Town and is adjacent to the Garden of Cultivation, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Divided into four entrances and three courtyards, the compound has a teahouse near its farthest entrance. In order to echo the space that it exists in, the design takes the garden landscape as its key part. During the design process, three main challenges had to be overcome. The first was that the courtyard had casement windows opening up to three other families’ homes. Their privacy had to be taken into account. Secondly, the image of a large space had to be created, even though the courtyard is only 19 square meters. This was accomplished through optical illusion and visual perspective. Finally, the ideal finished product would form a natural, cultured landscape in Suzhou Ancient Town. Inserting the cloud wall: In two diagonal corners of the courtyard (southeast and northwest), a classic traditional garden element was installed: a cloud wall. On one hand, the wall blocks the line of sight into the neighbors’ windows while ensuring that they still get enough natural light. On the other, it slices the square courtyard to form a diagonal curve, strengthening the effect of perspective and depth of field, while magnifying the sense of space. Shaping the hole on the wall: The rockery is arranged in the northeast corner of the courtyard with a distant view, and a hole is purposely retained in the wall. With the pool in the southwest corner in the front, a deep and secluded rock hole has been created, and the blurred line of sight doubly strengthens the effect of perspective and depth of field. Rockery gradation: The intermingled texture of lake stone and greenery once again strengthens the effect of perspective and depth of field. This step also creates a reclusive landscape for the little tea room. In addition, the second floor of the bedroom overlooking the rockery and cloud wall causes one’s imagination to run wild. Courtyard 2: Yellowstone Rockery Courtyard This courtyard is found near Xueshi Street in Suzhou Ancient Town. The house has one entrance, facing the street with the courtyard in the back. The courtyard is more like a patio, taking up just 12 square meters. Therefore, the new design must maintain privacy and comfort, while enriching the daily activities the small space can handle. First of all, the original entrance and exit should be switched so that people must go through the courtyard before entering the house, instead of coming straight inside from the side street. This change serves to minimize the interference from street traffic and outside noise, while making the courtyard the center of domestic life. The rockery design of Yellowstone Rockery Courtyard differs from that of Lakeside Rockery Courtyard. This courtyard utilizes larger blocks of yellowstone to present the landscape in an exaggerated scale, thereby creating the illusion of a larger space from both visual and psychological perspectives. Rockery acts as the support for a small second-story pavilion in the courtyard. It carries on the concept of the cloud wall and forms the image of floating clouds. In addition, it refers to the traditional Chinese landscape painting method of axe chisel strokes by forming rockery in an abstract, freehand style. In order to enrich the daily activities, the rockery details make reference to the natural sword pool in Suzhou’s Huqiu Mountain, creating a place suitable for meditation and relaxation. The purpose of mini-courtyard landscapes is to spark imagination in nature and bring charm to small spaces. Courtyards developed after the rapid development of urbanization in China must deal with the various types of demands present in complex city ecosystems. The essence of a life in tune with nature is to let the body perceive nature. These two projects of constructing mini-courtyards in Suzhou take rockery as the core to explore this principle. Besides landscape construction, mini-courtyards also require the coordination of flowers, trees, and pavilions. The multi-faceted presentation needs more practical discussion to better address the current interest in reproducing nature and lifestyles in urban mini-courtyards.
SHEN Yang, Doctor of Engineering, is now an associate professor at the School of Architecture, Southeast University, deputy director of the Institute of Architectural History &Theory, deputy director of Key Scientific Research Base of Technique of Traditional Wooden Architecture, State Administration for Cultural Heritage, China, researcher of Key Laboratory of Urban and Architectural Heritage Conservation of Ministry of Education, China, principal of S&Y Atelier (SEU ARCH). His main directions are the Chinese architectural history and urban, architectural heritage protection and he directed a number of national, ministerial research projects. He devotes to exploring the depth and breadth of architectural history research and also advocated an open-minded attitude to comprehensively apply multidisciplinary approaches to study urban and architectural complexes of art and engineering, pays attention to the concepts, culture and society behind settlement, architecture and landscape.