Fast City, Slow Water – The story of Gusu-Li

Narrative by Peiwen Yu

Suzhou Huamao Center (Gusu-Li) mixed-use complex is envisioned to be the next cultural landmark in Suzhou’s old town, which houses many world cultural heritage sites. Occupied 9.5 ha of precious urban land next to Shang-Tang Canal, the 1.27 billion USD development will be the newest lifestyle destination with retails, office, and hotel components. The goal of the Gusu Li development is to revitalize old town Suzhou with a high-end urban attraction that is deeply rooted in authentic cultural references. Historically, water has been the core heritage of Suzhou’s canal base city landscape, which lays a spatial foundation for this world-renowned garden city.  Waterways used to be the city’s lifeline that brings goods and serves as a dynamic living space and source of wealth and prosperity.

Nowadays, the fast-paced urban lifestyle moves the living space away from waterways and into the busy streets, challenging the historical city identity. Another lost paradise is the “Shan-Shui living” ideal embedded in Suzhou’s garden making (“Shan Shui” means “High mountain and flowing water” in Chinese, which is the common icon used to represent the whole natural environment in traditional Chinese culture). The templates that Gusu-Li designers ponder into was how daily life would be like in a new place melting into Shan-Shui surroundings.

The architectural proposal by OVAL and KPF architects has created a 3-dimensional massing with folding roof planes that well symbolize “Shan” (mountains). The landscape design faces challenges of how to create an equally compelling story within the tight pedestrian alley and piazza spaces defined by architecture.

Impressed by the grand canals and water-based living tradition from Suzhou’s history, the author developed a narrative of “FAST CITY, SLOW WATER”. It describes Gusu Li’s unique experience-to-be, which allows people to wind down and may even feel escaped from a fast-paced urban life.

A series of culturally enriched placemaking ideas are then derived from the basic narrative, creating special moments throughout the landscape space shown in the diagram above borrowing thematic references such as boats, lanterns, and other garden elements. The place-activating strategy is to create a “warmth” ambiance in between buildings, and places to linger. So people may slow down and spend more time to enjoy shopping, relaxation, and social interaction, a quality experience missed from today’s lifestyle in many Chinese cities.

Boat-inspired planter and furniture elements are introduced to nodal places, creating a “boat floating on water” moment in the alley space. It reminds people of such a poetic realm of traditional Suzhou canal living experience.

In order to interpret water with landscape design, the designer then introduced “Chinese Ink and Wash Painting” reference for the ground plane.  The pedestrian ground plane embodies the city’s majestic old waterways and is reimagined by artful grey-tone paving pattern, reflecting ink painting’s astonishing variations in tonality.  Traditional Chinese ink and wash paintings are noted for their delicate nuance in the tonality of black, grey and white and variations of ink strokes, thick or thin, fast or slow, square or round, and spaces left untouched.

Schematic design rendering of overall sitS, reflecting the ink painting concept into ground plane paving

The enlargement paving plan shows that boat planters with colorful specimen trees are placed on top of the ink painting’s grey-toned paving pattern. They soften the building façade and create a focal point in the small nodal plazas.

Besides the visual quality of place, the design narrative digs deeper into the experiential memory of Suzhou’s heritage. Prosperous Suzhou (姑苏繁华图), is an 18th-century scroll painting created in 1759 by the Chinese court painter Xu Yang. Depicting the bustling urban life of Suzhou. Prosperous Suzhou is a long narrow scroll for displaying a series of scenes. It is twelve meters in length, intended to be viewed starting from the right end, by laying it flat on a table and unrolling it. One admires it section for section during the unrolling as if traveling through a landscape, depicting a continuous journey. The scroll vividly illustrates the visual appearance of the terrain, urban landscapes, and everyday life in an area covering several dozen miles. The middle of the scroll depicts an idealized view of all the activities of the bustling urban center of Suzhou. More than 4,800 human figures, 2,000 architectural structures, and 400 boats are present. The image below shows a segment of the long scroll.

Images below show the water-based living experience of Suzhou. Known as: “The Venice of the East”, Suzhou is full of cultural wonders and art heritage.

Inspired by the story of a journey through Suzhou waterways and arrival at an active boat dock, the Art Plaza of Gusu Li was designed with a theme of dock place along an urban tour route. It is a major open space located at the northern perimeter of the project, where most tourists strolling from historical gardens enter the development. Bordering Shang-Tang River and Street, a corridor lined up with art galleries and cultural venues, this urban plaza functions as a portal into Gusu Li. Cross street from the future art museum, this new plaza may also be a potential outdoor space for art exhibitions, performances and pop-up markets from the retails. The design thinking started from interpreting a “boat dock” along the river, transforming elements such as boat, promenade, market, and riverbank into the contemporary landscape design. Then the “dock” is extended into a comprehensively used urban plaza for visitors, shoppers, and surrounding residents.

The design rendering shows how Art Plaza offers a flexible event space and functions as the northern arrival point from the existing urban corridor – Shang Tang River. The water-inspired plaza paving pattern and mirror-like reflection pools capture the vibe of a riverbank, framing a foreground in front of the retail buildings. A group of carefully curated “boat planters” in the pool and on the plaza incorporates artful expression and outdoor furniture design considerations based on Suzhou’s climate and materiality, providing visually interesting elements and seasonal colors.

(Art Plaza renderings show how various spaces are activated with outdoor seating and events)

In the tradition of Chinese living style, enjoy opera has been a popular entertainment in many regions. Lavish family and imperial gardens often have theater stages introduced to their architecture and garden spaces. Suzhou region is famous for its Kunqu Opera, a major type of opera with over 600 years of history that has been listed as the national intangible cultural heritage. Many stages are built into Suzhou’s gardens as the venue for kunqu performances. Functioning as the living room of Gusu Li, the central plaza is located at the heart of the project, defined by commercial buildings, hotels, shops, and café. The design took inspiration from an opera “stage” for gathering and entertainment. From the diagram below, you can see the elements decoded from traditional stage architecture including the raised stage area, covered watching area, open plaza, red lanterns are extracted, and transformed into a contemporary urban plaza. Composed with distinct programmed spaces. The plaza will house outdoor cafes, performances, events, banquets, weekend markets, festival celebrations, wedding ceremonies, and many types of activities.

Another choreographed moment in the main plaza is the fountain. Its design is intended to create a focal point with artistic expression, taking inspiration from traditional boats that are at the center of Suzhou’s canal-based daily living. While the pavilion function as an event space (the “stage”), the fountain feature’s spatial geometry, furniture arrangement, and cascading water effect provide a comfortable seating device with cooling water, for events happening on the plaza.

The close-up view of the fountain feature shows how the dark-color stone water cascading basin and seat wall elements are designed in coordination with seasonal flower trees and special traditional tile paving around the fountain, creating a nice microclimate and human-scaled details for a relaxed yet artistic ambiance.

South Plaza-design renderings demonstrate a major shopping mall entry plaza at the southeast corner of this project. A series of water jets fountains, metal lantern features, and art installations create an interesting visual corridor that draws people from streets into the project entry. Green berms and lush tree canopy are also introduced around the pedestrian plaza.

Within the project’s Hotel Parcel, an entrance landscape court is tightly defined by the tall buildings, forming a pedestrian-friendly auto arrival area. This relatively quiet space features a “Bonsai” Style landscape with a  traditional garden vocabulary while still tieing closely to the overall landscape material vibe and sense of place. The traditional garden moment is a point of interest that provides visitors more explicit emotional connection to the traditional Suzhou garden. Also, a unique experience for hotel guests to seek hidden, eastern beauty in a new, fast-paced urban development.

Design diagrams and rendering in the article prepared by Peiwen Yu, Xueying Cao, Yifei Kou, Shimin Cao, Na Wang, and Yi Zhou.  Landscape rendering images: courtesy of SWA  Group.  Architectural rendering images: courtesy of KPF  and the OVAL Partnership.

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