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July 9, 2022

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The ‘Garden of Illusion’ is a nod to Taoist philosophy

Liu Xiangcheng, a Chinese architect, says that an ideal garden represents an idyllic way of life, a free spirit, and the idea that people should be a natural part of nature.

Liu and his colleagues created the Garden of Illusion at the Domain of Chaumont-sur-Loire in France as a nod to the mountains and rivers that figured prominently in ancient Chinese philosophy.

Out of the 24 gardens that the Chaumont-sur-Loire International Garden Festival chose for this year, this is the only one that was created by a Chinese team.

The festival is held annually in the gardens of the castles in the Loire Valley between April and November. The theme for this year’s celebration of its 30th anniversary is “ideal garden.”

The Tongji University postgraduate avoided “ethnic kitsch” by going beyond “particular cultural signs” as opposed to replicating a typical Chinese garden.

Three concentric circles may be found in the Garden of Illusion: the outer circular alleyway, the bamboo cluster in the center and a Zen retreat encircled by bamboos in the center.

According to Liu, both Eastern and Western cultures regularly use the circle symbol.

He said that in Taoist philosophy, the circle, which has no beginning or end, stands in for the cosmos, nature, eternity, and harmony. Western civilization associates perfection with the circle.

The architect uses concentric circles to illustrate how two civilizations may dwell peacefully in a single garden and to present “an ideal concept of Oriental philosophy in a Western context.”

Liu used simplicity to incorporate this piece with a dozen basic methods of traditional Chinese garden design.

For instance, when going through a garden, the surroundings vary as you go. The visitation route is meticulously planned, winding all the way to a private meditation area that is concealed by bamboos.

Inspired by an iconic series of ink-wash paintings titled “Eight Scenes of Xiaoxiang,” Liu made the decision to depict mountains and rivers in a Zen-inspired manner.

One of the features is the open-work circular wooden structure that lies on the interior of the alleyway. A see-through curtain-like installation of 240 hemp ropes is strung on the structure.

The team was able to replicate the rolling mountains as depicted in “Eight Scenes of Xiaoxiang” on the curtain of ropes by making reef knots at various heights on each rope.

The paintings were created by Muxi, a monk and artist of the southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), and are renowned for their distinctive perspective, which was achieved by the contrast of virtual and actual views and diverse ink hues.

The paintings, which depict Xiaoxiang (present-day Hunan Province), were eventually confiscated by the Shogunate government after being lost to the Japanese. Currently, only four pieces exist, and they are each conserved independently in art institutions in Japan.

As influential as his work is, Monk Muxi is frequently credited with bringing Zen culture to Japan. However, Liu noted that despite Zen culture’s Chinese roots, the French only associate it with Japanese culture when you mention it to them.

“I’d like to use this chance to shatter the stereotype.”

According to Liu, Zen culture can be compared to karesansui, or Japanese rock gardens, as an abstraction that invites the imagination.

In order to simulate the glittering sunshine on the water, he and his team used black slippery pebbles that would reflect daylight rather than create an actual pond in the garden.

It skillfully mimics the feel of a waterside setting without using even a drop of water, accompanied by the sporadic croaking of frogs.


The summer months are the best times for a visit. The white, yellow, and purple flowers that are found in Monet’s paintings, can be seen peeking out from between the ropes, while bamboo trees, an ancient Chinese symbol for integrity, are in the center of the garden.

“And you begin to question precisely where you are.”

Liu envisioned an ever-evolving state for his garden, which is reflected not only in the layers of scenery but also in the actual design. The hemp ropes literally shrink on rainy days before loosening up after drying.

He claimed that it was a clear illustration of “resilience theory” in design.

Resilience, which has its roots in physics, refers to an object’s capacity to regain its size and shape following deformation. Later, it was incorporated into urban planning and architecture.

He argued that resilience in cities refers to the ability to resume regular living and working conditions in the face of crises and natural disasters. “For instance, did Shanghai have a well-developed supply chain to secure supplies when it went into lockdown during the most recent COVID-19 outbreak?

“Will it be able to quickly resume production?”

Liu established the Illimité Architectes agency in Shanghai in 2018, and opened an office in Paris in 2021.

The Garden of Illusion is his latest experiment. It is low-carbon and environmentally friendly, with 78 percent green coverage and locally sourced timber and hemp ropes.

The team invited high school students to join in the garden-building process, which is another essential component of citizens’ participation in the “resilient city” process. “Every citizen is both a user and a participant. To ensure that a city project is sustainable and supports its users, they are encouraged to work together with local government, real estate developers, economists, and environmentalists, among others,” Liu said.

“It is the responsibility of architects to reintroduce the idea of a resilient city and citizen involvement in China.”


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