Travel for an architectural journalist inevitably includes the latest and most modish structures being erected, including conversations and guided tours by their authors. In Beijing, I’ve seen CCTV more than once, visited the San Li Tun entertainment complex with works by Kengo Kuma and SHOP, and climbed over sandbags, around barricades and through dark passageways at the Linked Hybrid project designed by Steven Holl. That’s my job.
Every trip contains a side-trip. In this case, I joined our colleagues from the Shanghai office who make Architectural Record: China, among other things, for a day’s visit to Leshan, China. We visited the Great Buddha, an amazement constructed in the Tang dynasty (completed about 800 AD, if you wish to feel humbled) almost 235 feet tall, carved into a cliff overlooking the confluence of three rivers. The seated deity was supposed to exercise control over the raging waters, which roared and flooded. It took a Buddha.
While they scampered down the stone steps to his prodigious feet, an activity that looked daunting to me, I went up another set of stairs, following my nose, where I found the Dongpo pavilion. Erected in the Song Dynasty, not as old as the statue, the structure, probably constructed for storage at an earlier date, once housed the court official and poet Su Shi, known by his pen name, Su Dongpo. There, up away from the crowds, fountains of bamboo set in octagonal openings sprouted a way to the house. Constructed between 950 and 1260, the simple, two-story house with a wooden, columned peristyle opens to the humidity and the water-laden breezes that find their way up the bluff, then reaches out to pavilions through flanked breezeways.
From the hilltop, like the Maitreya Buddha below him, Su Dongpo surveyed the rivers. Unlike the Buddha, he responded thorough verse and calligraphy. The artifacts—the poetry, the calligraphy, and the house—remain, though the man lives only in memory. Today, despite careful restoration and tourist activity, the site as a whole acts as mirror to another millennium, allowing us to breathe and see what other minds, at other times, have known. A fleeting glimpse.
Following his wife’s death, he wrote this poem:
Ten years living and dead have drawn apart
I do nothing to remember
But I can not forget
Your lonely grave a thousand miles away ...
Nowhere can I talk of my sorrow --
Even if we met, how would you know me
My face full of dust
My hair like snow?
In the dark of night, a dream: suddenly, I am home
You by the window
Doing your hair
I look at you and can not speak
Your face is streaked by endless tears
Year after year must they break my heart
These moonlit nights?
That low pine grave?