As Chinese cities expand and consume more and more land, the relationship between man and nature there becomes increasingly estranged. More than 200 million Chinese have moved from the countryside to urban areas during the past two decades, and another 200 million will probably follow in the next 20 years. 

So an exhibition entitled Creative Nature, which looks at a number of provocative landscape projects commissioned for the 2011 Xi’an World Horticulture Exposition, arrives at an auspicious time. Alternately playful and serious, a bit crazy and down-to-earth, the designs by nine professional designers and 10 teams of students from universities from around the world forces us to see landscape in new ways. One project, by students at the University of Southern California, features a large pool that reflects the sky, while one by Martin Rein-Cano and his Hamburg-based firm Topotek1 riffs on the old admonition that if you keep digging in the West, you’ll end up in China. Calling its design The Big Dig, Topotek1 plans a funnel-shaped hole in the ground out of which recorded sounds from Argentina, the U.S., Sweden, and Germany emanate and provide visitors “a soundtrack of life on the other side.”

blog post photo

The firm Topotek1 designed a garden, "The Big Dig," which plays on the notion of digging a hole to China.

blog post photo

The Beijing firm Atelier DYJG created an outdoor room for each season in its design, "Four Boxes."

USC’s American Academy in China, which was founded by Dean Qingyun Ma in 2008, mounted the exhibition at an old teahouse in the Qingpu district of Shanghai and kicked it off with an afternoon-long forum called “The New Chinese Landscape” on July 10. (Disclosure: I participated in the forum’s panel discussion, along with people such as Liang Qingdong from AECOM, Brett Park from ValleyCrest, Paul Tang and John Enright from USC, Han Xili from Peking University, and Shwu-Ting Lee from Feng Chia University.)

blog post photo

Students at the University of Toronto created a "Scent Garden" that includes scent poles.

The exhibition runs until August 7, then may travel to other countries. “This notion of landscape is at the core of Chinese intellectuality and has engendered many forms of artistic expression,” says Ma. But at the same time, “there is something rather unnatural about humans’ interaction with nature,” states Shanghai-based writer Clare Jacobson, who curated the exhibition. “Gardens throughout the centuries—the Ryoan-ji Zen Garden, the Humble Administrator’s Garden, the Gardens of Versailles, Kew Gardens, Central Park, Park Guell, and the Getty Garden—were not designed as loving tributes to existing environments but instead as laboratories of landscape theory,” explains Jacobson.

If you want to see what the gardens from the Creative Nature exhibition are really like, go to Xi’an next April when they will be built. From what I heard from the designers, the site on the outskirts of China’s ancient capital is a flat, dull stretch of earth right now. Come spring, though, it will be transformed into a series of ingenious landscapes highlighting modern society’s tenuous but critically important relationship with nature.

Universities that fielded students to design gardens are: USC, the Architectural Association, Columbia, Feng Chia Univeristy, Hong Kong University, University of Toronto, Universidad Torcuato de Tella, University of California Berkeley, Peking University, and University of St. Joseph. 

Professional design firms that created gardens are: EMBT, Gross Max, Terragram, Topotek1, Mosbach Paysagistes, Martha Schwartz Partners, West 8, SLA, and Atelier DYJG.