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Aesthetic Efficiency

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Prompted by this empty space outside a mall, I asked a few posts back if invisible design was an oxymoron. Despite having no obvious indicators of design, this empty space enables all the feelgood benefits we like to think more visible design can provide.

It enables so much for so little obvious design input and leads to the concept of aesthetic efficiency and an occasional topic of this blog. It goes like this. Some buildings are nice to look at or experience and some may even be thrilling but, if those pleasure units were quantifiable then it’d be easy to put a cost on them and determine if the sum of them was worth it. Not only that, we’d also be able to track the total aesthetic pleasure a building gave over its lifetime. It would enable us to see for what they are, those buildings launched to great fanfare but soon forgotten.

In the previous post I mentioned covering the supports and undersides of elevated expressways with ivy as an example of something that provides huge benefits for very little outlay. This is also a design decision in the sense that somebody was able to imagine an improvement and then implement it. It’s not as invisible as the previous example.

Even less invisible is this next space I recently described as having something compelling about it due to the curved facades of the four buildings giving shape to the space between and forming a faux-roundabout with three drop-offs and one entrance on the diagonals. This works wonderfully for traffic and the hotel drop-offs but less so for pedestrians as the distance between crosswalks is increased. It’s not a plaza, piazza, place, square or circle, but it’s a very strong something that’s been created from nothing or, more precisely, the controlled and consistent absence of something. It’s more than the sum of the spaces between the buildings and is all the more remarkable for being the cumulative work of three different designers. This simple design decision has produced something disproportionately greater than the means used to achieve it. It’s a manifestation of aesthetic efficiency.

I’ve admired these London council apartment buildings by Colin Lucas for decades now and I know many people will object to the raw brick and concrete finishes on aesthetic grounds. [Note: Unless there is local pressure to prettify them with overcladding, these buildings will remain as fireproof today as the day they were built.] A single typical floor could have been designed to have three two-bed apartments and one one-bed apartment but instead, the one-bed apartments are grouped on every fourth floor, giving these buildings their distinctive profile, and all for the construction cost of cantilevering the living rooms a meter and a half on one side.

We now go from London to Shanghai and, according to the sequence in my photo library, somewhere between the Picardie Apartments (1935) and Keven Café across the road, and Jing-An Temple. The uppermost floorplates of this building are marginally larger and the levels immediately below have balconies creating a transition. It’s not so different from the London example in using a very efficient aesthetic device to give the building its distinctive profile at very little additional cost. This building uses the device only once to give the building a base and a wider top but nobody can accuse it of trying to be a tree or a flower. However, if you half close your eyes, you can perhaps see an abstraction of one of The Three Classical Orders. Ionic or Corinthian I don’t know or care. I like it.

When I was in Shanghai, an architect friend recommended I go see Square Pagoda Garden (方塔园, FangTaYuan) if I had time, as it’s in the town of Sonjiang outside Shanghai proper. 

The trip is an hour and a quarter by bus from Shanghai Indoor Stadium Station where a new outdoor stadium is being built without fuss.

I arrived at the bus station just as the express was about to depart. I was having trouble registering on the QR ticket app but, when I mentioned FangTaYuan to a station controller, he said something to the driver and I was ushered onto the bus. 

The driver was going to let me ride without paying but, by the time we arrived, I’d managed to get the app working and paid the ¥8 (US$2) fare. My next problem was that the ticket office for the pagoda park only took cash. I must have looked disappointed because I was told it didn’t matter and the lady gave me a ticket anyway. I felt this Square Pagoda Garden was a very special place for Chinese people and that they very much wanted me to see it. 谢谢大家。

You enter the park from the north and proceed along a straight road with close planting. At the end, the view opens up and though your first sight of the pagoda is off to the left, its base is hidden by a wall partially enclosing the square in which the pagoda stands. This is of course deliberate. The most common shape for a pagoda is octagonal and there are also hexagonal and circular ones but I’m surprised there aren’t more square ones since having fewer corners emphasizes the roof curves and makes them appear more delicate. Solidity and grounded-ness must be valued more.

Immediately in front of this approach road is a large mound with steps inviting you to a raised viewing platform offering views of the pagoda seen through tree branches or against the uneven edge of the platforms and their boulders. These aren’t set views from predetermined positions but glimpses, incidental, and almost voyeuristic. I wouldn’t be surprised if none of this, including the mound, is natural. It’s wonderful. Leading off the mound are various paths and, while you suspect some new thing is just around the corner or beyond the moon gate, you go along with it and let yourself be delighted anyway.

The pagoda was first built in the late 11th century, underwent various renovations and repairs, was rebuilt in 1977, had the park added in 1978 and the formal garden added in 1982.

The viewing mound and lake were thus most likely created in 1978. But look at the sides of that lake in the image below! Its sides are vertical concrete [!!] walls where the pagoda is seen against them, and only on the south [left] side is there anything resembling a natural slope. Neither the artificiality of the pagoda or the naturalness of the landscape is made a fetish of with crude juxtapositions. The lake isn’t even trying to be natural yet the noisy paddleboats don’t disturb its silence. It’s bold yet, at the same time, it’s almost nothing. See how the wall around the pagoda isn’t concealed by trees? And how the near corners of the pagoda, the boundary wall and the lake are all on the same diagonal? And how the portion of the lake wall outside this square geometry is slightly lower? Beautiful. Perfect. 1978. [What did we think was important in 1978? And how much of that still speaks to us in the same way it did then?]

This concrete lake is an incremental improvement. Its material and construction are new but not a distraction. Its position and alignment reinforce what’s already there. It’s a respectful acknowledgment that’s made the pagoda better somehow yet it’s difficult to see it as conscious design. It’s probably impossible to find out who was responsible for these decisions but, if I could, I’d like to ask them if they knew they were doing something amazing or whether they just thought it was the right thing to do.

Notice how, from across the lake, the pagoda is either framed by or seen against those cypress trees in the distance? This isn’t an accident. It’s playing the long game, seeing the bigger picture.

In televised mass performance extravaganzas for some major commemoration or festival, an empty section of sky in the far distance on the edge of frame will be lit with synchronous fireworks to enhance what’s happening on stage within the stadium. (Imagine a project meeting with the stage manager/director saying things like “Give me a proposal and estimate for painting that patch of sky over there orange for the ten seconds from 3:05 to 3:15 into Act 2, yellow for the 8 seconds from …. etc.”)

When we notice this, we say it is “layering of space” as if we understand it, happily praise it as wondrous and then fail to notice how well somebody just did their job. It’s picturesque landscape design and how to make isn’t that hard. The bit we find difficult is seeing that bigger picture in the first place. From now on, me hearing the words “layering of space” to describe one opening seen through another will trigger a “release the safety on my Browning” moment.

Another remarkable thing about this park is how complete a world it is despite being only 450m at its longest north-south. At no time was I aware of the world beyond its boundaries and, always drawn to the centre as I was, I had no desire to seek out those boundaries, or to even wonder how this was achieved. It’s a totally internal world concealing the one outside and allowing you to forget it. It’s totally relaxing and we should expect this of all our parks and gardens. The souvenir and refreshment kiosks were small, functional and picturesque. I wasn’t spending any money just sitting there or walking around and, unlike some galleries I’ve been in, I was in no hurry to leave once I’d seen what I came to see.

My friend tells me that this pagoda and park have inspired many persons, including celebrated architect Wang Shu. I don’t know what Mr. Wang thought or wrote about it and nobody’s asking me what I think but, if they were to, I’d say “Try to make something as simple as you possibly can, and then do something bold with it”. If any of my students learn anything this coming semester, I want this to be it.



  • Dear Graham –

    Thank you for this lovely, thought-provoking tour. Will see my time outdoors today with renewed eyes, and be looking for those undesigned places (too many recent NYC parks suffer from the exact opposite problem).

    Am curious about the fare for admission to this park: is it very modest or somewhat expensive? And does having a fare raise any issues about public access (as roughly translated to Shanghai)?

    As always I very much appreciate your writing and look forward to reading & learning from your posts.



    • Hello David! The entrance fee was RMB 30 = US$4.60. This is equivalent to a big lunch for me or a student at my university dining hall or it could also buy one Starbucks muffin in town. The admission is high enough to make going there special but not that high as to be exclusive. There are probably different prices for families but I never got to find out. This is cultural heritage both tangible and intangible so I’m sure it’s reasonable. And people would think it reasonable too as they’ll appreciate the many workers needed for pruning and sweeping and generally keeping it that way. For that reason, I felt bad about being allowed to enter for nothing. I wanted these people to have my money. That little video at the end with the boats and the lady singing takes me back there and I’m so glad I have that. Cheers, Graham.