A parkland restaurant cultivates its southern Chinese landscape traditions, while nurturing a taste for sociability
Given the centrality of cuisine to Chinese culture, it’s a surprise that so many restaurants have the visual appeal of paofan − a popular soup of leftover rice. One reason might be the clash between informal and formal, between public and private space in urban China.
The best restaurant designs thrill in both conspicuous consumption and social intercourse, but they also permit the privacy that nurtures intimacy. The contemporary Chinese city (at least the first tier ones) exists as a kind of hyper-reality: a display expressed through its glittering surface and an immodest public display of wealth. But so many urban restaurants turn dining into an exclusively private event; an increasingly common phenomenon is the multi-storey restaurant with phalanxes of banal, cubic, private dining rooms. Such design denies the renqi − the spirit of people − the delight in the ‘social’ prized by Chinese culture.
Shanghai architect Pu Miao creates a more palatable solution − a modest building that fosters a shared experience of dining, while also permitting retreat, on a park site where distinctions between public and private meld like salt and sweet.
Kunshan is an ancient city in Jiangnan − the historically fertile and prosperous region south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze, whose wealth fostered a flowering of culture over centuries, including Kunqu Opera, from which Peking Opera is derived. As a cradle of intangible culture (though this fast-developing city is almost devoid of architectural remains), Kunshan might have fallen victim to the current craze for historicism that is so often the default solution for sites valued as bearers of heritage.
Pu Miao himself has decried major public projects in this vein as a ‘play of dead forms’. But the city of Kunshan has been fortunate in the administration responsible for the development of public spaces, and Pu Miao has also benefited from an enlightened government client. He attributes his freedom to experiment to the fact that his series of Kunshan commissions are modest in scale; grander statements would require orthodox solutions.
The eastern facade of his latest commission, the Sichang Park Restaurant, is dominated by a high protective brick wall. It references vernacular dwellings in this southern region while eschewing imitation (for instance, he sees no advantage in using reclaimed brick, the much-touted strategy of the heritage architect). This wall is a subtle curve in plan; in elevation the ends flick upwards asymmetrically, like an expressive but highly controlled calligraphic mark. It is a plane interrupted by two vertical elements − an exterior staircase with semi-circular landings, and a glass tower housing a dumb waiter.
Traditionally, the wall functions as a screen to separate the private from the public, typically the dwelling from a teeming street. However, this building doesn’t require rigorous privacy as its surrounding is a garden − in fact, the landscaping came first (by designers who originally worked for EDAW Hong Kong) and a key aspect of Pu Miao’s composition is the inter-penetration of outside and inside, and the spheres of public and private.
On the east, facing the road, a grid of vegetable beds is, by early summer, planted with lettuces. Here it seems an attractively Californian conceit − eat what you see − a delightful vegetal riff on the local custom of keeping tanks of seafood in restaurants where diners may select their catch of the hour. Raised planters with glazed ends appear to penetrate the building but actually this is a sleight: the beds abut tall slender windows through which may be glimpsed trellises to support climbing plants on the western side of the building.
This spatial organisation draws on Chinese concepts of garden design, but Pu Miao explains the objective is to meet the needs of contemporary culture, rather than pander to a manufactured nostalgia. ‘Indoor and outdoor spaces are paired to serve a building function, as in traditional Chinese architecture but designed in a modern language.’ This is an architect who has critiqued contemporary Chinese architecture through a Heideggerian lens of authenticity, and who has decried the sadly ubiquitous ‘inauthentic’ that relies on cultural clichés to create a sense of place.
The main entrance is on the southern end of the building, sheltered behind the protective wall. The first floor continues the conceit of the courtyard garden; a large communal space is flanked by a row of individual ‘rooms’ separated by miniature glazed courtyards which advance into the dining area. Pu Miao explains the difference between Eastern and Western spatial concepts through a playfully apposite simile: ‘It’s like cooking. The Chinese way is a stir fry with meat and vegetables mingling together. The Western way is like a salad followed by a steak.’
These courtyards house stainless-steel cables that are hung from A-frames made of steel tubing. Vines are already twisting up the cables, and in time will create lush green screens of ivy and edible climbing plants. These are curtains rather than green walls with boxed plants (adopted in China too, as a convenient synecdoche for sustainability), which Pu Miao criticises as difficult to irrigate and too expensive for a developing country. ‘If an architect wants to use plants, he or she should make use of the natural tendency that plants can grow.’ The device is also a pleasing reference to the bamboo supports for squash and beans which can be found throughout the surrounding Jiangnan countryside.
The second floor is a multi-dimensional dining space. A glazed room, whose upper windows open to permit the cross ventilation so essential in a subtropical climate, looks onto decking that accommodates the upper sections of the green curtains.
Historic Kunshan exists as memory so it is fitting that Pu Miao’s recollections are subtle. The light, skeletal structures of Jiangnan, which revealed their wooden framing and were satisfied with natural textures, are alluded to here in the exposed steel framing and lineal emphasis. Typically, Pu Miao’s palette is monochromatic, made up of white, black and charcoal greys, like the traditional Jiangnan buildings exemplified in the historic core of the neighbouring classical garden city, Suzhou.
‘Refined’ is a word that could rightly be applied to this restaurant. It’s an environment that can easily accommodate quiet, private conversation, as well as engendering the animation of renqi.
Sichang Park Restaurant, Kunshan, Jiangsu Province, China
Architect: Miao Design Studio
Design team: Pu Miao; Hanjia Design Group, Shanghai (architect of record), Jiang Ninqing
Photographs: Courtesy of the architect