Dust kicks up on a bumpy road that visitors to the stately Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens never see, as a golf cart motors away from all the carefully kept foliage and into a hard-hat area. There’s a stand of blue port-a-potties to the right and a grove of tan construction trailers beyond that. Instead of bird calls and floral blooms, the air is filled with the indelicate sounds and smells of big machines doing heavy work. But come the end of May, this place will be a haven from disharmony: 12 acres of supreme peace and subtle excitement, where every corner turned reveals a fresh vista—a jade-green lake, an ornately appointed pavilion, a huge rock balanced on its end—and each feature offers an opportunity to dig into history and philosophy.
This is Liu Fang Yuan (the Garden of Flowing Fragrance), which opened in 2008; with this final expansion, it now occupies the biggest swath of the Huntington’s 120 acres. That’s no small honor—the 100-year-old Southern California educational and research center brings in roughly 800,000 guests, 2,000 researchers, and 20,000 students a year, and its $500 million endowment makes it one of the wealthiest cultural institutions in the nation. Its broad array of collections includes an early Warhol Soup Can and The Blue Boy, a Gutenberg Bible and the Opinión archives, over 40 corpse flowers that release a rare stench, and, now, one of the world’s largest classical-style Chinese gardens. In, of all places, San Marino, an old-moneyed hamlet 12 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles.
A quarter century in the making, Liu Fang Yuan is a triumph of authenticity, harmony, craft, and fundraising. It’s also a welcome reflection of the broader demographics of the San Gabriel Valley, home to one of the largest and densest Chinese American populations in the country. The project’s international coalition of architects broke ground on this $24 million phase in August 2018, and they saved the showiest bits for last. There is a proper restaurant, Pavilion Encircled by Jade, which will serve an innovative take on regional Chinese cuisine. The 500-person-capacity Terrace of Shared Delights will be an event space for galas, festivals, operas, and more. The sprawling Verdant Microcosm courtyard will showcase penjing, the tiny cultivated landscapes that inspired Japanese bonsai. And a gallery, Studio for Lodging the Mind, will finally allow conservators to exhibit historic and contemporary Chinese art within the garden.
As he stands outside that gallery, still dusty from the golf cart ride, the garden’s affable 36-year-old curator, Phillip Bloom, is beaming. He explains that he named this building after a wry 11th-century essay commissioned by a prince to inaugurate his new painting collection. “It essentially said, ‘It’s great to collect stuff, but don’t get too attached,’ ” says Bloom with a smile. “I thought it was a good sentiment for a gallery that hosts temporary exhibitions.” Ironically, that layered approach to labeling within Liu Fang Yuan imparts a sense of permanence for the visitor. Chinese calligraphy appears throughout the garden, carved into stones or painted onto bamboo placards, using clever references to tie the Huntington’s garden to the annals of Chinese art and literature.
But the biggest connection is to the Classical Gardens of Suzhou, a series of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in eastern China that thrived in the 17th century and that many upper-class scholars built as private retreats for contemplation and creation. Liu Fang Yuan was modeled after these with help from the Suzhou Institute of Landscape Architecture Design (SILAD) and the Suzhou Garden Development Company. Many of the garden’s components were built in China and shipped here. “It’s like a giant IKEA set,” Bloom says. That is, if every IKEA piece were molded, cut, or chiseled by hand. And good luck trying to flat-pack a solid-granite bridge.
Even in a place famous for cultivating distinct worlds—a rose garden complete with tea service, a Japanese wilderness teeming with koi, a Martian expanse of cacti—Liu Fang Yuan occupies an otherworldly space at the Huntington. Hidden behind an undulating white wall, it emphasizes structure and possesses a different sort of quiet, as if nature itself is in awe of the intricate latticework, carved botanical designs, and stark-black rain-harnessing drip tiles framed by the pavilions’ glossy brown beams.
Virtually everything you can see is true to tradition, which is especially impressive, considering what you can’t. “The posts are wood, but they’re hollow,” says architect Jim Fry, who supervised the American side of the job and, because of earthquakes, had to hide steel frames inside the posts and throughout every building. SILAD was adamant that visitors not feel metal as they meander, so in a cross-cultural twist, Fry’s team bought column fronts from a Pennsylvania company that works on colonial homes. Suzhou Garden sent over 51 artisans who spent six months on-site. They lived at a hotel in nearby Monterey Park, where Mandarin is arguably more useful than English. But mostly they did fine handiwork as prescribed by garden manuals written 400 years ago. I spot one of their projects beneath my feet—an elaborate paving pattern so precise, it seems machine-made. Instead, Bloom explains, five to eight men would start each morning with “a giant pile of pebbles and spend the day sorting them.”
There are 3,000 tons of imported Chinese rock in Liu Fang Yuan, but far more impressive than that number are the several hulking pieces of craggy Taihu limestone featured throughout. Mounted on steel rods, some five inches in diameter, the rock chunks seem to float as if the crane that lowered them into place is still there. They look utterly magical, and Bloom confirms: “There are lots of very old stories and poems about people taking dream journeys through the holes in these rocks.” We slowly circle one called Embroidered Cloud—Old Spongy to the Huntington staff—and it appears to shape-shift every step of the way. With their zigzagging paths, Suzhou gardens are designed to offer ever-changing views, and this Western reproduction is no exception.
From one angle, Liu Fang Yuan is a monument to international goodwill at a time when China and the United States are often at odds. The last of the shipments arrived about a month before the latest tariffs went into effect, a budget-ballooning prospect that Huntington fundraising VP Randy Shulman calls “hair-raising.” But from another vantage, the garden is an overdue domestic collaboration between the Huntington and its Chinese American neighbors. Shulman estimates that 80 percent of the money for the garden came from that community, ranging from a $3 million gift from philanthropist Mei-Lee Ney to “a little girl who had a bake sale and gave us $6. Interest was visceral and immediate.”
Ney, who also sits on the Huntington’s board, says it’s been a few decades since the place was “pretty much a white enclave [for the] wealthy” but that administrators have especially “stepped up the diversity” in the past 10 years or so. This includes new plans for multilingual signage and a five-year initiative to boost inclusion. But had Henry Huntington lived long enough, he might’ve found his way to a Chinese garden anyhow. Many of the plants grown on his property were originally cultivated in China—peaches, plums, peonies, chrysanthemums, and 1,200 camellia cultivars—as were many of the defining characteristics of Huntington’s Japanese garden, completed in 1912, when the format was still novel. Railroad tycoon though he was, the old man did it for the culture.
For a host of reasons—opium, communism, racism—Chinese gardens took longer to make it to America. Suzhou’s stateside debut was a much smaller endeavor but plenty significant: the Astor Chinese Garden Court, opened in 1981 at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and built by a predecessor of SILAD, marked the first major cultural exchange between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. As the style spread to Vancouver, Montreal, and Staten Island, folks at the Huntington dreamed of having such a garden. Fry submitted his first sketch in 1994, and plans started to solidify in 2000 (the same year Portland opened its SILAD-made Lan Su garden) when a Beverly Hills bon vivant donated $10 million to kick-start the Huntington project.
From the new Stargazing Tower pavilion, perched at the highest point in Liu Fang Yuan, there’s a view that’d be impossible amid the flat terrain of Suzhou, where strange rocks like Old Spongy are often used to represent mountains in miniature. The Mount Wilson Observatory can be seen atop the San Gabriel range, overlooking the garden’s meticulous landscaping and architecture and, for now, the construction encampment beyond. All of it creates the feeling of peering down at a series of carefully composed penjing scenes.
As it turns out, the bulk of the Verdant Microcosm’s impressive penjing collection was created by Che Zhao Sheng, a man who spent the past decade pruning and weeding the Huntington’s Chinese garden. Now he stands to become the star of Liu Fang Yuan—not just head gardener but a master of the garden’s only perennial art form. In a place full of allusions to culture that originated 6,500 miles away and several hundred years ago, the most compelling story might actually be local. On a wall not far from Che’s open-air showroom, a series of calligraphed characters sums up the particular gift of this detail-obsessed destination: “Seeing the large within the small.”
Chris Martins wrote about the Four Larks adaptation of Frankenstein for Alta, Winter 2020.
• Special events around the expansion of the garden have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Contact the Huntington for details.
• The Huntington, 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino
Three other West Coast gardens of uncommon character
Conservatory of Flowers: Walking into San Francisco’s massive 141-year-old greenhouse is like being transported to another world. Visitors can traverse mini cloud forests, ogle astounding orchids, or see one of the largest types of water lilies in the world, whose fully grown leaves can support the weight of a child.
Forestiere Underground Gardens: Faced with a useless plot of hardpan Fresno soil, Sicilian immigrant and farmer Baldassare Forestiere began digging in the early 1900s. With a few hand tools and 40 years, he carved out 10 acres of subterranean grottoes, patios, a pond, and paths. An improbable orchard flourishes year-round.
Portland Japanese Garden: Japan’s former ambassador called this marvel the most beautiful and authentic of its kind outside of his country—and that was before a 2017 revamp upped its footprint to 12 tranquil acres of perfectly pruned flora, cascading waterfalls, moss-topped lanterns, and views of a Fuji-like Mount Hood.