Delirious Shanghai

Thoughts on China 2010-2013

  • Suzhou Space

    Evan Chakroff
    Sep 16, '14 7:30 PM EST

    A long time in the making, I finally got around to running a computational intelligibility analysis on the plan of Suzhou's Garden of the Master of Nets, in an attempt to suss out what exactly makes this - and other chinese gardens -  so spatially compelling. 

    Originally posted on the LMN Tech Studio blog: Suzhou Space.

    suzhou space header image

    Before starting at LMN, I lived in China for over three years, where I became fascinated by the classical gardens of Suzhou. These gardens, unique to southern China, are populated by small pavilions and halls, sculpted rock outcroppings, shallow pools, and planted areas, all contained within a perimeter wall and arranged in an aesthetically pleasing manner. While a pleasing arrangement of rocks may be enough to satisfy bored tourists, architects and designers find the gardens endlessly fascinating for the way they orchestrate experience, frame space, and create illusory depth in their limited boundaries.

    Suzhou’s gardens are characterized by ambiguity of interior and exterior space, collisions of disparate forms and materials, and above all the intricate layering of space to create subtle perceptual shifts that serve to destabilize the viewer’s sense of space and scale, inspiring a kind of sublime wonder, a worthy goal for designers in any era or cultural context.

    How are these effects achieved? Is Chinese garden design a lost art, or subject to codes buried in ancient design manuals? Can we leverage our computational tools to quantify what makes these gardens so beguiling? Could spatial analysis of these gardens hold any lessons for designers today?

    intelligibility simple_0001_Layer 1

    [single point isovist diagram - windows as obstacles]

    intelligibility simple_0000_Layer 2

    [single point isovist diagram - windows as void]

    As a starting point, we can analyze a floor plan based on “spatial intelligibility” - a metric that indicates the relative visual accessibility or enclosure of a space. Intelligibility is best understood as an aggregation of vectors, a summation of the length of direct sightlines in all directions. From any point in the space, we draw projecting rays outward until they hit obstacles, measure the distance from the origin point to the intersection point, and add the values. (For this example, we've used Grasshopper's Isovist component.)

    intelligibility simple grid lines

    [isovist grid with radial projecting lines]

    intelligibility simple grid color

    [sample points with color map gradient - low density of samples]

    Extending this logic to a grid, we can find this intelligibility value for every grid point and create a gradient map that visualizes the relative visual legibility of the space. In this simple example, we can see clearly that the ‘compressed’ space to the left has lower intelligibility values than the ‘open’ space to the right.

    While this type of analysis, based only on physical barriers, could be useful (for retail planning, for instance, or urban design), we have so far assumed only solid obstacles. What would happen if we considered barriers that allowed visual, but not physical connections between adjacent spaces?

    intelligibility simple grid color-dense

    [sample points with color map gradient - high density of samples, windows as obstacles]

    intelligibility simple grid color-dense - window voids

    [sample points with color map gradient - high density of samples, windows as voids]

    In Chinese gardens, there is a disjunction between physical accessibility and visual accessibility: windows often open to adjacent spaces that may be accessible only through convoluted, indirect routes. Screen walls divide space but still allow views through. While it may not be the most efficient layout, this complication is the root of many of the gardens’ pleasures, and is worth studying further.

    For this analysis, we’ve picked the Garden of the Master of Nets, one of Suzhou’s most celebrated gardens. A moderately sized garden, it contains several areas of interest: a relatively enclosed section with halls and courtyards along a linear axis, a large open area around a shallow pool, and several intriguing areas where covered walkways collide with small pavilions and rockeries. By analyzing the plan for both physical and visual intelligibility, we can begin to quantify and visualize the unique qualities of each space.

    Master of Nets - Sketch Plan

    Master of Nets - Base Plan

    Master of Nets - Physical Access

    Here, we’ve mapped physical intelligibility; how accessible is each point on the grid? Note the values around the pond: though visitors can see across, we’re treating the pond edge as a boundary.

    Master of Nets - Visual Intelligibility

    Here, we’ve mapped visual intelligibility, and so we’ve removed the obstacle objects wherever a window or screen wall allows views through to spaces beyond. Note the pond edge again, some of the longest sightlines are to be had around the pool.

    Master of Nets - Disparity

    Finally, by calculating the difference between the physical and visual intelligibility values, we can create a map of the spaces where the disjunction between the two is greatest, and we can surmise that these are the areas where the surprising perceptual effects of the garden are most evident. The pond edge is worth noting again, as the views are open, but movement is restrained. More surprising, areas that are dense with rockeries and covered walkways are highlighted as well. These areas are physically divided but visually permeable thanks to the corridors’ open edges and prevalence of screen walls and windows.

    Visual connectivity without physical access could be frustrating, but here is is an operative method of the design, and a technique that could be adapted for future building projects if such an effect is desirable. Designers today often deal with situations where circulation paths are kept separate for security, or sanitary, or social reasons. In such cases, visual connectivity may be encouraged as a way to enliven a users’ experience of the space. In retail design, intelligibility maps can be used to anticipate shopfront visibility, and thus sales. Extended to a sectional analysis, or a three-dimensional matrix, similar techniques could be used to analyze the overall legibility of a stadium or auditorium. In urban planning, these metrics could be used to anticipate traffic loads, or to speculate on usage patterns of public spaces. In all cases, intelligibility ties computational power to qualitative effects, and is worth further study as a metric that help designers bridge the gap between the digital and the physical.

    Garden of the Master of the Nets (1)

    Garden of the Master of the Nets (5)

    Garden of the Master of the Nets (15)

    Garden of the Master of the Nets (20)

    Garden of the Master of the Nets (21)

    Suzhou - Master of the Nets Garden (6)

    Suzhou - Master of the Nets Garden (1)

    View full entry

  • Shanghai de Lux

    Evan Chakroff
    Oct 24, '13 2:05 PM EST

    I was recently invited to write a piece for the AA's "colour research cluster," Saturated Space - "a forum for the sharing, exploration, and celebration of colour in Architecture." For my essay, I took on nocturnal lighting in Shanghai. "In Shanghai, light and colour give designers, planners, and... View full entry

  • Bootleg Aesthetics

    Evan Chakroff
    Apr 10, '13 2:50 AM EST

    Life goes on in Shanghai, and I remain so far unaffected by unprecedented PM2.5 pollution levels, the 16,000 dead pigs in the river, or the escalating H7N9 pandemic.  To distract myself from these various apocalyptic scenarios, I've been maintaining a tumblr blog of scanned DVD covers from... View full entry

  • 业余建筑:一种新的(建筑)方言

    Evan Chakroff
    Mar 29, '13 10:29 AM EST

    Thanks to the efforts of my friend, former classmate, and occasional colleague Zhiguo Chen, I've been published in Chinese! Chen translated my essay "Wang Shu: A New Vernacular?" (Originally published on Archinect and mirrored on my website) and worked to get it published in an issue of "The... View full entry

  • Wang Shu/Amateur Architecture

    Evan Chakroff
    Feb 27, '12 11:36 AM EST

      Congratulations to Wang Shu/Amateur Architecture, recipients of the (just-announced) 2012 Pritzker Prize....  I've been working on an essay on his/their work, but it still needs a few more edits- meanwhile, here are a few photos, and my brief essay on the Ningbo Historic Museum... View full entry

  • SZ-HK Biennale

    Evan Chakroff
    Feb 26, '12 5:44 AM EST

    Not much to say at this point, other than that the Shenzhen and Hong Kong Architecture Biennale was well worth the trip. It's nowhere near the scale of say, Venice, but the quality of the work is right up there (indeed, many of the same firms participating, and a lot of overlap in the curatorial... View full entry

  • Ruins of an Alternate Future (Jinhua Architecture Park)

    Evan Chakroff
    Jan 29, '12 11:21 AM EST

    One of the great, if seldom realized, promises of architecture is its capacity to affect change. The best architects seem to have this potential in mind constantly as they structure career-length narratives around the social impact that good design can achieve. While this is often hyperbole, and... View full entry

  • CNY

    Evan Chakroff
    Jan 27, '12 12:44 AM EST

    That's all. Happy Year of the Dragon from Shanghai. View full entry

  • Guangzhou: Diverse-City

    Evan Chakroff
    Jan 24, '12 4:22 AM EST

    [In December, I helped lead a tour of Architecture students through eastern China. The following posts will be my brief impressions of the cities we visited. Today: Guangzhou.] [Shamian Island] Guangzhou, perhaps more than any other city, represents the diversity of urban form present in... View full entry

  • Kaiping Tower Houses

    Evan Chakroff
    Jan 15, '12 4:07 AM EST

      [In December, I helped lead a tour of Architecture students through eastern China. The following few posts will be my brief impressions of the cities we visited. Today: Kaiping.] I don’t have a lot to say about the Kaiping Dialou tower houses: my knowledge is limited to what... View full entry

  • Miracle City

    Evan Chakroff
    Jan 10, '12 8:51 PM EST

    [In December, I helped lead a tour of Architecture students through eastern China. The following few posts will be my brief impressions of the cities we visited. Today: Shenzhen.] Shenzhen’s short history is well known: In the accepted mythology, China’s Economic Miracle began here... View full entry

  • City of Dreams

    Evan Chakroff
    Dec 26, '11 9:31 AM EST

    City of Dreams [Note: Over the past two weeks, I helped lead a tour of Ohio State University architecture students and alumni on a tour up the East China coast, from Hong Kong, to Shanghai, and inland to Beijing. The following few posts will be my brief impressions of the cities we... View full entry

    Unrelated, aside from the post-colonial subtext...

  • City of Malls

    Evan Chakroff
    Dec 23, '11 5:23 AM EST

    [Note: Over the past two weeks, I helped lead a tour of Ohio State University architecture students and alumni on a tour up the East China coast, from Hong Kong, to Shanghai, and inland to Beijing. The following few posts will be my brief impressions of the cities we visited…. First up... View full entry

  • 12 Cities / 16 Days.

    Evan Chakroff
    Dec 5, '11 11:49 PM EST

    (note: this is cross-posted to As mentioned earlier, most of my free time recently has been devoted to the planning of a two-week architecture tour along the east China coast (and up to Beijing). What started as a Facebook-status "wouldn't-it-be-nice" has turned into a... View full entry

    China. Two Years in 3 Minutes.



  • Place-holder: Ningbo Historic Museum

    Evan Chakroff
    Oct 18, '11 10:05 AM EST

    architect: Wang Shu, Amateur Architecture Studio, 2009 photos by the author.   A few months ago, I took a weekend trip from Shanghai down to Ningbo. The recently completed Hangzhou Bay Bridge (briefly the longest on earth, before it was surpassed by another, elsewhere in China) cuts the... View full entry

  • Voyage to the Orient!

    Evan Chakroff
    Oct 8, '11 12:42 AM EST

    CHINA ARCHITECTURE TOUR: December 6 - 22, 2011 two week whirlwind tour of traditional, colonial, and contemporary architecture in China! (Sorry to post this - essentially an ad - here, but I see no better way to drum up interest and get more people involved...) This coming December I will be... View full entry

  • Delirious Shanghai

    Evan Chakroff
    Oct 5, '11 5:53 AM EST

    So, now that Archinect's got a new blog infrastructure, I feel obligated to share some observations on my life and work post-graduation (See previous entries for half-assed observations on life at the KSA). Long story short, in 2009 I moved to Rome. In 2010 I moved to Shanghai. It's a fascinating... View full entry

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reflections on architecture and urbanism in China.

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