WHILE most foreign residents of Shanghai live and work downtown, Gianpietro Belotti, the CEO of a multinational company, spends much of his time in the suburban district of Jinshan.
"Jinshan is a place where I've been spending most of my last 13 years. I saw it developing and changing from a nice community into a modern town. It's a little jewel dense with surprises and... I often try to reserve some spare time to wander around hoping to find some unexpected 'wow' spots," Belotti said.
"And so I did it when I was driving just next to the manufacturing plant I've used for work since early 2006. Suddenly I discovered a 'secret garden' that was unreal, beyond any imagination."
"At first glimpse, you could perceive elegance, history and above all the enchanting power of the nature surrounding the construction, all magically preserved there. The match between the old countryside villa and the majestic lure of the garden was just breathtaking — but unfortunately damaged by a big car park lot built to separate the house from the garden," he said.
Belotti said the idea that popped immediately into his mind was how to restore the harmony and the connection between these two spaces. "And that, at the same time, was the biggest job and challenge I had to face. The building complex, with its geometrical and simplified horseshoe shape, was originally designed to embrace a hexagonal pavilion, the garden and the pond behind it; and there we should have returned it to its original purpose."
The simple lines of the buildings were softened by curvy finials, and dragons on the ridges of the roof were designed to contrast the irregular and natural shapes of the garden.
"Together with the architects team from Dedo Design, led by my friend Nunzia Carbone, Luca Crespi from Crespi Bonsai for the garden design and Ivan Corradi for the interior decorations, we decided to renovate the space by preserving the original 'roots' of the Chinese culture and by adding here and there elements of other origins," he said.
Driven by the aim to create a more sophisticated harmony, they tried to re-center the yin and yang of the complex. "We knew how difficult it could have been and we were aware about the skepticism that we could have faced from the purists and the orthodoxies of traditional fengshui, but we tried to immerse our own alternative perspective and taste into the oceanic Chinese design," he added.
After working out several options, they recognized that the most exciting idea was to introduce a "flying platform" to replace the fracture created between the buildings and the gardens by the car park and to "blend" them into a new dimension.
"We decided then to work not only on the space... but on time elements as well. So precast concrete and steel panels integrated by water, natural stones, and 'green' were nested together around the buildings," Belotti said.
The same concept of playing with space and time was applied to the renovation of the garden and the restoration of its interiors.
In one of the blocks designed to be a leisure area, Belotti and his team entirely eliminated the ceiling to display the original wooden roof beams. On most of the walls, they also decided to remove the plaster to display the bricks underneath. These touches brought in an extra dose of grace as well as a sense of age.
New elements derived from Japanese and Italian cultures were then brought in to complete the existing Chinese design. Colors were also reduced.
"To activate further the entire atmosphere, we put a lot of emphasis on the lighting. Most of the visitors are astonished to see how the garden and the building totally change their appearance at night when the entire place magically lights up," Belotti said.
Beauty of bonsai
Belotti said he has always been seduced by the appeal of greenery. "I still remember my first bonsai and the way it was collected from the mountain more than 25 years ago. Nice memories are also connected to those beautiful evenings at the bonsai club in my hometown, Brescia. Those were really magic nights spent debating with older friends about bonsai shapes or techniques. The bonsai stimulated my artistic side and the technical side as well," he said.
Before coming to China, he followed the bonsai movement in Italy and adopted a Japanese style based on the ideal of perfecting nature.
"When I came to China I realized that there was another way to conceptualize the bonsai and it was more natural, not formal, and oriented to the imitation of nature. I learned from Chinese culture that any 'imperfection' of nature could be a beautiful and unique feature to enhance.
"This garden project, and more extensively my approach to life, fully implement this philosophy. There is not necessarily a right or wrong position. And the more diverse the options or the solutions, the higher the value that can be delivered. With this in mind, I'm trying to offer visitors different perspectives for a more complete immersion in the art of landscaping," he said.
From the very beginning, Belotti saw great potential in this place, which now functions as a weekend retreat for him and his friends as well as place to host cultural events. Among the variety of possible solutions available, he preferred to focus on a multifunctional environment that could inspire him and other people.
"Though I don't have much time to dedicate to the garden because of my busy working schedule, I try to spend quality time there. I often visit it to train our gardeners and staff to focus on detail, to care about every single element. Receiving friends or customers in the garden is also a joyful opportunity to share relaxing moments, to debate about different cultures and their connections. Experiencing bonsai pruning or shaping during sunset or at dawn is an experience I recommend to everyone," he said.
Belotti also designed a couple of chic but minimal dining rooms and installed an acquaponic system to produce organic vegetables.
Recently he has hosted a bonsai workshop at the space, one which he hopes will become a regular event. "Along with the education of bonsai amateurs, we plan to organize once or twice a year exhibitions of bonsais and hope to one day have a permanent museum with masterpieces from all over the world."