Ground Control

Silkroad Magazine, Hong Kong, September 2010

Three top landscape architects are breathing new life into urban areas

Yu Kongjian returned to China with a doctorate from Harvard in 1997 and the firm belief that ‘beauty is the by-product’ of good architecture. After founding Turenscape, China’s first private landscape design firm, he also became a professor at Peking University. [Find the full transcript of the interview below].

“In China, there are two landscaping cultures,” Yu explains. “There is the elite, high-class culture of gardening and then is the vernacular culture of farmers and fishermen. This ornamental culture of landscape design nethereeds a lot of resources – it’s not sustainable.” Instead Yu takes his inspiration from the practices of China’s farmers and the “beautiful, productive paradises” they can create from a working landscape. Yu believes that this is the key to keeping China’s cities liveable, despite the country’s break-neck pace of development.

The architect puts this paradigm into practice at his studio. Turenscape’s latest major project, Houtan Park, saw an ecological revival of an old industrial landscape at the site of Shanghai’s World Expo. The park used wild grasses and crops to filter river water for use at the expo, among other aspects, and won the highest honour from the American Society of Landscape Architects Awards this year.
Yu is aware of the wider responsibilities of his job, particularly his role as an educator. “I hope for there to be a higher level of understanding about how landscaping can help…The changes need to be top-down,” he says. “Landscaping needs to become a law, we need to see what needs to be protected across the board and keep it that way. To help that, we need a more democratic system of education, we need to encourage innovative young people to take part. China has wonderful traditions; contemporary landscape now needs to break through all the existing knowledge and criteria. We need more openness for everybody so that we can have more creativity.”

Gavin Coates is the primary resident landscape architect at urban planning firm ACLA, and came to Hong Kong in the 1980s after working in the UK; he is currently ‘on loan’ to the government while he directs the ongoing Hong Kong Greening Master Plan.

More than a third of Hong Kong’s land mass may be covered in country parks, says Coates, but these green spaces are vastly under-used. “There’s some incredible wilderness out there but people don’t take advantage of it,” he says. “So you have to bring the landscape to them.”
He spends much of his time tackling the territory’s urban areas, which are some of the densest in the world. Thanks to the reflective properties of concrete, the mass of human traffic and the heat emitted by cars and air-conditioning, Coates says that there can be as much as a 7 degree difference between the countryside and the city. To counter this he has overseen the addition of over 5,000 trees and a million shrubs and groundcover plans to Hong Kong and Kowloon – a number which will have tripled by the time the project is complete.

Yet Hong Kong’s density creates a unique challenge. “You lift up a paving block here and there’s a solid mass of cables; you’ve got water pipes, electric, telephone company cables,” he says. “Above ground you’ve also got sightline issues and signs, street lamps and traffic lights all competing for space”. And though many of the public rally for a greener city the feeling does not extend to everyone; most shopkeepers, Coates explains, will object to a tree being planted outside of their shop because it blocks their merchandise. The danger from falling trees or branches has also become a contentious issue. “On the mainland the landscaping is quite impressive but they’ve got the space to do it,” he says. “If you have 20-30m verge along the side of the road, a leaf or branch falling off your trees are not going to hit anybody. In Hennessy Road we’re planting into a medium that’s not even two metres wide, and which millions of people go down every week.”

Jie Hu is one of China’s foremost landscape architects and returned to the country after spending almost a decade with Sasaki Associates in the US. He now practices and teaches from Tsinghua University’s School of Architecture in Beijing, and believes that a city’s green spaces must be carefully attuned to the nature of the place and its people.

Hu’s time in America had an expansive influence on his work, he says, but the country could benefit somewhat from the Chinese attitude to landscaping. “You get the sense that when U.S cities are developed, the land is just cleared of its original characteristics and built over”, he says. “In China there’s a historically strong connection to the features and the energy flow through the land.”
He reveres the way a simple, well-designed park space can bring life to a neighbourhood, both as a space where people can “get out of their homes and engage in their surroundings”, and as a green lung. During its Olympic bid the Central Government promised to build a vast green Olympic Park that would counterbalance the environmental burden of the extra construction and activity. As project director Hu won acclaim and awards for the park’s blend of native ecology, modern techniques and local culture.

To strike the right balance in a project, Hu immerses himself in the physical and traditional culture of a city. “For the Olympic Park I did this by researching [Beijing’s] older existing parks that already carry its character and tradition, like Imperial Palace Park, so that my design would feel like a continuous development of that park system,” he explains. “But I also looked at the Beijing people, at what they like to do in parks: tai chi, dance, play cards or just have tea? Landscape architecture is about understanding and meeting the needs of the public.”
Full unpublished interview text:

Yu Kongjian

Q: What proportion do you practice versus teaching these days?
A: I’m a full-time professor at Peking University and I founded The Graduate School of Landscape Architecture at PKU. It’s hard to say what proportion of my time is practice as compared to teaching; I don’t consider teaching and research and practice to be separate. What I’m doing in design is pedagogical demonstration in school.

Q: What drew you to landscape architecture?
A: (Laughs) It’s a long story. Even though landscape architecture is fundamentally different from landscape gardening, I believe it is the most appropriate profession to deal with the issue of land – to meet the challenges of today’s environmental issues. My definition of landscape architecture is: the art of survival; it isn’t about gardening or decoration. It is about the relationship between the land and the people, about how to deal with the land so that people can have a safe, healthy and pleasant life. It’s what we need to create functional productive, life-sustaining and culturally meaningful landscape, so that we can meet today’s global climate changes, and the  environmental challenges coming with the rapid urbanization in China.

At the time in 1980s, Beijing Forestry University was the only option in China for landscape gardening, for physical outdoor environmental design. That was the beginning of my education.

Q: Which skills or ideas from your time at Harvard have you found have made the strongest impression on your?

A: Harvard gave me many things. At one side I was able to deal with large-scale landscape planning due to the fact that I had the best advisory board for my doctorate of design study, which is composed of the top landscape planner Carl Steinitz, landscape ecologist Richard Forman and a GIS (Geographical Information System) professor. On the other side, I was exposed to the contemporary, cutting edge design. All the lecturers and professors at Harvard are very much on the cutting edge. The way it works is that the design school at Harvard invites the best practitioners to teach and to lecture and to learn from each other. These two aspects of education make me a student capable to deal landscape across scales, from the national and regional landscape planning, to the site specific design, which have proven to be extremely important in my latter career.

Q: What are a few of the major differences that you found berween the American and Chinese approaches to landscape design?

A: In China there are two landscaping cultures. There is the elite, high-class culture of gardening and then there is the vernacular culture of farmers and fishermen. Some people think that landscape design is from the higher culture of gardening, but this is a mistake. I am against that, we need to learn more about the vernacular culture; we need to learn how to deal with land, how to make it productive, how to irrigate it, how to survive on it. Today, we are facing serious problems because we are wasting too much energy. This high-class, ornamental culture of landscape design needs a lot of resources, and we don’t have the resources for that, it’s not sustainable. We have to go back to the real vernacular, which is about making land productive and sustainable. Normal Chinese farmers create beautiful, productive paradises by focusing first on the working landscape. We need to get back to that. All my designs are about the working landscape first, about function, not about beautification.

In the United States, landscape traditions go back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. It’s comparatively young compared to the elite Chinese tradition of gardening and the European tradition of gardening, but old [when] compared to contemporary Chinese landscape architecture. On the one hand the American tradition of landscape gardening comes from the European tradition – it’s a tradition similar to the high culture gardening of the Chinese. But about 110 years ago America began to urbanize itself and they needed a profession called landscape architecture to make the congested city liveable. So this tradition of landscape architecture (not gardening) is a breakthrough from the European tradition of gardening, and is the root of modern profession of landscape architecture, which was based on the need to meet the challenges of  urbanization in America. The goal of landscape architecture was to create recreational space, to bring nature into the city by creating a pastoral landscape, like Central Park in New York.

Today, China is moving forward so fast, we have to deal with serious environmental crises and also urbanization while making a city liveable. When America started this style for urbanizing cities 110 years ago, they did not have such serious problems we are now facing. It is therefore important to recognize that the contemporary landscape architecture in China needs another jump forward from the American tradition of landscape architecture, in that the Chinese contemporary landscape architects have to face more serious environmental and ecological crises, and be able to deal with such unprecedented challenges as climate changes, globalization and urbanization with unprecedented speed and scale. My intention is to develop a new Chinese vernacular landscape. In my projects, we use the landscape as ecological infrastructure, to help people feel present, see beauty and counter environmental problems as well.

Q: What can the world learn from Chinese landscape traditions or from feng shui?
A: Feng shui is part of the Chinese vernacular, part of everyday Chinese society. We can learn how to be more adaptive to the environment. We can learn how to deal with natural processes, like water. When you look at Chinese traditional settlements and architecture, like rice paddies in mountain areas, like the irrigation system of Dujiangyan in Sichuan, that’s what I am thinking about how actually the Chinese vernacular landscape culture including Feng shui can  be as inspirations for contemporary design. The rice paddy landscape in the Yunnan Province for example, is a kind of landscape which is adaptive to the mountain area, but at the same time, there is an irrigation system that make the land working and productive, while people cultivate around the reasons. It’s about using the landscape for productivity, for survival. 2000 years ago, people knew how to build these irrigation systems with minimal cost and minimal materials. We can learn from this.

Q: Where do you think landscape architects can do the most good in China?
Anywhere, from the protection of national ecological security to the construction of regional ecological infrastructure, and at the smallest scale to the present and productive private gardens, even to your balcony! China is facing environmental challenges on all levels, it is the time for the nation to consider the remaking of the national landscape which has been destroyed badly in the past centuries and especially in the past decades of urbanization and industrization, and landscape architecture is the only most critical profession that can remake our national landscape safe, productive, beautiful, and meaningful. All the rivers, the lakes of large and small are becoming so badly polluted and defunctioned. Engineers say we can fix this by creating water treatment plants, by building more dams and dykes, and through more steel and concrete, I doubt that completely and I believe we need to see lour land as a living system, we need to treat it like that. We can’t fix it with engineering. The land is a living system.

Q: What changes do you hope to see to make doing this (your job) easier? (

A: I hope for there to be a higher level of understanding about how landscaping can help. It’s not just about making something beautiful, it’s about making something work – beauty is the by-product. Landscape must be seen as infrastructure; landscape architecture must be seen as a tool to help fix today’s serious environmental and ecological problems. The changes need to be top-down.
Landscaping needs to become a law; we need to see what needs to be protected across our national landscape and keep it that way. To help that, we need a more democratic system of education so that new ideas and new knowledge can be taught; we need to encourage innovative young people to take part so that more innovative planning and designs can be implemented. China has wonderful traditions, contemporary landscape now needs to break through all the existing knowledge and criteria and even the value system.

Q: Would you say that love of public space a particular characteristic of China?

A: Every culture loves public space. In China, traditionally, public spaces are most easily visible in villages and small towns – the village centres and town centres in front of the temples (for religions or ancestral worships). In America they call them commons. We have similar commons, usually they are in front of temples. Traditionally in cities there isn’t a lot of green public space but today we treasure open space more. This is for several reasons. First, the urban population is becoming bigger and cities are much more compact than they are in America. People live more densely, their private space is smaller, so they need more public space. There are more parks in Chinese cities, more spaces for tai chi and other collective activities. Compared to the suburban American communities, open spaces in Chinese cities are more useful and more occupied, and certainly more important for public health, for ecological security, sense of community and sense of cultural identity and belonging.

Q: What have you worked on most recently?

A: My latest major project is the Houtan Park at the 2010 Shanghai Expo. We worked to create landscape as ecological infrastructure, by creating multiple ecological services, including mediating flood and cleaning the contaminated water. For this we won the 2010 ASLA (The American Society of Landscape Architects) Award of Excellence for general design.