That’s the theory

The substantive project this century will not be just the perpetuation of vibrant public space – in fact the public and the so called placemakers – whoever they really are – have pretty much now worked out they can just “pop it all up” for themselves.

The future of substantial and interesting work for landscape architects lies in redesigning cities in terms of social justice and ecological performance. This means going deeper into socio political processes and harnessing and actively redirecting their internal forces to more just and more ecological ends.

It means understanding the city metabolically and systemically which in turn means not just working “in the old idea of the city as a place of many buildings and filling designated sites with design composition – it means tracking supply chains to the ends of the earth – identifying the relationality between where you and your project are in both space and time in relation to the sources and sinks that can be traced to it.

It means identifying points along those continuums to apply design intelligence with particular accuracy so that change might reverberate through the system. It means working with time more than space.

This ultimately means a correlation of planetary urbanism with the complexity and holistic nature of the earth system across all scales.

At least that’s the theory.

And before you think I’m just swinging the old pendulum back from art to instrumentality, working with the ecological mechanics of the city doesn’t mean we just apply the cold hand of reason – the evolution of planetary urbanism is not just a technical matter of performance metrics, nor is it a moralizing, punitive project – it is an artistic, critical and beautiful project.

The possibility of society becoming a constructive rather than destructive force of nature is as profound and poetic as it is practical.

Richard Weller, OMG, There is an Anthropocene in my Backyard! (2016)

Kongjiang Yu + TURENSCAPE, Houtan Park (2010)

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Big Nature

Our performance -how we consume, how we waste- is incontrovertibly connected to the state of the environment. We have always had a desirous relation to nature- whether agrarian or industrial, literary or aesthetic. As our technological culture accelerates toward entrepreneurial environments, bonding with Big Nature may come… well, naturally.

Recently, critic and landscape architect Richard Weller pointed out that “landscape architecture is yet to really have its own modernism, an ecological modernity, an ecology free of romanticism and aesthetics”. Because of their functionalism, we are tempted to understand these nexts landscapes as a kind of ecomodernism. But to flourish, they will need to appeal, if not to our sense of romance, at least to our sensibility about how decisions we make today impact the future. We are no longer innocent; contemporary culture is coming to grisps with the Anthropocene epoch, a period that, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen suggests, began in the late 1700s with the onslaught of fueled human activity.

The onus of our new environmentalism includes a call for an advanced stewardship that is not just about protection or remediation, but an entrepreneurial redefinition of our relationship to nature.

Jane Amidon, Big Nature (2010)

Kongjian Yu + Turenscape, Qunli Stormwater Park (2011)

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Clue to Culture

For him, aesthetic judgments about the landscape were secondary. Primary was the question of why the landscape looked the way it did. What clues did the landscape itself present as to its own making?

To answer that question, [Peirce] Lewis suggested seven axioms:

Landscape is a clue to culture. It “provides strong evidence of the kind of people we are, and were, and are in the process of becoming”. By reading the landscape we could glean important insights into “who we are.” As a corollary, Lewis argued, if landscapes looked different, it was because there were significantly different cultures at work. If they were growing more similar, it was because cultures were growing more similar. Moreover, both the diffusion of landscape items across space and local cultural “tastes” were central in giving landscape its particular look and feel.

●  Nearly every item in the landscape “reflect[s] culture in some way”. We need to pay attention even to what at first glance might seem commonplace, trivial, or just plain haphazard and ugly. At the same time we need to make judgments about when an item really just is the idiosyncratic whim of an indi- vidual and thus truly is unique.

 Landscapes are difficult to study “by conventional academic means”. Rather, scholars need to turn to “nonacademic literature” (like trade journals, journalism, promotional literature, and advertisements). Most of all we need to train ourselves to “learn by looking”: we need to train ourselves to pay attention to the visual evidence. (Lewis gives little idea of what constitutes “conventional academic means” but the sense is that it is limited to reading scholarly books).

●  History matters to the structure and look of a landscape. We inherit a landscape which forms the basis for any changes or developments we subsequently make. Change itself is uneven (historically “lumpy”). Both technological and cultural change comes in great leaps forward, perhaps more so than as gradual evolution.

●  Location matters too: “Elements of a cultural landscape make little cultural sense if they are studied outside their geographic (i.e., locational) context.” Indeed, “to a large degree cultures dictate that certain activities should occur in certain places, and only those places”. Thus “context matters”.

●  So does physical environment, since “conquering geography’ is often a very expensive business.” Physical geography may not determine, but it does establish the limits of possibility and the costs of exceeding those limits.

●  Finally, while all items in the landscape convey meaning, they do not do so readily: meaning can be obscure. Even so “chances are” any disagreement over meaning “can be cleared up by visual evidence”.

Don Mitchel, New Axioms for Reading the Landscape: Paying Attention to Political Economy and Social Justice (2008)

Peking University + Kongjian Yu + Turenscape, Shenyang Architectural University Campus (2004)

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New Era

In a new era of multiple unprecedented challenges imposed by the processes of industrialization and urbanization, landscape architecture is now on the verge of change in the world, and especially in China. It is time for this profession to take the great opportunity to position itself to play the key role in rebuilding a new Land of Peach Blossoms for a new society of urbanized, global, and interconnected people. In order to position itself for this sacred role, landscape architecture must define itself in terms of the art of survival, not just as a descendent of gardening. The profession must reevaluate the vernacular of the land and the people, and lead the way in urban development by planning and designing an infrastructure of both landscape and ecology, through which landscape can be created and preserved as a medium, and as the connecting link between the land, the people ,and the spirits.

Kongjian Yu, The Art of Survival. Recovering Landscape Architecture. (2006)

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Kongjian Yu + Turenscape, The Red Ribbon, Tanghe River Park (2008)

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Crucial Dimension

Water resilient terrain and plantings are designed to adapt to the monsoon floods; A resilient bridge and paths system are designed to adapt to the dynamic water currents and people flows. The bridge and paths connect the city with nature and connect the past to the future; Resilient spaces are created to fulfill the need for temporary, intensive use by the audience from the opera house, yet are adaptable for daily use by people seeking intimate and shaded spaces. The river currents, the flow of people, and the gravity of objects are all woven together to form a dynamic concord. This is achieved through the meandering vegetated terraces, curvilinear paths, a serpentine bridge, circular bio-swales and planting beds, and curved benches. The project has given the city a new identity and is now acclaimed as its most poetic landscape.

Kongjian Yu & TURENSCAPE, Yanweizhou Park in Jinhua City (2014)

Indeed, time is the crucial dimension of landscape and may ultimately be the single most important reason that architects are drawn outside their buildings. Landscape architecture is a pursuit quite distinct from that of building, requiring time for plants to become established, time for shrubs to flower, time for fruits to yield. Landscapes are usually better after ten or twenty years; after thirty years they are transformed in quite different entities.

Marc Treib, Nature Recalled (1999)

Kongjian Yu & TURENSCAPE, Yanweizhou Park in Jinhua City (2014)

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