Kongjian Yu: China’s Olmsted

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Designed Ecologies: The Landscape Architecture of Kongjian Yu
, a new book on the ideas and work of Kongjian Yu, FASLA, put together by former Harvard Design Magazine editor William Saunders really enriches our understanding of a landscape architect many consider to be China’s Frederick Law Olmsted. Unlike some other design monographs, there’s a lot to read and understand here because Yu’s life has been so rich and his journey so interesting. Nestled among 21 case studies of projects by Yu and his firm Turenscape across China and the U.S. are a set of essays by leading Western landscape architecture practitioners and thinkers like Peter Walker, FASLA; Professor Frederick Steiner, FASLA, at University of Texas, Austin; Professor Kristina Hill, Affiliate ASLA, PhD, at the University of Berkeley; Harvard University landscape architecture department chair Charles Waldheim, Affiliate ASLA; and Dumbarton Oaks’ John Beardsley, who each examine an aspect of this world-changing designer and place Yu’s work and ideas in global contexts.

The most personal (and perhaps finest) article in the book is by Saunders himself. He interviews Yu, tracking his path from life in a small village to university in China to Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he did his PhD) to teaching and starting his own firm, which now has more than 600 employees. It’s an amazing story that Saunders relays beautifully. Yu was born in 1963, “growing up communally raising crops and livestock.” As a boy, Saunders writes, Yu saw his parents stripped of their dignity and possessions during the Great Cultural Revolution, which Mao Ze Dong unleashed on China in an effort to upend the traditional patterns in Chinese society and instill collectivism. Yu parents had been a “well-off, land-owning” family — exactly the kind of family Mao targeted. Saunders says seeing his family undone gave Yu a powerful ambition.

Coupled with this ambition was a deep love of nature. Within the poverty of rural China, there was also natural splendor. Yu grew up in a kind of Arcadia, with a “an enchanting forest and a fish-filled creek.” He spent his time away from his farming duties exploring nature. Over the years, he saw the forest cut down and the river totally polluted. “This explains the depth of his commitment to recreating and protecting natural abundance.” In fact, Yu is now one of the most potent advocates for the environment in China. Like Olmsted, he’s also a prolific writer, creating books aimed at convincing both policymakers and the public about the dangers of environmental degradation.

Yu beat incredible odds just to make it to high school. He had to overcome the political stigma associated with his family. Riding a water buffalo, tending his duties in the fields, Yu studied hard and passed the national entrance exam to get into high school. Then, he had to walk 6 miles to get to his high school and then back, each week. Yu moved from the bottom of the class to the top, eventually beating out 600 of his class mates to become the only one in his district to get into university. In comparison, getting into Harvard years later must have been a walk in the park.

At university in Beijing, Yu was a “country bumpkin,” but he quickly got over the shock and buckled down, learning how to speak and draw for the design courses he wanted to take. He ended up studying forestry and then completing a master’s degree in landscape architecture. With great English language skills, which opened many doors for him, he became a translator for a series of speeches by Carl Steinitz at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD). In 1992, he began the PhD program there. He once again felt like a bumpkin, having never interacted with computers. He became a GIS master. Upon graduation, he worked at SWA Group for two years in California before returning to China in 1997, where “his confidence and sense of personal mission emerged full blown.” Seeing how China was destroying its environment with its rapid urbanization, Yu started a firm and won his first design competition in 1999. More than ten years later, he has an amazing body of work, winning ASLA professional design awards year after year. He is now among the top tier of landscape architects in the world.

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Yu’s work is based in a deep-rooted philosophy about nature and society. His essay, “The Big Foot Revolution,” explains how ornamental gardens are about as useful as binding a woman’s feet. These ornamental approaches were created by an urban elite that saw sophistication in a lack of functionality, in rebelling against nature’s “inherent goals of health, survival, and productivity.” Yu instead offers a new landscape aesthetic based in incorporating the rural, the messy, the functional landscape into the urban realm. Yu says he’s not opposed to beautiful art that doesn’t really have a productive function — like art, dance, or music — but “that in our resource-depleted and ecologically damaged and threatened era, the built environment must and will adapt a new aesthetic grounded in the appreciation of the beauty of productive, ecologically-supporting, survival-enhancing things.” This is revolutionary landscape architecture, rooted in part in Communist ideas about elevating practicality and productivity for the common good, even though, in practice, the Communists themselves were the ones who have wrecked havoc on nature (see the current state of nature in China, Russia, the former Soviet Union states, and North Korea).

The rural, peasant aesthetic is now center stage. “We need a new aesthetics of big feet — beautiful big feet.” Productive rural landscapes (like those productive big feet) are what’s needed to fight today’s problems. There are ecological reasons for doing this, too. Those old-school rural landscapes, while productive, are highly in tune with nature and reflect a farmer’s sense of balance with the environment.

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Yu sees the extent of China’s massive urbanization as a form of excess, with all those big gaudy new buildings in Beijing as “meaninglessly wild forms with exotic grandeur.” China and the rest of the planet can’t afford things like these while “anthropogenic climate change” brings “additional floods, storms, droughts, and diseases, along with the extinction of many plant and animal species and other threats to survival.” Yu then translates this ethos into an ambitious, ecologically-minded program for remaking the whole of China, and guiding cities still in the wilds of explosive and often destructive development. This is because “the Chinese urban landscape must not repeat the mistakes of past European and American methods of city beautification.” Beautification for beautification’s sake alone is a crime in today’s world, with all our problems.

In other places, Yu remakes what is past its prime, degraded into new landscapes. This may involve remaking degraded environments into new ecologically-sound ones, but also making them publicly accessible so that people benefit, too. Yu was also one of the first in China to see the beauty in modern Chinese ruins — remaking a shipyard park built by the Communists into a park, creating an urban haven out of the revolution’s past.

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His other projects certainly weave in aspects of Chinese culture, creating contemporary works that also feel classic, timeless.

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The fine contributions by the Western practitioners and thinkers add another interesting layer to the book. Most zoom in on a few projects; others offer multifaceted critiques of Yu’s ideas and work. They all show how Yu was also inspired by ideas he found in the West, and how his work can be appreciated in a global context. Peter Walker writes that Yu “frequently integrates sculptural references in ways reminiscent of Andre Le Notre’s huge Baroque seventeenth century gardens, which were also based in agricultural images.” John Beardsley notes that “Yu’s approach might be challenging in any context. But in the West, there is a precedent for his messy aesthetics in the tradition of the wild garden, which date back to at least William Robinson. Moreover, there are contemporary designers with whom he shares some notions of nurtured wildness.” Frederick Steiner explains Yu’s equally important role as an educator in China, how his research to “identify nationwide ecological patterns with GIS technology” is rooted in work by Ian McHarg and other Americans in the 1990s to create a “prototype database for a US national ecological inventory,” which was based on an earlier effort by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) in the 1970s. Kristina Hill, a fellow PhD student with Yu at Harvard GSD, delves into how landscape planner Carl Steinitz’s approach to spatial analysis also influenced Yu. “In Yu’s plans for metropolitan Beijing’s ecological infrastructure, several patterns emerge directly from Yu’s exposure to the ideas of Steinitz and [landscape ecologist Richard] Forman.” Other essays by Kelly Shannon, Peter Rowe, and Antje Stokman also examine his approaches to urban ecological design.

It’s Hill in the end who also writes that “Yu’s practice model and ideas have a historical analog in the exemplary writings and practices of Frederick Law Olmsted.” And as Charles Waldheim writes in the afterword, Yu takes on the mantle of publicly promoting a sophisticated approach to landscape planning at not a moment too soon: “The first generation of Chinese professionals trained in landscape ecology and planning in the United States now embody the greatest hope for the renewed relevance of of a tradition of planning that has all but been eclipsed in the United States.”

Read the book.

Image credits: Birkhauser Press

2 thoughts on “Kongjian Yu: China’s Olmsted

  1. Flux Research (@fluxresearch) 01/31/2013 / 12:42 am

    I love this work. That Little Red Wall of China is particularly enticing.

    Given his past and the current state of pollution in China, he must carry a sense of tragedy with him on a daily basis. Yet his work feels very hopeful. That’s inspiring!

  2. Rob Parker 04/30/2013 / 1:13 pm

    Are you kidding me? Tee first exhibited photo of the park is almost as decorative as it gets! Look at the tree arrangement and hedges!

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