Mikyoung Kim’s Fractal Landscapes

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Fractals / Mikyoung Kim Design

“This is the image that sits above my computer screen. It’s a fractal form, which explains how we work. Within fractals, there are similar forms but at different scales. The molecular scale and broad scale work together as a whole. Fractals are a system. You can’t draw an outline of a fractal and fill it in, or create a bottom-up modular system and put one together. Fractals are about the overarching structure,” said Mikyoung Kim, FASLA, head of her namesake landscape architecture firm, in a lecture at the National Building Museum.

Fractals relate to her creative process. Just as at the broad scale — or the aerial view — you can see human behavior patterns, at the molecular scale, she is thinking of “one person, and their multi-sensory experience within that place.” However, having said all of that, Kim also believes that landscape architects “can’t predict how a public space will be used and allow for flexibility.”

Kim described a few projects that show her attention to both the broad and human scales, and how they fit together into a system:

ChonGae Canal Source Point Park: Sunken Stone Garden

She won an international design competition to create the ChonGae Canal Source Point Park, with its Sunken Stone Garden in Seoul, South Korea. For Kim, it was a great experience working there, as she is a Korean American born in Hartford, Connecticut. She discovered that Seoul has 22 million people, which is about half the population of South Korea as a whole. It’s 8 times denser than NYC, with 16,000 people per square mile.

The 7-mile-long ChonGae Canal was once a river that collected water from surrounding mountains. The river was one of the reasons Seoul became the capital of Korea in the late 1300s. Over the decades, it became a conduit for wastewater and raw sewage. “By the early 1960s, it had become a symbol of poverty, and so dangerous that you couldn’t even touch the water.” It was eventually covered over with an elevated highway, dividing the city.

The Seoul government took down the highway and decided to open up the river again. They brought day light back to the corridor and improved the water quality to class 2 level, which was really difficult. The new river corridor park had to handle monsoons and 100-year storms. “But, really, it was about bringing back national pride.”

Kim worked with the international team restoring the river, but focused on one piece: a stone garden at the source point. With this project, Kim realized landscape architecture can have significant political impact. This landscape has caused the city to rethink its relationship with the water, and changed perceptions about what’s possible with public space.

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ASLA 2009 Professional Awards General Design Award. ChonGae Canal Source Point Park: Sunken Stone Garden / Taeoh Kim

Also, the landscape itself is politically charged. In the era of the optimistic “Sunshine Policy” just a few years ago, when South Korean leaders thought reunification with North Korea was imminent, the ChonGae Canal Source Point Park was to be the site of the reunification ceremony.

There are ceremonial aspects of the landscape: Kim set 9 stones to represent the 9 provinces of Korea as a whole. The stones represent the “collective effort of this urban park, adding a layer of cultural significance.” Beyond the cultural aspect, Kim says the park, which has been visited by 20 million people since its opening, has led to $600 million in private sector development along the river corridor.

Through the Sunken Stone Garden, Kim came to the conclusion that the “most successful projects are ones where we don’t have to hire a photographer. If we can find lots of photos through Pinterest, Facebook, Flickr, we’ve been successful. Successful public spaces are canvases with a design language and character, but can embrace different kind of activity and discovery.”

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ChonGae Canal Source Point Park: Sunken Stone Garden / Mikyoung Kim Design

Farrar Pond Residence

Kim said she does very little residential work, but she created a 3-acre landscape in Lincoln, Massachusetts, which links to Walden Pond. The clients had but one requirement: no lawn, but an outdoor space were the kids and dogs can run. They ended up deciding there would be no imperious surfaces on the property.

“The big star of show is this CorTen fence structure that contains the dogs. Our client was really two German Shephards.” The fence is designed to just keep these particular dogs in. Kim’s team measured the dogs from shoulder to shoulder to determine what the width of the fence openings should be. A dachshund that visited was able to slip right through. The fence was welded on site, so it fits the regraded landscape “like a glove.”

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ASLA 2007 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Farrar Pond Residence / Mikyoung Kim Design

On the ground are lilac bluestone pavers and granite stepping stones. As her client said, “it looks like the void of fences have fallen out to create this pattern.”

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ASLA 2007 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Farrar Pond Residence / Mikyoung Kim Design

140 West Plaza: Exhale

“We like smaller cities where we can make an even bigger impact.” In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a “charming, historic university town, ” Kim worked with local developers to create a master plan for a new downtown park. Kim and her team concurrently looked at circulation, including bicycle infrastructure, plazas, and stormwater. They found that the mixed use developments were creating lots of surface stormwater run-off.

So Kim created a brilliant solution called Exhale. Instead of storing the run-off in gardens, she convinced them to exhale the cleansed runoff through an artful misting system. “If there is no extraneous water from the site, there is no mist.” Kim choreographed the experience, creating a score of sorts, with light and mist, which grows and dies back. “It’s like the sculpture is breathing.”

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Exhale / Mikyoung Kim Design

At night, Exhale is a magnet, particularly in the hotter months when the mist is on, as it reduces temperatures by 10 degrees. “Kids are willing to get soaking wet. They run and around and engage it.”

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Exhale / Mikyoung Kim Design

The Crown Sky Garden: Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago

“I’ve always really been into healthcare. And now, healthcare is interested in us. Every facility wants a garden, which is much different from 20 years ago.” Still, at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, Kim felt pressure to deliver. “We were taking 8,000 square feet out of a vertical hospital to build a garden instead of a new MRI center. How does that equal out?” While she said her husband, who is a doctor, would take issue with the statement that “gardens heal people,” gardens do “transform our bodies in ways that can’t hurt. Within 3-5 minutes, it has been proven that gardens normalize blood pressure, heart activity, muscle tension, and brain electrical activity.”

In this healing garden on the 11th floor, there were enormous constraints. Given so many young patients there have weak immune systems or just had surgery, they couldn’t be exposed to organic materials like soil or plants. There have been cases of people catching Legionnaire’s Disease from fountains, so water features were out, too.

Kim and her colleagues finally convinced the hospital to allow bamboo in raised planters that patients wouldn’t be able to access. The soil that holds them is 98 percent inorganic. “Basically, the only thing that will grow in soil like that are weeds, and bamboo is a lovely weed.” The hospital staff have committed to putting a tarp on the bamboo and spraying them three times a year to keep them clean.

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ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Crown Sky Garden: Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago / George Heinrich Photography

To get around the fact that no open water could be allowed, Kim created water features that bubble up through marble. And a fallen tree, which Frederick Law Olmsted planted in a park in Chicago more than 100 years ago, was reclaimed and turned into wonderfully tactile benches and interactive art pieces. Sealed together with resin and lit from within, the tree sculptures also feature kids’ hand prints, which when touched, activate sounds of water.

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ASLA 2013 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Crown Sky Garden: Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago / Mikyoung Kim Design

Learn more about Mikyoung Kim’s new projects, like 888 Boylston in Boston, at her web site.

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