Kongjian Yu, FASLA, won the 2023 Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for landscape architecture. Yu is a global leader in ecological landscape planning and design. He is one of the world’s foremost advocates of nature-based solutions, including the Sponge City approach, which has been implemented across China.
Yu is founder of the Peking University College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture and founder and principal designer of Turenscape. His firm, which has a staff of more than 400, plans and designs landscapes that “combat flooding while repairing ecological damage.”
“The award means that no matter our differences among peoples and nations, there is one common ground we have to hold together: taking care of planet Earth. We have to get together to heal this ill planet,” Yu said.
He also sees the award as a win for developing countries like China. “It is a huge encouragement for those who are working hard to establish themselves from the grassroots; for those who made their career in underdeveloped regions, in the most difficult parts of the world.”
In an interview, Yu offered his thoughts on future opportunities and challenges for landscape architects. He outlined his design philosophy and how it can serve as a roadmap for leadership on nature-based solutions and climate and biodiversity action.
Yu foresees an explosion in demand for landscape architects in China and other developing countries. “I am expecting revolutionary development of the profession of landscape architecture in the developing world where landscape architects are badly needed.”
“I believe landscape architects are coming into a golden era. We are positioning ourselves at the forefront in the battle for climate adaptation and planetary healing, particularly in China, India, Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa, where climate change is mingled with issues of urbanization, industrialization, and food security.”
“But there are also many obstacles that landscape architects need to overcome,” he added.
“The top obstacle is our lack of capacity. We need to breakthrough the boundaries of professional and disciplinary stratification. This will involve restructuring institutions, changing school programs, and redefining landscape architecture at a much larger scope, toward the art of survival.”
Yu founded his China-based firm Turenscape in 1998 with an ambitious goal — “nature, man, and spirits as one.”
“Tu-Ren is two characters in Chinese. Tu means dirt, earth, or the land, while Ren means people, man, or human being. Once these two characters come together, Tu-ren, it means ‘Earth Man,’ a relationship between land and people. The firm’s philosophy is to recreate the harmony between land and people and create sustainable environments for the future. We act in the name of the Heaven (Nature) and as messengers of the spirits of our native forebears,” he explained.
Yu brings that philosophy to his work planning and designing nature-based solutions that integrate wetlands, mangroves, and forests.
“Any sustainable landscape is nature-based. Landscape is a synonym for nature when one discusses landscape architecture in the context of its sister professions such as architecture and urban planning. Landscape architecture is about using knowledge and skills related to adaptation, transformation, and the management of nature to harness ecosystem services — such as provision, regulation, life support, beauty, and spiritual benefit — for humanity’s long-term and short-term needs. This is the essential core of nature-based solutions.”
And he also shared some news about how his combined practice and academic work are advancing these goals. “The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Peking University to establish a joint research program at our campus focusing on nature-based solution best practices. This is largely the landscape planning, design, and management work of Turenscape.”
Yu believes landscape architects’ ability to bring together multiple disciplines and leverage science and engineering will help solve the climate crisis.
“Landscape architects play a key role in addressing climate change, both in terms of mitigation and adaptation, particularly the latter. Landscape architecture is the cornerstone of the intellectual mansion of arts, sciences, and engineering that jointly stand together to address climate change. That is why I am so glad to see landscape architecture recently listed as a STEM discipline in the U.S.”
He envisions landscape architects leading the way, pulling together a range of professions to form enduring solutions.
“Ian McHarg defined a landscape architect as a conductor, who orchestrates disciplines and professionals and integrates all abiotic and biotic processes into a harmoniously performing ecosystem through the skill of designing in the physical medium of landscape.”
In 2020, Yu won the Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe Award from the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA). Read his acceptance speech.