A New Era for Rothko’s Sacred Space

The Rothko Chapel / Elizabeth Felicella

During this time, when people especially need places of solace and peace, the re-opening of these sanctuaries seem particularly opportune. After a comprehensive restoration and expansion, the Rothko Chapel, a non-denominational sacred space in Houston, Texas, has re-opened on a limited basis. Much of the revitalization effort, which encompasses the building and the landscape, helps to more fully realize the vision of Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko and the Chapel’s founders, John and Dominique de Menil.

The skylight in the original Chapel, which was designed by architect Gene Aubrey in 1971, has been reconceived, letting more light pour onto the 14 deep, dark, textured Rothko paintings. The landscape surrounding the building has been re-imagined to lead visitors on a more meaningful journey from the street to the artworks. And a new visitor center helps welcome and orient visitors.

The Rothko Chapel is a spiritual center open to those with “any background, any religion, any faith, or no faith,” explains Christopher Rothko, the son of Mark Rothko and chairman of the board of the organization that runs the Chapel.

In an introductory video, he explains how his father, who created some of the world’s most enduring artworks, had always wanted to create a space “where he could set the tone and have direct interaction” with the audience. When the Chapel’s founders, John and Dominique de Menil, reached out to him, it was a “dream commission.”

Rothko the senior envisioned the 14 paintings and building together as one work of art. Architect Philip Johnson was first engaged to create the building, but Rothko and Johnson didn’t see eye to eye. Architect Howard Barnstone was then hired, but fell ill during the process. Gene Aubrey was the final architect to complete the work, which is in the form of an octagon, in reference to the spaces in a Greek orthodox cross. Rothko would never see its completion. After years of struggling with depression, he killed himself in February 1970, months before before the Chapel’s opening.

According to his son Christopher, Rothko spent his career searching for a “universal language” in art. Before the pandemic, the Chapel attracted some 80,000 visitors annually, some making pilgrimages from around the country and world. So in this sense, Rothko succeeded in achieving his goal with these enveloping, meditative panels, which are considered among his masterpieces.

The Rothko Chapel / Elizabeth Felicella

To realize the vision of Rothko and the Menils, the Rothko Chapel uses its 2-acre campus and powerful art to create interfaith understanding and champion human rights. Since 1971, the Chapel has hosted 5,000 programs on religion, meditation, and spiritual healing, and current global issues.

The renovation of the Chapel was overseen by Architecture Research Office along with lighting designers at George Sexton Associates. The skylight, lighting design, and entryway into the chapel were redesigned to heighten the visual impact of the paintings. With a new central skylight, daylight now permeates the interior, which is what Rothko originally intended.

The Rothko Chapel redesigned skylight / Elizabeth Felicella

Before, visitors would gather at the Chapel’s vestibule, crowding the experience. The new Suzanne Deal Booth Welcome House to the north of the Chapel helps relieve pressure on the Chapel, creating ample space for groups and guided tours to meet, and includes an expanded gift shop and bookstore.

New Welcome House at the Rothko Chapel / Elizabeth Felicella

The landscape has been clarified and improved by Nelson Byrd Woltz | Landscape Architects. The firm writes that the existing landscape is structured along a primary axis, which is defined by three elements: “the irregular octagonal brick Chapel, a reflecting pool, and Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk that is sited at the far end of the pool from the Chapel.” These elements represent art, spirituality, and justice, respectively — justice because Barnett Newman’s piece is dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Broken Obelisk by Barnett Newman at The Rothko Chapel / Paul Hester

NBW bordered the reflecting pool’s western and southern edges with a new screen of 32 evergreen Savannah holly (Ilex x attenuata ‘Savannah’) hedges, which they say “refocuses attention on the central axis of the campus.”

Lanie McKinnon, ASLA, a landscape architect with the firm, goes into greater detail about their efforts in the public space surrounding the pool: “The plaza space was redesigned to create a larger and more contiguous space between the Chapel and Broken Obelisk. The new plaza space features exposed aggregate concrete reminiscent of the original concrete. The new Ilex hedge was installed, offset from the plaza, to open the edges of the gathering space and include new custom benches that, through their thick wood seats, echo the original benches within the Chapel.”

The landscape architects also reworked the “arrival sequence” that guides visitors from the street to the sacred heart of the campus — the 14 paintings. The path moves visitors through a series of “calm, quiet, shaded landscape rooms.”

Shady paths at the Rothko Chapel / Elizabeth Felicella

The firm explains: “these outdoor chambers provide visitors the time and space to physically and mentally prepare first for Broken Obelisk, then the Chapel, and finally Mark Rothko’s paintings. The sequence is calibrated to allow the eye to continually scale down while providing increasing shade in anticipation of the transition from the usually bright Texas sunlight to the Chapel’s interior. In reverse sequence, exiting the Chapel moves visitors through a range of spaces with tree-filtered views of the campus, allowing for quiet reflection in preparation for re-engaging with the city.”

A landscape room at the Rothko Chapel / Paul Hester

NBW planted some 300 river birch (Betula nigra ‘Heritage’) trees in rows along the edges of the landscaped rooms to the west and south of the Chapel, which are used for yoga, the annual summer solstice labyrinth, and other musical events.

McKinnon told us: “the birches balance the larger gathering spaces with more intimate seating spaces. The idea was to create outdoor space for Chapel visitors to reflect before or after their journey.” All the new trees, along with a sub-grade detention system, help the campus better manage stormwater.

A landscape room at the Rothko Chapel / Elizabeth Felicella

The total revitalization plan includes some $30 million in projects. A planned second phase will include a new administration and archive building, a renovated and relocated guest house, a meditation garden, and a program center with outdoor plaza. The program center will become the new home for the events the Chapel organizes each year.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (October 1-15)

ASLA 2017 Professional General Design Honor Award. Klyde Warren Park, Dallas, Texas / Liane Rochelle Photography

Florida Sees Signals of a Climate-Driven Housing Crisis — 10/12/20, The New York Times
“Home sales in areas most vulnerable to sea-level rise began falling around 2013, researchers found. Now, prices are following a similar downward path.”

Manchester Follows Asia’s Lead in Designing Age-friendly Cities — 10/05/20, CityMonitor
“Perhaps no UK city is better equipped to respond to its changing demographics than Manchester, where one third of the population will be 50 or older by 2040.”

Snøhetta, OJB Landscape Architecture Top Winners of 2020 National Design Awards — 10/02/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Winner OJB Landscape Architecture, a landscape architecture and urban planning practice that maintains offices in San Diego, Boston, Houston, Dallas, and Philadelphia, released a statement where founder Jim Burnett noted: ‘I believe landscape has the power to transform cities and strengthen communities, and that now, more than ever, we have a responsibility to address issues of access, equity, and health in our shared public spaces.'”

Imagine a Transcontinental Network of Protected Bike Paths — 10/02/20, Fast Company
“Under an elevated rail line in Miami, a new park will open this fall with a 10-mile path dedicated to walking and biking. It’s an infrastructure improvement for Miami cyclists, but it’s also part of a larger, interstate network of trails that will eventually make it possible to ride from Florida to Maine with little interaction with cars.”

Landslide 2020 Spotlights Women-designed Landscapes and the Threats That They Face — 10/01/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“This year, to mark the centennial of the ratification of the 19th amendment, each of the dozen threatened landscapes (two containing multiple sites) were created, designed, tended to, and championed by women including a multitude of female landscape architects and designers, many of them pioneering in the field and some unsung and overlooked.”

Fellowship Opportunities in Urban Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks

Dumbarton Oaks / Jared Green

Dumbarton Oaks, a Harvard University research institute, library, museum, and garden in Washington, D.C., has a number of fellowships open to landscape architecture academia and practitioners focused on race, democracy, and urban landscapes.

For those who seek to conduct innovative research while social distancing in a more inspired setting — a serene garden designed by Beatrix Farrand — this is a prime opportunity.

2021-2022 Mellon Fellowships in Urban Landscape Studies: These are available as part of the Mellon-funded initiative on “Democracy and the Urban Landscape: Race, Identity, and Difference.” Fellowships are for cross-disciplinary scholars, with a preference for those with PhD or master’s of landscape architecture degrees. Apply by December 1.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, fsa 8a15779.

Learn more about Dumbarton Oaks Garden and Landscape Studies’ symposium scheduled for April 30 to May 1, 2021: Land Back: Indigenous Landscapes of Resurgence and Freedom. Explore their recent virtual symposium on Segregation and Resistance in America’s Urban Landscapes, and read an in-depth report on their 2019 colloquium: the Landscapes of Enslavement. All these educational efforts have been funded with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Mellon History Teaching Fellowships: These are for current faculty members in universities and other post-secondary educational institutions. Apply by December 1.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, fsa 8b21739.

Garden and Landscape Fellowships and Project Grants: Awarded for an academic year or a semester, research fellowships are available to scholars with a terminal degree. Junior fellowships are available for degree candidates who have fulfilled all preliminary requirements for a terminal degree.

According to Dumbarton Oaks, project grants are “intended to support primary research of a specific site. Project grants may be used for a broad array of projects including field research, site analysis, botanical surveys, heritage conservation and restoration planning, with the goal of promoting the preservation and understanding of historic gardens and other significant designed landscapes.” Apply by November 1.

Another opportunity worth exploring for those who design classical gardens like Dumbarton Oaks:

The Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (ICAA) is accepting submissions for the Bunny Mellon Landscape Design Prize, “which recognizes the excellence and creativity of a project from an emerging landscape or architectural design professional whose work is inspired by classical or traditional design, holistically considers the symbiosis between outdoor environments and physical structures, and interweaves garden and architectural elements within their design.”

Oak Spring garden by Bunny Mellon / Blissful Gardeners

The winner will receive a $1,500 cash prize and will be recognized at the ICAA Southeast Garden Symposium: An Exploration of Architecture & Landscape, May 30-April 1, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia, with weekend and travel expenses paid. Apply by December 15.

The prize is part of ICAA’s Bunny Mellon Landscape Curricula, which offers programs in landscape architecture for designers, students, and the public. According to ICAA, “this curricula, the first to be named in honor of Bunny Mellon, honors her commitment to landscape design, and her deeply-held belief that architecture is firmly linked to its surrounding landscape.”

Bunny Mellon with topiary / Blissful Gardeners

Kongjian Yu Wins 2020 Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe Award; Read His Full Speech

Kongjian Yu, FASLA / Turenscape

By Kongjian Yu, FASLA

I am honored to be chosen as this year’s recipient of the Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe Award. I would like to extend my sincere thanks to the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA), the members of the nomination committee and the jury, and to everyone else who has made this possible.

It is especially gratifying to be recognized on the 120th anniversary of the birth of the man who established landscape architecture as “the mother of all arts”—Sir Jellicoe himself.

My Roots in the Village

I’d like to begin by talking a bit about my childhood, which ultimately had a profound influence on the way I’ve come to approach my work. I was born to a peasant family in Dong Yu village in southeast China’s Zhejiang Province. The village is located where White Sand Creek and the Wujiang River meet.

I swam in the creek during the summer and caught big fish when the monsoon season came. When I was small, I took care of a water buffalo, which grazed along the waterways and between the paddy fields. There were seven ponds, a patch of sacred forest and two big camphor trees in front of the village, under which many legendary stories about my ancestors were told.

The land was extremely productive. We planted three crops throughout the year, including canola, wheat, buckwheat, rice, sugar cane, peanut, sweet potato, corn, soybeans, carrot, turnip, radish and lotus.

Dong Yu Village in the 1980s / Kongjian Yu
Dong Yu Village in the 1980s / Kongjian Yu

The land and water were precious, but the weather could be unpredictable, so we had to design and manage our farm fields wisely, following nature’s cycle and wasting nothing, and adapting in order to make a living.

We worshipped the Earth God, Water God, and Yu the Great, the legendary king who knew how to manage water and plan the land. We also worshipped our ancestors, who had the wisdom of adapting to nature and cultivating the land.

In all likelihood, I would have followed in the footsteps of my father, who taught me how to cultivate the land, manage water, and be a productive farmer.

But it was a difficult time. Although we were a peasant family, we had also been landowners. During Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, my family was labeled as members of the “landlord class.” Our land was seized and redistributed to communes, after which we collectively farmed it. More significantly for me, children from the landlord class were prohibited from attending school.

Kongjian Yu, FASLA, at far right, with his family / Kongjian Yu

But in 1978, an army veteran who came to teach in my village, Mr. Zhou Zhangchao, caught up with me one day while I was riding my water buffalo home. He told me that Deng Xiaoping had reversed the policies that barred the children of the landlord class from going to school. I immediately enrolled in school and began studying hard to catch up.

In 1980, after 17 years working on the commune, I passed the national university entrance examination. I was the sole lucky university entrant out of 300-plus students in our rural high school.

On the Shoulders of Giants

By chance, I was chosen to enroll in Beijing Forestry University as one of 30 students in the entire nation to study gardening, which had been cancelled for ten years during the Cultural Revolution. I was fortunate to have some of the best landscape gardening professors in the nation as my mentors, including Wang Juyuan, the founder of the Landscape Gardening Program at the Beijing Forestry University; Chen Youming, my Master’s thesis advisor; and Sun Xiaoxiang and Chen Junyu.

In a certain sense, leaving the dusty countryside to make beautiful gardens in the city was a dream for me and my parents.

But when I finished college and was starting my career of teaching and making beautiful gardens for the city, I returned home to find that my village had been destroyed. The sacred forest and the camphor trees had been cut and sold off. The creek itself had become a gravel quarry, and the fish disappeared.

I began to ask myself: Was there something more I should be doing? What about my village and my fellow villagers? What about the land beyond the garden walls and beyond the city walls—where, at the time, almost three-quarters of a billion Chinese lived?

At this same time, I began looking abroad to learn more. In 1992, I was accepted at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. I spent the next four years working with Carl Steinitz, Hon. ASLA, along with landscape ecologist Richard Forman and GIS and computing expert Stephen Ervin. I would often encounter Ian McHarg, Michael Van Vulkenburgh, FASLA, Peter Rowe, and others in the hallways.

For me, it was a tremendously exciting time. It was a chance to meld the village-level concepts of the Earth God, Water God, and Yu the Great, from my childhood, with the ideas of the great Chinese “gardening” masters—and some of the best minds in the West.

The concepts of landscape and urban ecology, people-oriented urbanism, landscape perception and revolutionary anthropology, landscape and architectural phenomenology, etc., enlightened the left side of my brain. Design works by contemporary masters including Peter Walker, FASLA, Laurie Olin, FASLA, Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Richard Haag, FASLA, Maya Lin, Martha Schwartz, FASLA, Peter Latz, Bernard Tschumi, and so on, inspired the right side of my brain.

It happened to be a time of great debate within academia, and I found myself fascinated by the tensions between design as political procedure versus design with nature, and art versus ecology.

I was captivated by two questions, which have subsequently driven my entire career:

Conservation vs. Development: Spatial planning based on the idea of balance –when land and space are limited, how can we balance ecological protection with development?

Sustainability vs. Beauty: The creation of Deep Form — what is the relationship between sustainability and beauty, how can we unite ecology and art?

After graduating, I was recruited by SWA in Laguna Beach, California. There, I was able to work with Richard Law, FASLA, on luxury properties, new urban development, and projects in the booming Asian market. Life on the beach was pretty good.

But while I was happily designing luxury properties and imagining the grandeur of new cities, I found that the land at home was under assault. Old buildings were torn down; hills were leveled; lakes and wetlands filled and polluted; rivers channelized and dammed; and public squares and boulevards were built at gargantuan size. It was the opposite of everything I had learned about how to create livable cities and landscapes.

And it turned out to be a national-scale challenge. Over 80 percent of Chinese cities suffer air pollution, which kills 1.2 million people each year. Flooding causes some US$ 100 billion in damage. Four hundred of 662 cities suffer water shortages. Seventy-five percent of the nation’s surface water is polluted, and 64 percent of cities’ groundwater is polluted. 50 percent of wetlands have disappeared in past 50 years, resulting in tremendous losses of wildlife habitat.

Meeting the challenges

(1) Start with Education and a New Identity

I landed at Peking University as a professor in 1997 and was immediately joined by my lifelong friend Li Dihu. Together we started the landscape architecture program in the Department of Geography. We hoped to help an important new profession establish a foothold across a vast landscape. But we had humble beginnings: We started with a grand total of 3 students. (Today, we have 200 students enrolled, with more than 600 graduates.)

But people still tended to see me simply as “a gardener,” with no relation to urban development, land and water management, flood control, or ecological restoration.

In China, there’s a legend about “The Land of Peach Blossoms,” a magical realm of peace, a sort of Shangri-La. To a certain extent, I have always thought of Dong Yu village, where I grew up—with the two big camphor trees under which I heard the stories of my ancestors and the sacred forest where they rest–as the Land of Peach Blossoms. And landscape architecture, to me, seemed a way to recover the lost Land of Peach Blossoms.

So I felt compelled to reclaim the importance of landscape architecture itself and began describing it as “The Art of Survival.” In doing this, I was inspired by Ian McHarg’s pugnacious call to arms: “Don’t ask us about your garden. Don’t ask us about your bloody flowers …. We’re going to talk to you about survival.”

We launched a new magazine, Landscape Architecture Frontiers, to promote our new approach. We brought in top thinkers in the field to lecture and held over 15 landscape architecture conferences to educate a young generation and begin creating a consensus.

(2) Trying to reverse the damage and inspire policy change

We felt that immediate action had to be taken to reverse the damage, so we launched the concept of “Inverse Planning” (反规划 fǎn guīhuà), which emphasizes the protection of existing natural functions and prioritizes what is not built—what should be protected instead.

I also realized that the only way to reverse the damage caused by conventional planning procedure was to convince decision makers to change the policies. So I kept writing and talking and lecturing to decision makers, from top authorities to township leaders. I delivered over 300 lectures to municipal decision makers and ministers.

In 2006, I made a proposal to then-Premier Wen Jiabao that, to my surprise and gratification, initiated the process of national security pattern planning and ecological red line regulation.

These two concepts help identify and protect critical landscapes to safeguard natural, biological, cultural and recreational values and functions, thus securing this wide range of ecosystems services essential for sustaining human society. The State Council has since issued four state regulations to safeguard national ecological security.

China ecological security plan / Turenscape

(3) The “Big Foot” Revolution

I also realized that bad decisions were being made simply because of a misguided mentality about civilization and misguided aesthetic sensibilities. For thousands of years, the “civilized” urban elite worldwide has insisted on the privilege of defining civilization, beauty, and good taste. Bound feet, deformed heads, and twisted bodies are only a few such expressions of cultural practices that, in trying to elevate city sophisticates above rural bumpkins, have rejected nature’s inherent principles of health, survival, and productivity.

In China, for more than a thousand years, young girls were forced to bind their feet in order to be able to be considered beautiful enough to marry urban elites. Natural, “big” feet were considered rustic and rural. The obsession with “little feet” sacrificed function and dignity for ornamental value.

Today, landscaping and city building, by far, are the most visible and extensive manifestations of the folly of civilization and aesthetic standards defined from above—what I think of as “little foot” urbanism and the “little foot” aesthetic.

On one hand, the “manicured little foot” grey infrastructure simply lacks resilience and is a waste of energy and materials. On the other hand, urban elites with “little foot” aesthetics trying to elevate city sophisticates above rural peasants have rejected nature’s inherent goals of health and productivity.

These kinds of “little foot” grey infrastructure and aesthetics are not only expensive, but also wasteful and unsustainable. China’s carbon emissions in 2017 accounted for 28 percent of the world total. And according to 2018 figures from the World Economic Forum, China consumes 59 percent of the world’s cement and 50 percent of its steel and coal.

So I began advocating for what I call a Big Foot Revolution. This movement begins with questioning some of the basic values I have mentioned above, and my hope is that it will mirror an earlier revolution in the way Chinese thought about their own bodies and culture.

In the early 20th century, The New Cultural Movement was launched by teachers and students at Peking University, and ultimately led to the rejection of foot binding and a re-embracing of the natural beauty of the human form.

I believe the Big Foot Revolution will happen at three levels of action:

  1. Planning the Big Feet (planning ecological infrastructure across scales)
  2. Creating Working Big Feet (creating nature-based engineering models inspired by ancient wisdom)
  3. Making Big Feet Beautiful (new aesthetics to create deep forms).

“Planning the Big Feet” or planning ecological infrastructure across scales, is critical for securing ecosystems services, and weaving green infrastructure together with grey infrastructure. Inspired by the ancient concept of sacred landscape—and by modern game theory¬—I developed the concept of the Landscape Security Pattern, which focuses on protecting the critical landscape patterns needed to ensure that natural processes can continue.

“Creating working Big Feet” means creating nature-based engineering models inspired by ancient wisdom, particularly from agriculture. We have developed replicable modules based on traditional farming techniques of terracing, ponding, diking, and islanding to address climate change and related problems at a massive scale in a cost-effective manner.

In China, all rivers are dammed and channelized with concrete flood walls. China has more than half of the world’s dams greater than 15 meters in height. More than US $20 billion is invested to control flooding each year, but US $100 billion is lost and 10 million people are affected every year. We need to accept and embrace flooding as a natural phenomenon, and turn grey infrastructure into green to help temper the damage of inevitable floods.

Due to the monsoon climate, over 62 percent of Chinese cities suffer from urban flooding. How much more flooding could be managed better if nature-based solutions were implemented nationwide? Using sponge city concepts would greatly increase water resilience.

In China, 75 percent of surface water is contaminated. Globally, 85 percent of sewage goes untreated. But the landscape can be a living system to clean water. Terraced, constructed wetland can be used to remove nutrients through biological processes.

We have already incorporated many of these ideas at several parks throughout China. In Zhejiang Province’s Taizhou City, we redesigned the Yongning Park as a “floating garden” with ecological embankments that can reduce peak flood flow by more than half, and create a seasonally flooded natural matrix of wetland and natural vegetation that sustains natural processes. This park demonstrates an ecological approach to flood control and stormwater management, while also educating people about new and forgotten solutions to flood control beyond engineering.

ASLA 2006 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Floating Gardens — Yongning River Park, Taizhou City, Zhejiang Province, China. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

In Zhejiang’s Jinhua City, water-resilient terrain and planted vegetation were designed to adapt to monsoon floods. A resilient bridge and path system was designed to adapt to the dynamic flows of water and people. 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 meandering vegetated terraces, curvilinear paths, a serpentine bridge, circular bioswales, planted beds, and curved benches.

In Harbin, in the far north, we turned the Qunli Stormwater Park into a “green sponge” that filters and stores urban stormwater while providing other ecosystem services, including the protection of native habitats, aquifer recharge, recreational use and aesthetic experience, which together help foster sustainable urban development.

ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. A Green Sponge for a Water-Resilient City: Qunli Stormwater Park. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

At Dong’an Wetland Park on Hainan Island, off the coast of southern China, creating a green sponge in the center of the urban environment was an essential adaptation strategy for increasing resilience to climate change, particularly in an area where tropical storms can easily overwhelm conventional drainage systems.

In this case, a heavily polluted 68-hectare site was filled with non-permitted buildings and illegally dumped urban debris. Inspired by the ancient pond-and-dike systems and islanding techniques in the Pearl River Delta, and using simple cut-and-fill methods, a necklace of ponds and dikes was created along the periphery of the park that catches and filters urban runoff from the surrounding communities.

In the central part of the park, dirt and fill were used to create islands that are planted with banyan trees to create a forested wetland. Both ponding and islanding will dramatically increase the water-retention capacity of the park and increase the eco-tones between water and land to speed up the removal of nutrients. The constructed wetland can accommodate 830,000 cubic meters of storm water, dramatically reducing the risk of urban inundation.

Along the Huangpu River in Shanghai, we designed Houtan Park as a regenerative living landscape on a former industrial brownfield. The park’s constructed wetland, ecological flood control, reclaimed industrial structures and materials, and urban agriculture are integral components of an overall restorative design strategy to treat polluted river water and recover the degraded waterfront in an aesthetically pleasing way. The 10-hectare park, which is 1,700 meters long, filters phosphorous and other nutrients from 2,400 cubic meters of water per day, which is enough water for 5,000 people.

ASLA 2010 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Shanghai Houtan Park: Landscape as a Living System. Turenscape / Kongjian Yu

The Meshe River in Haikou has suffered flooding due to the monsoon climate and water pollution caused by sewage and non-point source pollution from urban and suburban runoff. The river had been channelized with concrete for the sole objective of flood control, which destroyed its ecological resilience.

We used nature-based solutions to create resilient green infrastructure that has revived the river. The concrete flood walls have been removed and the river was reconnected to the ocean so that tides could once again enter the city. Wetlands and shallow river margins were reconstructed so that mangroves could be restored. A terraced mosaic of wetlands along the banks of the river was designed as natural water-treatment facilities that catch and cleanse nutrient-laden runoff, and a significant amount of wildlife habitat has been recovered in the dense city center.

The Mangrove Park in Sanya City, on the island of Hainan, is another example of nature-based climate resilience. To mitigate urban flood risk caused by climate change, it was critical to restore mangrove along the waterways and coastal shorelines. One of the key challenges was finding an efficient and inexpensive method to reestablish the mangrove habitat that had been extensively destroyed due to rapid urban development. To that end, fill composed of urban construction debris and concrete from the demolition of the flood wall was recycled on site.

ASLA 2020 Professional General Design Honor Award. Deep Form of Designed Nature: Sanya Mangrove Park / Kongjian Yu

Cut-and-fill techniques were subsequently used to create a gradient of different riparian eco-tones for diverse fauna and flora, particularly different species of mangroves. An interlocking-finger design was used to lead ocean tides into the waterways, while also attenuating the impact of both tropical storm surge and flash floods originating in the urban and upland area upstream, both of which can harm establishment of mangroves. This also maximized habitat diversity and edge effects, which increase the interface between plants and water; this, in turn, enhances ecological processes such as nutrient removal from the water.

The dynamic aquatic environment that follows the rise and fall of tides and provides several aquatic species with the daily water-level fluctuation they need for survival. Terraces between city streets and the river have been augmented with bioswales to catch and filter urban stormwater runoff. In just three years, an area of lifeless land fill within a concrete flood wall in the center of the city was transformed into a lush mangrove park. This type of mangrove rehabilitation can be implemented at a large scale efficiently.

In China, 60 percent of urban soil is contaminated, and conventional remediation is usually very expensive. In Tianjin’s Qiaoyuan Park, I wanted to show how we can let nature do the work, by using nature-based soil remediation techniques. Through regenerative design and by sculpting land forms and collecting rainwater, the natural process of plant adaptation and community evolution was introduced to transform a former shooting-range-turned-garbage-dump into a low maintenance urban park. The park provides diverse nature-based services for the city, including retaining and purifying storm water to regulate pH, providing opportunities for environmental education and creating a cherished aesthetic experience.

Making Big Feet Beautiful means promoting the new aesthetics to create deep forms. In this, I was inspired by Anne Whiston Spirn’s New Aesthetics that “encompasses both nature and culture, that embodies function, sensory perception, and symbolic meaning, and that embraces both the making of things and places and the sensing, using, and contemplating of them.”

The timeless interdependence of culture and nature is most visible in the bond between peasants and their farmlands, and practices such as cut and fill, irrigate and fertilize, frame and access, grow and harvest, recycle and save — all of which embody some of the principles of new aesthetics that inspired my design.

In Qinhuangdao, I put a ribbon on the river to frame and transform the messy nature into an ordered urban park. Winding through a background of natural terrain and vegetation, the “red ribbon” spans five hundred meters and integrates lighting, seating, environmental interpretation and orientation. This project demonstrates how a minimal design solution can dramatically improve the landscape, while preserving as much of the natural river corridor as possible during the process of urbanization.

ASLA 2007 Professional General Design Honor Award. The Red Ribbon – Tanghe River Park, Qinhuangdao City, Hebei Province, China. Turenscape and Peking University Graduate School of Landscape Architecture, Beijing, China / Kongjian Yu

China has 20 percent of the world’s population, but only 8 percent of the world’s arable land—10 percent of which has been lost in the past 30 years due to urban development. Our project on the Shenyang Jianzhu University Campus uses rice paddies to simultaneously define the structure of the landscape design and introduce a productive landscape into the urban environment. It is a demonstration of a method to resolve the tension between urban development and food production in today’s developing world.

In Quzhou’s Luming Park, we embraced the concept of agricultural urbanism. On a site surrounded by dense new urban development, we created a dynamic urban park by incorporating the agricultural strategy of crop rotation and a low-maintenance meadow. An elevated floating network of pedestrian paths, platforms and pavilions creates a visual frame for this cultivated swath and the natural features of the terrain and water. Using these strategies, a deserted, mismanaged landscape was dramatically transformed into a productive and beautiful setting for urban living, while preserving the natural and cultural patterns and processes of the site.

ASLA 2016 Professional General Design Honor Award. Framing Terrain and Water: Quzhou Luming Park. Turenscape. / Kongjian Yu

I have also tried to show the possibilities of reusing and recycling. While China has been on an incredible building boom, it has also demolished large parts of its cities. In 2003, for instance, some 325 million square meters of new buildings were constructed, while 156 million square meters was demolished. Thousands of villages and factories were wiped out.

The Zhongshan Shipyard Park near Guangzhou, inaugurated in 2002, was an effort to show that existing building and other structures can be incorporated into new development. The park reflects the remarkable 70-year history of socialist China and has been lauded as a breakthrough in Chinese landscape architecture. The original vegetation and natural habitats were preserved and only native plants were added. Machines, docks, and other industrial structures were retained not only for functional purposes, but also to educate and because of their aesthetic appeal. The park demonstrates how landscape architects can create environmentally-friendly public places full of cultural and historical meaning on sites not previously designated for attention and preservation. Its design supports use by the common people, as well as the environmental ethic that “weeds are beautiful.”

Zhongshan Shipyard Park / Turenscape

For over 20 years, we have tested and built over 500 projects in 200-plus cities and showcased numerous replicable models for healing and transforming our land at various scales.

Looking back, I have a better understanding of how my village-level landscape experiences, melded with modern concepts of landscape and urbanism, sustainability and aesthetics, which were developed by my many teachers and mentors, have helped me to address some of the common challenges that our profession is facing today.

I find myself thinking often of my roots in Dong Yu village. I think of King Yu the Great, who had the vision of healing the earth and living with nature. I think of the peasants who transform the landscape in which they live with their own hands. And I want to think like a king, but act like a peasant.

This is an incredibly sobering time to contemplate the relationship between humans and the natural world. The global pandemic is a powerful reminder that any belief in the conquest of nature is pure folly. We are all living in a new era of humility.

Yet I also believe that the pandemic—together with climate change—is also highlighting how important it is to create landscapes that can not only heal bodies and minds, but also the planet itself.

It is such a great honor to be in the company of the many great and thoughtful landscape architects who come together under the banner of IFLA. As former IFLA president Martha Fajardo said in 2005: “Landscape architect is the profession of the future.”

Thank you, and I wish everyone the best in collectively keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe.

Asia’s Largest Urban Rooftop Farm Is a Model of Integrated Design

Thammasat University Rooftop Farm / Panoramic Studio, Landprocess

At first, the images of Thammasat University Rooftop Farm seem like renderings, but they are in fact real. Designed by Landprocess, which is led by landscape architect Kotchakorn Voraakhom, International ASLA, the 1.7-acre rooftop farm in Bangkok, Thailand, is not only mesmerizing but also a model of sustainable multi-use infrastructure.

This kind of infrastructure is exactly what we need in an urbanizing world dealing with climate change, flooding, pollution, and a lack of access to high-quality fresh produce.

The most successful forms of this infrastructure use an integrated design approach in which architects, landscape architects, and engineers cross disciplinary boundaries and unite to create better projects for people and the environment.

According to Voraakhom, the initial design for the new campus building was just a building. But she convinced the architecture and engineering teams to collaborate with her on a new concept. Given a large park was being developed in front of the building, why not just continue up over the building and link the rooftop green space with the park on the ground? “In the end, the design team and the clients all agreed this option will have a bigger impact,” she said.

Thammasat University Rooftop Farm / Panoramic Studio, Landprocess

For Voraakhom, the $31 million project shows what is possible through an integrated design approach — and also what landscape architects can bring to the table. In an email, she explained her thinking:

“My profession, landscape architecture, should not be left as the last amenity to be added while finishing up a project. Landscape architecture should not take up the last of the budget for some minor greening. Instead, landscape architecture should be the source of the initial concept and be the voice for, and restorer of, a healthy urban environment. If architects and engineers work more collaboratively with landscape architects, I’m certain we can strengthen our climate-focused architecture in significant ways. At the beginning of any project, we need to bring everyone on board, at par, to openly discuss and brainstorm, especially across disciplines, without fear of judgment or domination. With that, I’d like to express my gratitude and officially thank the architects and engineers with whom we worked with on this project for allowing us to be a major part of the overall concept.”

Integrated design enabled the entire design and engineering team to layer in solutions to multiple problems.

The first big challenge was managing the vast amount of rainwater that lands on Bangkok, creating frequent and destructive floods. Inspired by traditional terraced farming found in mountainous regions across Southeast Asia, the rooftop farm uses an intricate structure and gravity to cascade rainwater down each level.

Landprocess explains: “As rainwater zigzags down the slopes, each level harvests runoff from the previous cell, forming unique clusters of micro-watersheds along the terrace to help absorb, filter, and purify rainwater while growing food for the campus.”

Thammasat University Rooftop Farm / Landprocess

Thammasat University Rooftop Farm / Landprocess

The structure slows down water 20 times more efficiently than a conventional roof, and any run-off is captured in four retention ponds at the feet of the building, which can hold up to 3,095,570 gallons of water.

To address the problem of the lack of local access to healthy organic foods, the design team created a productive rooftop landscape. To soak up all that free water, Voraakhom’s firm introduced nearly 50 kinds of edible species, including rice, indigenous vegetables and herbs, and fruit trees.

Thammasat University Rooftop Farm / Panoramic Studio, Landprocess

Thammasat University Rooftop Farm / Panoramic Studio, Landprocess

There are Jamaican Cherry, White Cheesewood, Camphor, Red Sandalwood, and Ceylon Oak trees, intermixed with azaleas, lemongrass, holy basil, amaranth, rice, and okra. Rows of dill, Thai eggplant, red and green oak-leaf lettuce, green roselle grow amid the source of Thai food’s heat: bird’s eye chili peppers.

After one season’s harvest, the team discovered the roof can grow 20 tons of organic food annually, enough for 80,000 meals in the campus canteen. Food scraps are composted and returned to the roof farm, creating a sustainable food cycle.

Another issue the project addresses: urban Thai are increasingly divorced from their agricultural heritage. The rooftop farm helps reconnect students and community members to their history and educates them about sustainable, organic growing practices.

A century ago, King Rama V created the Rangsit rice plantations and a vast network of canals on the site of the rooftop farm. King Rama’s goal was to make Thailand a major jasmine rice producer. Paved over as Bangkok expanded, the rice fields were lost, but through this project, rice production has returned in a contemporary form.

Through volunteering, 40,000 students and nearby residents learn about this cultural landscape and their heritage. They can volunteer on the roof and learn how to plant and harvest. They have access to workshops on agriculture, nutrition, and permaculture, which are embedded into the university’s sustainability curricula.

Thammasat University Rooftop Farm / Panoramic Studio, Landprocess

Thammasat University Rooftop Farm / Panoramic Studio, Landprocess

The rooftop landscape also helps solve the problem of fossil fuel use to generate power. Photovoltaic panels installed at the top of the roof generates 500,000 watts of electricity per hour.

This energy powers water pumps that pull water up from the retaining ponds to irrigate the crops during the dry season. The renewable energy is complemented by passive strategies that reduce energy use overall. The green roof further insulates the building, reducing its cooling energy needs. And air that passes over the retaining ponds is cooled before it reaches the building, creating natural air conditioning.

All of these layers of solutions are united in the building’s H-shaped form, which represents the university’s long-standing commitment to egalitarianism and democracy.

Landprocess explains: “Divided into four equally-accessible sections, each chamber represents a core element of democracy—people, liberty, equality, and fraternity.”

To realize that spirit of egalitarianism, there are 12 social spaces set within the farming terraces that function as outdoor classrooms.

Thammasat University Rooftop Farm / Panoramic Studio, Landprocess

At the very top, there is a large amphitheater space that offers 360-degree panoramic views.

Thammasat University Rooftop Farm / Panoramic Studio, Landprocess

And back on the ground, at the entrance, there is another accessible, terraced amphitheater for events, with life-sized sculptures of the two founders of the university.

Thammasat University Rooftop Farm / Dsignsomething, Jinnawat Borihankijanan

To learn more about Voraakhom, watch a recent short film produced by Mercedes-Benz:

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (September 15-30)

Mia Lehrer, FASLA / Studio-MLA

Mia Lehrer Tapped for L.A. Department of Water and Power Board of Commissioners — 09/28/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Mia Lehrer, founder and president of landscape architecture and urban design practice Studio-MLA (formerly Mia Lehrer + Associates), has been nominated by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to the powerful L.A. Department of Water and Power (LADWP) Board of Commissioners.”

Design for the Future When the Future Is Bleak — 09/28/20, The New York Times
“Amid pandemics and environmental disasters, designers and architects have been forced to imagine a world in which the only way to move forward is to look back.”

The Pandemic Bike Boom Hits in Some Unexpected American Cities — 09/23/20, Bloomberg CityLab
“Coupled with the effects of a warming planet, Covid-19 has produced little good news this year. Yet the two crises did pave the way for one positive social shift: a bike boom, including in some unlikely places. New data from Strava, the fitness tracking app used by 68 million global users, shows that several U.S. cities saw significant year-over-year growth in both bike trips and cyclists in much of 2020.”

The Ambitious Restoration of Houston’s Rothko Chapel Is Now Complete— 09/22/30, Architectural Digest
“The landscape architects Nelson Byrd Woltz have been working with ARO to develop the parkland around the chapel, adding tree groves and ‘areas to sit and decompress’ from a visit, Cassell says.”

D.C. Council Unanimously Approves Vision Zero Bill Aimed at Reducing Traffic Fatalities — 09/22/20, The Washington Post
“The legislation, which passed unanimously, accelerates improvements to bike and pedestrian infrastructure, expands the city’s automated traffic enforcement program, and boosts traffic safety education.”

West 8 Debuts First Phase of Houston Botanic Garden — 09/22/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“West 8, the award-winning Dutch landscape architecture and urban design firm with offices in Rotterdam and New York City, has unveiled the highly anticipated first phase of the Houston Botanic Garden, a years-in-the-making, first-of-its-kind horticultural hub for the Bayou City that aims to attract tourists, green thumbs, and the scientific community.”

A New Generation of Memorials Can Help Reset Our Understanding of Racism

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice by Mass Design Group / copyright Alan Karchmer

By Richard Jones, ASLA

Contemporary memorials can be powerful tools for resetting historical narratives around racism in our country. Embracing our true past — the horrors and the triumphs — will give us the space to accurately frame the American story, so that we might accept a more accurate accounting of where we really are on the path to equality.

Americans must create new memorials that are deep and resonate and omit the hyper-simplified token gestures of the past. Let us show the world, through new places of honor and memory, the maturity of a nation that has taken ownership of its past and is resolved in stamping out inequality. Only then can our nation’s core value — that all men are created equal — be held in truth in the hearts of all of its citizens.

Denying the truth enslaves us. Accepting it sets us free.

It might be said that the problem of addressing issues of racial equality in America in 2020 is as much a matter of refusing to take responsibility for one’s actions and changing them as it is racism itself. We struggle to move past our own legacy of hatred and discrimination because we have never fully accepted the truth of it.

Instead, we have rewritten the most vile, the most evil chapters of our past, carefully molding them into neat packages that one could argue resemble scary bedtime stories rather than the graphic and horrible truth. We know the narrative: slavery to freedom, oppression and inequality to the civil rights movement. Civil liberty and voting rights to President Barack Obama and the myth of a free and just America that we live in today; and along the way, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, maybe John Brown, then Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Kennedy brothers. This may be an oversimplification, but it is far less than our chosen selective collection of right-sized stories portrays.

Most everyone will know the names above. They have been memorialized countless times across our nation, revered (and in some cases reviled) for their contributions in the fight for equality. But how many of us know Daniel Hale Williams, Garret Morgan, or Anne Lowe? How many of us know the horror beset upon the slaves known only as Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsy?

Similarly, we know the stories of Selma, Alabama. We know of Birmingham, Alabama, and pride ourselves in being able to recount the significance of all that occurred in those now hallowed places. But how many know of the massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma or Ocoee, Florida? How many know the outright treasonous coup that saw a legally-elected American government overthrown in Wilmington, North Carolina?

Some of us might know the name of Emmett Till. But how many know Jesse Washington or the unimaginable horror visited upon the thousands of blacks that were lynched from the late 19th century to the 1960s? I’d wager that comparatively, very few of us do. And that is by design.

This is because the stories of these people and places were never meant to be examined. The events were never meant to be revealed. The names, like so many other notable Black figures who gave of their lives and talents either willingly or by violent force snuffed out, remain all but omitted from our nation’s history. Their stories are erased, so the favored narrative might prevail.

This narrative states that our forefathers committed regrettable acts, but acts from which we have, through a long and drawn out, reluctant, and only partial admission finally “moved on” from. In minimizing our past, we have all but absolved ourselves of any responsibility we might shoulder today for the inequality that exists from the lowest gutters of our main streets to the highest reaches of our government. As a result, we remain mired in a past that will never truly be past unless it is reckoned with in our collective attitudes and actions.

This denial of the truth threatens to tear the moral fabric of our nation. Today, I see a benign indifference to inequality and the fallout of our continued legacy of racism as much as I do the proliferation of neo-racist ideas or beliefs. In so many cases, that indifference to inequality can be attributed to the lack of will or ability to find the hard reality of our past so that we might understand who we truly are as a nation. Our history has been so carefully cleansed of the truth — so tangled in webs of deceit and distraction, misdirection, and mis-characterization — that a person seeking to understand why Black wealth, incarceration, or education levels are what they are would require a degree of investigative rigor reserved for scientific research.

Some might say to not put in the effort to understand is simply lazy. I don’t disagree, but it also shouldn’t be as hard as it is. Amid the blaring voices and opinions of the multitudes, who share their own takes on social media, and the doubling-down on old racist tropes by some of those in power, it is no surprise that some 155 years after the abolition of slavery, we are as divided as we have ever been. At times it seems a hopeless fight, but it’s one we must have.

Our footprints mark our past, but also point in the direction of our future.

The land upon which we walk marks the footprints of our history just as surely as our history books. And like those books and the stories within them, the tales we read upon that land contain only the degree of truth we choose to till into it.

When we scrape the land to create a hollow within which to build a fire, the action is recorded, unless we meticulously erase all traces of the action and allow the passing of time to heal the wound. The ground is pitted, the coals remain after the fire is spent, the ashes scattered across the ground.

But the how, the who, and for what of the fire: those are facts left for the author (or victor) to record. Such as it is for the roads we’ve built: Highways and their legacies of connection but also division. So it is with the buildings and railroads that sprang from the virgin beauty of native American lands. Land scraped of one history so that another could be written. Structures erected and hailed as symbols of American might. White houses built by Black hands — hands which belong to a people for which the ideology of a nation carried not hope and freedom, but pain and despair. The darkness was often deliberately forgotten, leaving only triumphant stories of struggle, regret, and perseverance over the land, our enemies, and ourselves.

We have achieved remarkable feats as a nation but also created fairy tales from horror stories. What we have done to the land and built upon it is in a way a memorial to who and what we are as a society. The land records only part of the story. The rest, we script to our needs.

Who we are is evident in what we build.

We erect markers to commemorate the actors and moments of our history. There are monuments and memorials that record battles won and lost that honor lives and hallowed grounds. And as with the land we’ve marked in America, the stories we choose to tell in these places speaks to who we are and what we believe in as a people.

Those stories that speak to us from bronze and granite become solidified in our individual and collective conscious. They become symbols of our belief system. But when truth and fact are not the priority of the memorial designer, what becomes made concrete in our conscious is little more than myth. Myth informs a set of beliefs that inform attitudes and dictate actions. These actions result in policies that chart the path for our future. Recalling the past is necessary to accurately feel our present and chart our future.

The ongoing controversy over what should become of the nation’s many confederate monuments highlights that struggle. We must now design a new foundation upon which we might write a new narrative about who we are, where we have been, and with a proper accounting of those things, the path we might walk in the future. But this task is not as easy as it may seem.

Following the tragedy in Charlottesville in 2017, Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh acted quickly to remove the Confederate monuments in the city. It was a decision that was largely applauded for preventing violence and unrest. In the months following the removal, design charrettes and community-based discussions were held to discuss what stories should replace the old racist confederate narratives.

In March 2018, there was a re-dedication of the most significant of the four locations. The space that was once the home to a Confederate memorial to Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee would now be designated Harriet Tubman Grove. If the goal is to take down a symbol of an evil and replace it with one of good, Harriet Tubman is a universal symbol of all that that word describes.

Confederate monuments were removed in Baltimore, leaving marble plinths. / AP Photo/Juliet Linderman

However, taken in context, in a country that counts sincerity and simplicity as two of its of its greatest virtues, one might also argue that despite the seeming sincerity of actions like the dedication of another Tubman memorial, or the 1,000-plus streets and boulevards named after Martin Luther King Jr, we are oversimplifying the story of our past — a story of overcoming prejudice and succeeding in spite of it.

In fact, as a society, we are in a way complicit in upholding the illusion that there were but a few Blacks of note throughout American history. Or worse, we may be minimizing the atrocities and oppressive policies pushed onto Blacks from the inception of the slave trade through slavery, failed reconstruction and the Antebelum South, segregationist policies of the early 20th century, and race-based housing and lending practices through modern day poll taxes.

To acknowledge a select few individuals while ignoring the complete picture of the marred historical record relegates the suffering and contributions of so many Blacks who fought for the advancement of our nation to the most remote corners of our history — the place they were designated by the flawed beliefs of previous generation to remain.

Today, in the midst of a worldwide movement to bring awareness to the validity of black lives, when all the eyes of the world and the nation are watching, we must assure that what they see and what we show ourselves — the stories and the images of our past — are more reflective of our truth. Like the pages upon which we have documented our American history, our American landscape can serve as a place to document story.

Our public spaces are a means to tell our true story.

Landscape architects, planners, artists, and policy makers must take part in and, when we can, lead dialogue around the way in which we tell our nation’s story.

We can view our landscapes, plazas, monuments, and memorials as opportunities to re-educate current and future generations about the truth of who we are and how we came to be. We can do this in a way that is reflective, honest, and accurate, so the tragedy of our past is not repeated. On our own, we can’t retool the civics and history curricula in schools across our country, but we can assure that the narratives that people take away from the experiences they have in the landscapes we build are informative, enlightening, and ultimately encourage others to think more deeply about our place in the world and the inequities they might see in it.

Pedestal and statuary will always have a place in the act of memorialization, but if what we seek is a gesture that ultimately brings about togetherness, we should try to embody that aspiration in the fabric of the spaces we create.

If the historical intent of Confederate memorials and the empty spaces they have left behind was in large part to remind Blacks of their low position in American society, should not the opposite action be to create spaces that remind us that we SHOULD all be equal but have not been treated so, extinguish the myth that we are not, and shine a light on the realities that in our past and present contribute to ongoing inequality?

Would not a better use of the spaces that once held figures in granite and bronze be to not simply replace one figure with another or one name for another but to create spaces that evoke powerful emotion, teach lessons of “never again,” enhance the public realm, and encourage us to question contemporary life experiences?

Shouldn’t they assure that heroes and victims are appropriately cast and engage the public in a broader ongoing dialogue about racism and inequality?

And shouldn’t they also serve as a vehicle to tell stories that to date have been omitted from the pages of our history? It is not difficult to make the case that the answer to all of those questions should be yes.

We cannot veil the horror of the atrocities we have committed in our past. To understand the suffering of others, we must ourselves get as close as we can to the pain they have endured. It must be there for us to see, touch, hear, and feel. Truth. Clarity. Awareness. Change.

Contemporary memorials abroad and here in the U.S. are striking new chords. They offer a new way of shaping not only how and what we remember, but also assure that the emotions we draw from them and the awareness they create deeply resonates.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, a collaboration between the Equal Justice Initiative and MASS Design Group, challenges us to not only learn the horrific reality of slavery and Jim Crow-era racism, but to feel the oppressive weight of it, twist our minds to try to understand its breadth, and grip our hearts in a pain that reaches deep in the soul of any human being, regardless of color.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice by Mass Design Group / copyright Alan Karchmer

Too little has been documented of the facts and scope of the lynchings of Blacks in our history. For 88 years between 1880 and 1968, there were more than 4,700 documented cases of lynchings, which equates to approximately one Black life taken per week. One murder per week for 88 years. And those are only the murders that were recorded.

Yet, until the completion of the National Memorial to Peace and Justice, there were no sites that provided a means to interpret these atrocities so they might be appropriately set in the context of our history and serve as a sobering warning for future generations to stamp out the embers of hatred and violence. Located on six acres within the city of Montgomery, the scale of the memorial is impressive, and the experience is varied, employing a range of powerful interpretive methods.

Inspired by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, the focus of the memorial is a large, central court with 805 suspended boxes, roughly the size of coffins, suspended from steel rods. Each box represents a county in the U.S. in which a lynching was recorded. Visitors slowly descend to the courtyard floor, the boxes suspended above them. The simple descent is a powerful design move, meant to evoke the unsettling feeling of walking among the dead. The boxes list the names of those souls whose lives were taken and whose stories, until now, have been all but lost.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice by Mass Design Group / copyright Alan Karchmer

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice by Mass Design Group / copyright Alan Karchmer

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice by Mass Design Group / copyright Alan Karchmer

It is an experience that is powerful; one that is free from any veiled attempt to mute the reality of what it memorializes. The horror one might feel is intentional, and one might argue, necessary in order to make one more aware of contemporary acts of social injustice and crime. The pain is one that should touch all of our souls, for there is a clarity in our tears that is unaffected by the color of the cheek upon which they fall. A clarity that can create unity and awareness, without blame or fault.

We should all remember those who have gone before us. To let the memory of the names and places of suffering fade into darkness is to allow the evil that brought it about to be reborn.

There are times when a story is meant to be told in a designated place, one that either has an inherent significance, or one that is assigned. With experiences like the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, there is a power in the symbolism bestowed upon the place that is rooted in the act of honoring and remembrance. As a result, they become the destinations for school and family trips. They are the holiest of destinations in our religious pilgrimages. However, when the stories are few and locations fewer, the challenge of maintaining awareness derived from the physical connection to the experience can be difficult to overcome.

Stolpersteine (Stumbling stones) designed by German artist Gunter Demming provides a decentralized, daily reminder of the ever looming threat of racism. Commissioned in 2001, the memorial consists of more than 75,000 bronze blocks set within the sidewalks of towns and cities across Europe. The blocks, placed in front of the homes of murdered or exiled Jews, read simply “Here lived…” followed by the name of the individual or family.

Stumbling stones / Flickr

This form of expression creates a moment of recognition that endures the passage of time, for as long as the streets and homes remain. In this way, Demming’s stumbling stones have brought awareness and the space to remember to anyone who sees its markers. The experience is impactful and is observed both in its intimate, direct connection to the individual honored, and the enormous scale of the atrocities committed against so many Jewish citizens. One cannot discount the power of connection through time and place such a memorial creates.

Stumbling stones / Wikipedia

Stumbling stones / German Embassy in UK Twitter

Such a memorial, if it were to be installed in the U.S., might provide a means to bring awareness to many of the crimes committed against Blacks that are seldom brought to light. Acts like the bombing of homes belonging to Black citizens in the first half of the 20th century. These attacks, meant to terrorize Black families, so that they were discouraged from moving into more affluent, White neighborhoods, were an unsanctioned partner to the practices of redlining and racial covenants. The records of these acts are few or often discounted, but the marks they have left on the land and in our society are evident. Evident, but without a true accounting of how they came to be.

One might argue that the invisible boundaries that have resulted from these actions in America have been every bit as effective in restricting the freedom and mobility of those behind them as the Berlin Wall in Germany and other literal barriers we have chosen to memorialize. Imagine for a moment how less coherent the fabric of the city of Berlin might be if the story of the Berlin Wall was treated as though it had never existed? To what would a lay-person attribute the differences and disparities that existed from East to West if they were not provided the truth? How will future generations in America attribute racial disparities that are often starkly evident in our cities if they not offered new markers that provide insight into their root cause? New methods of recalling this past can embed the opportunity to reframe attitudes around racial injustice into the fabric of our daily experiences.

History is not the past; it is the present.

One of the obvious challenges in telling the story of racism in America is that even when we are successful in accurately capturing the truth of our past, the belief among many persists that the past is just that. The reality that the legacy of systemic racism lives on in this country is often lost.

The challenge then becomes one of telling a story that enlightens through a lens that is contemporary, nimble, and tethered to the zeitgeist; a story that seeks less to explain what “has occurred,” than what is occurring every day, or that sets historical fact in a contemporary context. Spaces that can tell these stories have the potential to bridge the divide between the wrongs of the past and the effects of those wrongs on contemporary society. They are also important in bridging the generational gap so that the stories are presented in a way that resonates with current generations.

One example of such a memorial space is the recently unveiled Society’s Cage, which was initially installed in August, 2020 at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and is intended to travel to multiple locations across the country. The memorial, which was designed by a team of mostly Black architects at SmithGroup, asks the question: “What is the value of a Black Life in America?”

Society’s Cage / SmithGroup

The memorial’s perfect cube form symbolizes the aspiration of our American values. However, the internal volume of the cube is constructed of uneven conduit pipes that protrude from the ceiling and floor, symbolizing the uncomfortable and fractured reality that many Blacks in society are greeted with on a daily basis.

Society’s Cage on the National Mall / DCist

Visitors are invited to move through the cube’s aesthetically violent interior. Through symbolism, text, and audio, they are offered a glimpse into an all-to-real and all-too-common Black experience in America via four statistical datasets representing different forms of racism and state violence: mass incarceration, capital punishment, police brutality, and lynching.

Society’s Cage uses unique and artful execution and its temporary nature to deliver a lesson on racial injustice within a must see experience. In doing so, it pulls at the levers of our viral social media culture to shine a powerful light on the often brutal realities of racism today. Hopefully, Society’s Cage and memorial experiences like it also push our society forward — better informed, more aware, more united.

Let us now create the spaces to remember the names, places, and events we might have forgotten, and tell those stories we have yet to hear.

Richard Jones, ASLA, is CEO and founder of iO Studio, Inc. and former president of Mahan Rykiel Associates.

References:

Books: The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein, and The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power by Diedre Mask.

Documentary films: Jim Crow of the North, 2019, Twin Cities PBS, and The Uncomfortable Truth, 2017, Taylor Street Films.

ASLA seeks to facilitate open, respectful dialogue in its public forums. Opinions expressed in the comments section are not necessarily those of ASLA. By participating in ASLA’s websites, blogs, and social media accounts, the user agrees to the Terms of Use.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (September 1-15)

Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park, Jacksonville, Florida / Hood Design Studio

Building Public Places for a Covid World — 09/11/20, The New York Times
“Walter Hood’s landscape architecture firm, Hood Design Studio, has created major parks and museum gardens in Oakland, San Francisco and New York. He is also doubling down on the work he has been doing for 20 years: helping historically African-American communities rediscover history that’s been erased through abandonment or demolished by urban renewal.”

University of Oregon Experts: Wildfires across Oregon Herald One Possible Future — 09/11/20, University of Oregon
“The large, fast-spreading Holiday Farm Fire east of Springfield is a wake-up call for how quickly even worst-case scenarios for wildfire risk can be overwhelmed by reality, said Bart Johnson, a professor of landscape architecture who studies climate change adaptation planning.”

Nine Fall Gardening Tips From a Texas Landscape Architect — 09/10/20, Texas Monthly
“Dallas-based landscape architect David Hocker says the coronavirus pandemic has led to a huge increase in demand for his work, as public health guidelines have pushed us out into nature for safer socializing, dining, and exercise.”

Beyond Complete Streets: Could COVID-19 Help Transform Thoroughfares Into Places for People? –09/07/20, Planetizen
“By changing the way we traditionally use streets, people are expanding the way they think about cities in real-time. In a relatively short period of time, cities have announced plans to permanently close some of these ‘COVID streets’ to create new recreational spaces in combination with mobility corridors—essentially, linear community commons, or places for people.”

Building Bans and Affordable Housing: A Construction Conundrum — 09/03/20, The Washington Post
“Seeking to curtail gentrification and displacement, Atlanta and Chicago put construction and demolition moratoriums in place early this year.”

The Case for Making Virtual Public Meetings Permanent — 09/02/20, Governing
“The question, as has been asked in many contexts through 2020, is why can’t this COVID-19-era innovation become permanent? Rather than return to the hassle of holding most public meetings in person, why not continue to make them remote?”

Statue Suggestions Roll in for Trump’s National Garden of American Heroes — 09/02/20, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Suggestions for ‘lifelike or realistic’ representations of ‘historically significant Americans’ that could potentially populate the Trump administration’s planned National Garden of American Heroes have now been submitted by officials in various states, territories, and counties.”

Ideas Competition: Hyperloop Desert Campus

Imagine shuttling through a large pneumatic tube at speeds up to 760 mph (1,200 kmh). In 2012, Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, proposed just that with his Hyperloop transportation system. Encased in a low-pressure tube, passengers and freight could be sped on magnetic levitation tracks from San Francisco to Los Angeles in just 35 minutes. To spur innovation, Tesla and Space X decided to make their initial Hyperloop technologies open source. A number of teams in the U.S. and Europe — including Virgin Hyperloop One, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, and Transpod — have since taken up the challenge, undertaking feasibility analyses, prototyping passenger pod and track technologies, and even building mile-long test tracks. The Wall Street Journal declared there is now a real “Hyperloop movement” around the world.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies’ full-scale passenger capsule in Puerto de Santa Maria, Spain / Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

Hyperloop track assembly in California / Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

Virgin Hyperloop One capsule and test track / Virgin Hyperloop One

Now, Young Architects Competitions (YAC) has announced an ideas competition for a visionary (and imaginary) Hyperloop Desert Campus outside Las Vegas, Nevada, which they argue is the perfect site for experimentation. YAC hopes to build on the open source spirit of the quest for a Hyperloop by creating new models of planning and design collaboration.

The competition is also an opportunity for teams of young designers of many disciplines to get their bold ideas in front of a jury comprising architect Kazuyo Sejima, the Pritzker Prize-winning founder of SANAA; Carlo Ratti, a leading architect and engineer; and Winy Maas, co-founder and principal architect of the Dutch firm MVRDV.

Hyperloop Desert Campus / YAC

Planners, landscape architects, architects, engineers, and artists will have a major role to play in the success of any proposed Hyperloop networks. Stations and facilities need to feel safe and accessible. The tube infrastructure needs to be carefully integrated into existing communities and landscapes. This is why the organizers believe a research center is needed. “A Hyperloop is made by the whole travel experience — from purchasing the ticket to the entertainment during the ride. Thinking about Hyperloop is thinking about its stations, its communication, its impact on the world, on cities, and on governments: an intricate system that requires research, testing, and training.”

The organizers seek to inspire multi-disciplinary teams to create a livable research community in the extreme conditions of the Mojave desert. With no lack of drama, they describe the site as a place of “burning horizons inhabited by sand foxes and by a rough and hostile vegetation; a place carved by millennia of solitude that is accustomed to the rattle of the snake and the high-pitched cry of birds of prey and does not easily tolerate human beings.”

For the imagined Hyperloop Desert Campus, YAC states there are no restrictions on the height of buildings or depth of excavations. However, they do note the lack of water in Las Vegas means the campus will need to optimize water collection and use. “Landscape design will be possible through xeriscaping techniques, that is designing ‘dry gardens,’ where dazzling native species such as palm trees, cacti, and yuccas can be used.”

Hyperloopers believe the tube network will be the most energy efficient transportation system in the world. As such, the campus also needs to model sustainability by producing its own electricity.

The design concepts will need to include a public welcome center, with reception hall, museum, tour route, arena, and restaurant. The headquarters will need to include laboratories, offices, apartments, and a gym and pool for staff. Lastly, a training center will need to include classrooms and additional laboratories.

The first prize winner will take home €8,000 ($9,400), second place winner €4,000 ($4,700), and the third prize winner, €4,000 ($2,300). Two additional “gold mentions” will receive €500 ($588) prizes, and there will be 10 honorary mentions.

Registration is due September 20, 2020, and submissions on September 23, 2020. Each team needs to include at least one member aged 18 to 35. There are no restrictions on the number of team members, their disciplines, or locations.

Another competition worth exploring: Lyceum, creators of traveling fellowships, have organized a design competition open to landscape architecture students. The Governor Ames Estate in North Easton, Massachusetts, will become the heart of a new cultural district.

Lyceum

Design students are tasked with creating a 1,500 square foot (139 square meter) event pavilion near or within the Estate House footprint. The goal is for the pavilion to create a “unique relationship with the designed landscape that can enhance the visitor experience and provide a platform for community, family gatherings, and celebrations.”

Landscape architect Stephen Stimson, FASLA, founder of Stephen Stimson Associates, is a member of the jury. The first place winner will receive $12,000 and a three month traveling fellowship, with similarly enticing awards for second and third place winners. Applications are due May 14, 2021.

ASLA Announces 2020 Professional and Student Award Winners

ASLA 2020 Professional Award of Excellence in Urban Design, Dilworth Park. OLIN | Photo by OLIN / Sahar Coston-Hardy

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) announces the 2020 Professional and Student Award winners. The ASLA Awards represent the highest honor in the profession of landscape architecture.

Chosen from 567 submissions, this year’s 31 Professional Award winners represent the best of landscape architecture in the General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, and Research categories. In addition, a single Landmark Award is presented each year.

A full list of this year’s Professional Award winners can be found at: www.asla.org/2020awards

ASLA 2020 Student Award of Excellence in Analysis & Planning. West Oakland: From T.O.D to F.O.D. Huiwen Shi, Student International ASLA; Lide Li, Student Affiliate ASLA | Photo credit: Lide Li, Student Affiliate ASLA

Chosen from 560 submissions, this year’s 35 Student Award winners represent a bright and more inclusive future of the landscape architecture profession in the General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Research, Communications, Student Collaboration, and Student Community Service categories.

A full list of this year’s Student Award winners can be found at: https://www.asla.org/2020studentawards

“ASLA’s Professional and Student Awards programs celebrate the best of our profession today, and the brightest hope for the future,” said ASLA President Wendy Miller, FASLA.

“From making sure Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) as well as other underserved individuals and communities prepare for the many challenges of the climate crisis – this year’s projects clearly demonstrate how landscape architects are designing a future that addresses the biggest problems facing our world.”

All Professional and Student Award recipients, their clients, and advisors will be honored at the awards presentation ceremony held virtually this fall.

Background on the ASLA Awards Programs

Each year, the ASLA Professional Awards honor the best in landscape architecture from around the globe. Winners of these prestigious awards are chosen by a jury that represents the breadth of the profession, including private, public, institutional, and academic practice, and exemplify diversity in professional experience, geography, gender, and ethnicity. Submissions are judged blind.

Professional Awards are presented in seven categories: General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Communications, Research, and the Landmark Award. In each of the first five categories, the Jury may select one Award of Excellence and any number of Honor Awards. It is not guaranteed that an Award of Excellence will be selected each year, as it is up to the jury’s discretion. Only one Landmark Award is presented each year.

This year’s Professional Jury included: Jose Alminana, FASLA (Chair); Jane Berger; Ujijji Davis, ASLA; Mark Hough, FASLA; Mark Johnson, FASLA; Kathleen John-Alder, FASLA; Mia Lehrer, FASLA; Tanya Olson, ASLA; and Robert Rogers.

Student Awards are presented in eight categories: General Design, Urban Design, Residential Design, Analysis & Planning, Research, Communications, Student Collaboration and Student Community Service. Like the Professional Awards, the jury may select one Award of Excellence and any number of Honor Awards. It is not guaranteed that an Award of Excellence will be selected each year, as it is up to the jury’s discretion.

This year’s Student Jury included: Terry Guen-Murray, FASLA (Chair); Adam Arvidson, FASLA; Lucia Athens, ASLA; Cermetrius L. Bohannon, ASLA; Jonathon Geels, ASLA; Rikerrious Geter, Associate ASLA; Luis Gonzalez, ASLA; Melissa Henao-Robledo, ASLA; Ernest C. Wong, FASLA.