In 2013, urban landscape historian Thaïsa Way, FASLA, embedded herself in the office of Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) in Seattle, Washington in order to understand the firm’s inner workings. That initial academic curiosity sparked a collaborative relationship, the remarkable result of which is GGN Landscapes 1999-2018, a compendium of GGN’s projects that interweaves theory and practice. The book sets a new standard for landscape architecture monographs.
It was the goal of both Way and GGN to improve upon the typical monograph, characterized by photos of finished, successful projects and not much else. Both parties were also wary of getting too much into the weeds of each project. GGN Landscapes struck that balance, presenting not only each project’s final design but its evolution, told through detailed written accounts and built upon by process sketches, models, and photos.
The book’s richness is the result of the access Way was granted at GGN. Way looked over shoulders, asked questions, and attended meetings. Details such as which team members led discussions, which incessantly sketched, and on what sort of paper were all taken note of. Way pored over working documents and memos to clients and consultants, seeking to understand how GGN made and maintained relationships. Not confined to the office, Way visited each of the book’s featured projects, accompanied by their respective lead designers (save for one instance in which that designer was unavailable). She stressed that this effort would have been impossible without the benefit of GGN’s trust.
Way’s research paints a picture of an especially collaborative firm that is interested in the intersection of analog and digital techniques and embraces experimentation. It’s worth emphasizing that many firms would claim these same traits. Way witnessed them at GGN. Her analysis is borne out in the book’s featured projects, all of which could stand alone as case studies.
The first project presented in the book, and perhaps GGN’s most famous, is Lurie Garden in Chicago. Way’s text tells the story of GGN’s involvement, from the project’s procurement through research, design, and resolution. The book describes the technical challenges encountered and thought process behind GGN’s decisions. Iterative sketches show variations on the garden’s iconic breastplate form and planting scheme. And, of course, there are plenty of photos that attempt to capture the power of the space (Way thinks that even GGN failed to foresee just how impressive Lurie Garden would become).
If the Lurie Garden chapter shows us a young firm getting a feel for itself, India Basin Shoreline Park, the book’s final featured project, shows a mature practice in full command of its faculties and with a firm grasp of landscape’s agency. Shannon Nichol, one of GGN’s three founders, led the concept design for the park in the Bayview-Hunters point neighborhood of San Francisco. The concept is, as Way describes it, “emblematic of 21st century design,” negotiating issues of environmental degradation, access to the water, historic preservation, and neighborhood revitalization. GGN’s concept includes a large meadow reminiscent of a patent slip that once existed on site. Included in the chapter are Nichols’ sketches showing the meadow’s origin in the concept, and a series of plans show its refinement over time.
The book also contains less project-oriented views into GGN’s process. Way believes understanding the designer is crucial to understanding their approach. As such, we learn how GGN’s founders came to landscape and their attitude toward design. We also learn of how their practice benefited early on from successful collaborations with outside architects and engineers and how this helped form their broad view of landscape architecture.
With GGN Landscapes, Way and GGN have constructed a monograph better suited for backpacks than coffee tables. I cannot think of higher praise.
Rebuilding a City from the Eye of a Child– CityLab, 12/17/18
“The ambitious mayor of Tirana, Albania, is selling a wary constituency on economic transformation by putting kids at the forefront of his agenda.”
2018 Was the Year of the Aspirational Park– CityLab, 12/26/18
“Private funding and high-impact design were recurring themes of parks that opened in 2018. So was the hope that parks can unite, repair, and invigorate cities.”
Bangkok Is Sinking and Here Is the Solution– Land8, 12/16/18
“Just as New York has Central Park, Bangkok has just received its lungs of the City – the Chulalongkorn Centenary Park, the first sizeable green infrastructure project, which has been designed for the city to face the inevitable realities of climate change.”
Honda Woods – Vibrant Forests for Our Children, for Our Communities– World Landscape Architecture, 12/3/18
“Honda Woods project was launched in the year of 1976, respecting the founder’s strong will. The company looked into tree species that were suitable for the environment at each factory nationwide and planted them to create a woodland, which was called ‘home-woods.’”
How the Trust for Public Land Is Converting Schoolyards to Playgrounds– Architect’s Newspaper, 12/10/18
“Since 1996, the Trust for Public Land (TPL), has been working out of its New York City office to partner with the City of New York and its Department of Education, to transform low-performing asphalt ‘play yards’ into multi-benefit play spaces.”
Mount Umunhum, the third largest peak in the Bay Area, has long been sacred to the Amah Mutsun tribe. Its peak is central to their origin story. And for many years, the tribe would form a ceremonial circle there and stomp their feet as hard as they could so that creator would hear.
In the 1950s, the US Air Force purchased the top of the mountain, terraced it, and built an early warning radar station that included some 80 structures, such as a swimming pool and bowling alley. From the late 1950s up unti 1980, when the base closed, the station was off-limits to the tribe and all other visitors. Then in 1986, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (Midpen) purchased the land with the goal of restoring the landscape as a spiritual home for the Amah Mutsun.
After spending millions to remove asbestos, machinery oils, and lead paint from the site — and taking down all structures save the radar tower — Midpen reached out to landscape architecture and environmental planning firm Restoration Design Group (RDG) to make this spiritual place both physically and culturally accessible. Over seven years, RDG landscape architects Bob Birkeland, ASLA, Peter Rohan, ASLA, and planner Rich Walkling collaborated with the Amah Mutsun tribe to realize their shared vision. A new Mount Umunhum opened in late 2017 after many years and a $14 million investment.
In a phone interview, Walkling said RDG organized a half-day design charrette with the tribe to plan and design the spiritual revitalization. The tribe not only guided the placement and size of the ceremonial circle, but also its connections to the greater world and its materials.
“They needed to know where the four cardinal directions were, so we put in gaps in the seat walls” to indicate north, south, east, west. The tribe needed to enter the circle from the east, so the access trail to the space was set on the east side. And because the tribe stomps on the ground with their bare feet, the base of the circle was formed of a softer natural substrate.
Beyond bringing the circle back to the peak, RDG also started the process of ecological restoration of the multi-acre peak landscape, which is found within a “coastal influence zone.” Walkling said this has been tricky because “there are not a lot of reference conditions; it’s now much different from its natural state.” RDG worked with a botanist to create multiple restoration patches to see which plants would survive in a place that “receives up to nine inches of rain in a day, 100-mile-an-hour winds, snow, fog, and pounding sun.”
Walkling said the whole process “was very rewarding for the tribe — it’s a process of healing for them.” But perhaps with one caveat: the radar tower, which some groups fought hard to preserve, remains a potent reminder of the place’s military history as well.
Still, after being scattered for so long, the tribe has now been able to “reconstitute, re-ground itself” in its restored home.
In the wonderful video at top, tribal chairman Valentin Lopez explains why it’s so important to restore the greater ecosystem of the peak landscape. “We must heal mother earth — people, plants, wildlife, rivers, fog, rocks, the shadows. They are all alive. There is a responsibility to take care of them all.”
And he has an important message for other communities seeking reconciliation with the past: “Every inch of land was once indigenous land. Get to know whose land you are on. Say a prayer for them. Get to know them.”
Drones can do much more than take pretty aerial pictures. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) can be used to analyze site conditions over time, offering a deeper understanding of change. Drones can also play a role in actually planning and designing landscapes.
Sherwin provided a brief overview of drones. In the early 1900s, the inventor Nikola Tesla envisioned a “wireless unmanned aerial system.” In the 1940s, a “crude unmanned drone” was developed. Later in the 1960s, radio-controlled planes became a favorite of hobbyists around the globe. In 1995, the US military unleashed the missile-armed predator drone — a true “leap in technology.” In 2006, the US government devised the first flight guidelines for drone pilots, known as Rule 107. And then a year later, the launch of the iPhone led to the birth of an app-guided drone. And in 2013, the Phantom One drone, featuring sensors linked to GoPro cameras, was released.
To test one of the latest drones with cameras and sensors, Sherwin found a spot at Lundy Lake, just south of Lake Tahoe in California. Sherwin wanted to use the drone to better understand how the tree canopy was shifting with climate change. The drone covered the same flight path a number of times, providing high-quality footage at a 1-meter resolution, which is better than aerial satellites. Sherwin mapped a patch of landscape, including individual tree species and the under story, creating a rich, data-dense photogrammetry. And over time, the photogrammetry was able to show “where change was occurring.”
That is until we was arrested for trespassing and his drone was confiscated. Sherwin had used an app called AVMap, which is supposed to let drone pilots know where it is legal to fly. But the data hadn’t been updated. The result: “my research is on hold. No word yet on a permit.” But he was able to get his drone back. That was the first tip in the session: don’t get arrested.
Brett Milligan, one of the founders of the Dredge Research Collaborative, is using drones to aid the ecological restoration of dunes in the Antioch shoreline, along the San Joaquin River in California. Plants are being grown in the dunes to prevent further erosion. He used drones to monitor the rate of re-colonization by the vegetation, creating a point-cloud or photogrammetry model. He put in a set of “ground control points” — stakes tied with a bright orange material in the dunes — that serve as static reference points in a changing dune landscape. Once he got the video data he was hoping for, he and his students used that to “model results with physical CNC models in wind tunnels,” so as to try to create a more accurate model for how wind impacts dune restoration. Milligan said drones “add new value to field work. The drone draws you in; it doesn’t distance you.”
For Luke Hegeman, a landscape architect and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-certified UAV pilot, drones are a “design tool.”
Hegeman said drones can help create powerful mixed media experiences that help “visualize potential future outcomes.” He envisioned combining drone video feeds with visualized data from network of sensors buried in the ground. Running simulations, vast landscapes could be designed with real-time information.
And Emily Schlickman with SWA Group explained how her firm’s XL Research and Innovation Lab uses drones for a variety of purposes. UAVs have been used to gather information and document conditions before planning and design process have begun. Drones were also used to survey site damage to Buffalo Bayou park in Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which dumped 40 inches of rain in four days. In that case, the drone was crucial, because surveying the site, which was largely inaccessible after the floods, would have been unsafe. And drones have been used by SWA to monitor construction progress.
Algorithms programming machine learning systems track the movement of people through the site. And heat maps show where people congregate throughout the day. “It’s a taste of what this technology is capable of.”
In 2019, ASLA will host its Diversity Summit May 17-19 at the ASLA Center for Landscape Architecture in Washington D.C.
The Summit welcomes landscape architects from diverse backgrounds to engage in critical, thoughtful, and challenging dialogues to inform how the Society and its members can create an inclusive and equitable community of landscape architecture professionals.
ASLA will invite selected participants to think in deeper and more complex ways about diversity and inclusion in the profession. Attendees will explore strategies for ASLA to advance its diversity and inclusion efforts while tackling some of the most pressing issues facing diverse communities throughout the Summit.
Eligibility and Deadline
If you are a landscape architecture professional of color in the United States with at least two years of professional experience and are interested in applying, please complete the 2019 ASLA Diversity Summer Call for Letters of Interest by midnight on Friday, January 25, 2019. We will notify selected participants in early February. ASLA will pay primary transportation, two nights lodging for all participants, and provide breakfast and lunch on the summit days.
In 2013, ASLA convened its first Diversity Summit with the goal of developing a deeper understanding of why landscape architecture is failing to attract a more diverse profile. Each summit has brought together a group of experienced and emerging landscape architects who identify as African American or Latinx to develop strategies that address diversity issues in the field.
In 2017, the Diversity SuperSummit convened the largest group of attendees to date. Participants evaluated goals from previous summits, developed focus areas for four key diversity initiatives to guide ASLA’s work plan in the coming year, and discussed the future of the Diversity Summit. Focus items and initiatives will continue to be established and evaluated as ASLA plans future Summits. The following includes links to resources, news and articles, and Summit reports published since the first Diversity Summit convened in 2013.
In 2018, ASLA invited five professionals from the Diversity SuperSummit and nine new participants from the Call for Letters of Interest to add valuable input to discussions and resource development. Attendees reviewed benchmarks prioritized from the 2017 Diversity SuperSummit, offered suggestions for developing resources that can assist implementing diversity and inclusion practices into business strategies and reaching out to the youth and communities.
This post is by Lisa Jennings, ASLA Career Discovery & Diversity Manager.
The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) is now accepting entries for its 2019 Professional and Student Awards, the world’s most prestigious juried landscape architecture competition.
Each year, the ASLA Professional Awards honor the best in landscape architecture from around the globe, while the ASLA Student Awards give us a glimpse into the future of the profession.
Award recipients receive featured coverage in Landscape Architecture Magazine, the magazine of ASLA, and in many other design and construction industry and general interest media. ASLA will honor the award recipients, their clients, and advisors at the awards presentation ceremony during the 2019 ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego, November 15-18.
The prestige of the ASLA awards programs relies on the high-caliber juries that convene each year to review submissions.
Members of the 2019 professional awards jury are:
Andrea Cochran, FASLA, Chair, Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture, San Francisco, CA
Henri Bava, Agence Ter, Paris, France
Kofi Boone, ASLA, North Carolina State University, Durham, NC
Gina Ford, FASLA, Agency Landscape and Planning, Cambridge, MA
Deb Guenther, FASLA, Mithun, Seattle, WA
John King, Honorary ASLA, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco, CA
Pam Linn, FASLA, Milwaukee Public Schools, Milwaukee, WI
John Vinci, Vinci Hamp Architects, Chicago, IL
Keith Wagner, FASLA, Wagner Hodgson Landscape Architecture, Burlington, VT
Both Stephanie A. Rolley, FASLA, Kansas State University, on behalf of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) and Gale Newman, ASLA Texas A&M University, on behalf of the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture (CELA) will join the jury for the selection of the Research Category.
Members of the 2019 student awards jury are:
Diane Jones Allen, ASLA, Chair, Design Jones LLC, Arlington, TX
Diana Fernandez, ASLA, Sasaki Associates, Upton, MA
David Gouverneur, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Robert Gray, ASLA, Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects, Kansas City, MO
Damian Holmes, World Landscape Architecture, Melbourne, Australia
Kendra Hyson, Associate ASLA, The Neighborhood Design Center, Washington, DC
Maki Kawaguchi, Gehl, New York, NY
Signe Nielsen, FASLA, Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, P.C., New York, NY
Daniel Tal, ASLA, Ambit3D LLC, Lakewood, CO
Both the ASLA Professional and Student awards feature five categories: General Design; Residential Design; Analysis and Planning; Communications; and Research. The Professional Awards also include The Landmark Award, while the Student Awards include the Student Community Service Award and Student Collaboration categories.
Professional awards entry fees are due by February 15, 2019. All submissions are due by 11:59 PST on March 1, 2019.
Student awards entry fees are due by May 10, 2019. All submissions are due by 11:59 PST on May 17, 2019.
Many of the sessions will also qualify for continuing education credit with the Green Building Certification Institute (toward LEED AP credential maintenance), the American Institute of Architects, the American Institute of Certified Planners, and other allied professional organizations and state registration boards.
Education session speakers selected from this process will receive a full complimentary registration to the ASLA 2019 Conference and may also be eligible for reimbursement for one night’s hotel stay at an official ASLA hotel (an estimated $750 value).
Landscape architecture professionals wishing to present at the San Diego conference need to be active members of ASLA. Allied professionals are encouraged to both submit presentations and speak but are not required to be members of the Society. To coordinate proposals and network with potential speakers, we encourage you to use the CFP Google Group.
Interview conducted at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting & EXPO in Philadelphia.
What makes a great photograph of landscape architecture?
The challenge of photographing landscape architecture is taking a three-dimensional space and making it two dimensional. The best photographs of landscape architecture make you feel like you’re in the space.
A good photograph tells a story. I don’t think of myself as making individual photographs. It’s always interesting to me when someone remembers one photograph, because my photography is about telling the story of a project.
Does taking photographs of natural landscape and works of landscape architecture require different approaches? If so, how?
I am not at all interested in taking pictures of the natural landscape. My role is taking pictures of the built environment. I’m most interested in how culture impacts the land and nature. How we want to control it; what we think of as beauty, and the political implications of a designed landscape.
I became aware of this in the 90s. I got a grant with a writer, Diana Ketchum, to photograph 18th century English-style gardens in France. They are based on the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The French are not particularly interested in them. Most people know about Le Nôtre’s landscapes: the classic French Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles, which symbolizes the absolute power of the king. The English-style gardens were built just before the French Revolution. They are meandering, with winding paths, and views that are meant to make people feel and think and question the absolute power of the king. They were built at a time when people were traveling to Italy to see ruins. In Northern France there were no ruins so they built their own. One of the gardens in Ermenonville is now Parc Jean Jacques Rousseau. It has grottoes and a temple on the hill with fallen pillars.
Today, landscape architecture is political in its relation to how we think about climate change, parks, and water use. Also, there’s the issue of parks and gentrification.
How can you capture the feel of a designed landscape, taking a work that is in 3-D and making it 2-D?
I do it in collaboration with the designers. I find that incredibly helpful as they hone my vision. I work with a medium-format digital camera that sends an image to an iPad so my clients can can react to it in real time. They can tell me, “no, no, this is what I meant.”
Is there one photograph that tells the whole story? Sometimes. But not always. I leave things out. But I also put in a lot in. One photo is just one part of the story. I need multiple photos to tell the story.
If I have a lot of time in a space I can kind of figure out the logic. But my clients have designed sight lines, they’ve thought about the space, they know the way the light works. They don’t know how to document it, generally, but they know what they want. And, so, it’s this back and forth that I find extremely exciting.
What process yields the best photos?
For me, it’s definitely working with the designer. My clients generally humor me when I go off on a tangent. They encourage me to see what I see.
I always say: “turn around.” I was taking a photograph of what I was supposed to be photographing and then I turned around and the light was coming through the trees on the hillside. That photograph ended up being the cover of Living Land, Blasen Landscape Architecture’s book. It was just a moment that captured some essence.
The exciting thing about photographing landscape architecture is that there are no rules. I showed a photograph of Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, Texas, at the field session at the ASLA Annual Meeting. There’s a pole going right down the middle of the photograph. You can see the base of the pole.
Chris McGee, art director at Landscape Architecture Magazine (LAM), said: “Oh, I was looking at that and saying, ‘which photograph do I like better?'” But it was one photograph. I broke the rules. I guess there are rules to break.
How do you capture seasonal change and the progression of time?
There aren’t many projects I do over time. They have to be very significant projects for my clients, because hiring me is a big expense.
I just did a private house this summer for Surface Design, which I’ve documented over time. The landscape has a big meadow that’s great to capture in different seasons, but this is a rarity.
How do you capture people inhabiting a landscape in a way that doesn’t feel staged?
You can try to use real people. But one of the problems is that when I shoot dawn or and dusk, there is nobody there. Or if people are there they walk straight through the picture, and you don’t see them. There’s not even a blur, because the exposures are so long.
I sometimes bring a whole team of people. When I photographed the San Antonio Botanical Garden that Christy Ten Eyck designed this summer, the botanical garden invited families so there were kids there. We were able to do the photographs in the right kind of light with people in it.
As Chris McGee says, “we just don’t want to see the same person in every shot.” You want people to be comfortable and look natural. I sometimes have people walk through a site in order to get movement through it. The problem with real people is they can go too fast or too slow. They can be carrying a big plastic bag, just not looking right.
What will visual landscape representation look like in 25 years? Will photography always have a place in the world of drones, virtual reality, mixed media, or some other technology that we don’t even know about?
I am not interested in using a drone, but I have been on shoots where drones have been used to great effect. I’m happy to have them, because I hate hanging out over edges where there’s parapets and stuff and you can’t really see, and you’re not getting the angle people want. Landscape architects love things from above.
Drones are not great quality, but they’re great for a certain kind of image. They’re less interesting to me, because, again, it’s flat. I’m not interested in shooting flat. I’m interested in the relationship of near and far and how you make that three dimensional space a photograph.
I may be virtual in 25 years, but I don’t think I’ll be around in 25 years. I have grandchildren and I wonder what their lives are going to be like in 25 years.
Images are ubiquitous now. We live by images. But how much time do you give to an Instagram photograph? It’s not really about the quality. It’s about: does it grab me or not? I have a love-hate relationship with Instagram. I like seeing what people are doing and interesting things. The thing I hate about it is: “Well, why am I stuck home here at the computer working when you’re in Nepal on a mountaintop looking at this beautiful sunset!?”
Lastly, what is the most important advice you have for amateur photographers who want to improve their photography of landscape architecture?
Look at landscape photography you admire and try to figure out what you like about it. Imitation is a way of getting where you want to go.
Trial and error; that’s it! Keep doing it. Do it, do it, look at it. Judge it, figure out what works and what doesn’t work.
I had a wonderful mentor at one of the magazines. She wouldn’t let me go out unless the light was right. I learned a lot about light from her. My photographs are about light. The right light is generally not the middle of the day. Early or late.
When you’re photographing architecture, you can have full sun on a façade, and it shows the shapes. But when you’re photographing landscape, anything with texture and plants, trees, you end up getting dark pools underneath trees, even the trees themselves are broken up by dark shadows.
You’re not seeing form; you’re seeing light. The forms are light and shadow.
Many have called Kongjian Yu, FASLA, president of Turenscape, the Frederick Law Olmsted of China. And with his new book Letters to the Leaders of China: Kongjian Yu and the Future of the Chinese City, one understands why. This collection of letters to Chinese president Xi Jinping and provincial governors, essays, interviews, and other advocacy pieces reveal how much Yu has invested in promoting his ecological, water-centric “sponge city” approach. His book demonstrates that every landscape architect can become a leader and a powerful force for improving environmental and human health in their community.
Yu connects the professed communal and environmental aspirations of the Communist Party leadership with his own goals — healthy places for people and well-functioning ecosystems. But he also believes there has been some deviation from the original goals of the Communist revolution, with the pursuit of Western-style, car-based development; isolated, residential skyscrapers; and widespread environmental degradation.
He submits typical contemporary urban design in China to a kind of criticism study session, asking mayors and governors to re-examine their own motivations and re-align themselves with the true needs of the Chinese people and the environment.
He takes aim at the Chinese version of the western City Beautiful movement that has been carried out “aimlessly and autocratically,” damaging both the civil realm through the development of highways that split communities, giant soulless plazas, and parks filled with non-native plants; and the natural environment, through the country-wide pollution of air and water. His core argument: to mindlessly ape Western development models — and profit from these destructive approaches — is fundamentally un-Chinese and certainly not Communist.
In one compelling essay directed to mayors, he writes: “contemporary movements to build the ‘City Beautiful’ and the ‘eco-city’ are short-sighted. It is wrong to raze old homes downtown to erect a paved concrete square; wrong to demolish natural features to build ‘parks’ stuffed with exotic plants; wrong to cut down forests that meander along riverbanks, only to line those rivers with concrete; wrong to take productive rice fields that are over a thousand years old and cover them up with lawns of imported grass — all to inflate and publicize a mayor’s false achievements.”
He seeks to grow a new stock of governors and mayors who can change the status-quo urban planning paradigm in China. He wants them to adopt a “negative planning” approach in which important ecologies are purposefully protected from development. Instead of running population growth estimates and then creating a development plan based in standardized land requirements per person, Yu wants urban planners to preserve and enhance undeveloped land — hence the “negative” or zero planning or development approach — that provide vital ecosystem services. With negative planning, China can then build “landscape security patterns,” which form out of “strategic locations and linkages” that are “extremely important to the maintenance and control of ecological processes.”
In a country that has become a toxic brownfield, landscape security could provide the stable foundation for the renewed sustainability and resilience of the country.
He calls for using a number of ambitious strategies for achieving landscape security, and bringing nature back to the cities in a real, not fake “eco-city” manner. Historic and cultural preservation, as well as agriculture, are woven through the ideas, too:
“Maintain and strengthen the overall continuity of the landscape pattern.
Establish and protect the city’s diversity of habitat.
Maintain and restore the natural configuration of rivers and shorelines.
Restore and protect wetland systems.
Integrate rural windbreaks into urban greenways.
Build greenways for pedestrians and cyclists.
Establish green cultural heritage corridors.
Improve urban green spaces by making them more permeable and accessible to the public.
Dissolve parks into the city’s matrix.
Dissolve the city, protect and integrate productive farmland as an organic element of the city.
Establish native plant nurseries.”
Amid the essays and lectures, Letters to the Leaders of China intermingles actual letters written by Yu to provincial governors, mayors, and Chinese president Xi Jinping himself. They give an insight into the opportunities and limits of Yu’s role as a leading intellectual and critic and the preeminent landscape architect in China. Unfortunately, though, Yu doesn’t provide any of their responses back to him, so these sections feel like a one-sided conversation. One doesn’t know the results of his lobbying.
Still, one letter to Wen Jiabao, premier of the state council, calling for a “vernacular heritage landscape network” — essentially, a national system of cultural landscapes that could also provide ecosystem services — is a particularly creative, efficient policy proposal that even includes specific governmental and regulatory changes to make his proposal happen. The letter shows an understanding of how the government is structured and what needs to change.
Through the letters, essays, and lectures, one gets a sense of how much Yu cares — and how driven he is to undo the unsustainable development patterns that repeat the same destructive errors made in the West over the past 50 years. He is trying to respectfully guide the leadership of China towards a more ecological, humane approach, and he works every angle he can find.
At the end of the book, there is a transcription of an interview with Chinese contemporary artist Ai Wei Wei. Ai presses Yu on his ideas, forcing him to justify his arguments. Yu states that China’s rustic, vernacular, “low culture” is what’s key to achieving sustainability — not the imported Western ideas of development, architecture, and landscape or bourgeois Chinese traditions. To achieve social and environmental reform, China must raise up what is considered low today — the wetland that functions, the productive aesthetics of the humble farm, the clean river.
And so he seeks to educate China’s many mayors on the beauty of what is plain, which is why his works of landscape architecture are “consciously educational.”