Interview: Kongjian Yu
Professor Kongjian Yu is a celebrated world leader in ecological planning and design. He is the founder of Turenscape, founder and Dean of the College of Architecture and Landscape at Peking University and Visiting Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning and Design, Harvard University.
Selected awards include: 8 ASLA Design and Planning Awards, 5 Human Habitat Awards, 2 World’s Best Landscape Awards, 3 Excellence on the Waterfront Awards, the World Architecture Award, ULI Global Award for Excellence, 2 Commended for the Emerging Architectural Awards, and the National Gold Medal of Fine Arts.
Professor Yu has published 25 books, over 250 papers and is Chief Editor of LA China. He is one of Landscape Architecture’s most inspirational and influential thinkers and practitioners.
You speak of beauty in the productive, working and everyday (rural) landscape, yet in urban areas we typically have a preference for ornamental and consumptive landscapes and reductive, ‘doing less ill’ approaches. Landscape architecture has a close association with ornamental, high-culture, ‘capital D’ Design, complicit with pleasure-seeking that largely fails to address pressing issues of sustainability and survival (such as water, energy, food, productivity systems and social justice). Should the profession (or a branch of it) break away from this legacy to shift our focus to these issues?
Yes, I strongly believe landscape architecture needs a redirection, a revolutionary redefinition. People are inclined to see landscape architecture as an evolution from gardening and ornamental horticulture, because it is where all the history books traced our profession and most influential programs of landscape architecture worldwide evolved.
However, it is heavily biased and largely the interest of high-culture class inside the intellectual ivory tower. There are two tiers of Chinese culture. This high culture belongs to the class of literati and aristocracy who think more aesthetically and visually about landscape architecture and less about the issues of working and production, leading to wasteful behavior.
Facing the challenges of today’s urgent environmental and social problems, if we keep on this track, we are doomed. We need to promote the wisdom of the low culture that is evolved for survival. This revolutionary way of thinking about the profession of landscape architecture is to redefine it as an art of survival, an art of working and functioning.
It is the art derived from low culture, but the wisdom and skills in field making, irrigation, agricultural planning under the circumstance of flood and drought, selecting sites for cities to avoid natural disasters, selecting sites and orientating houses for people to make best use of natural conditions are exactly those we need for today’s challenges.
If the profession can follow this track, making landscape productive, making our cities resilient and buildings in the right position and making ourselves feel connected to the land, the community and past, the landscape is deemed to be safe, healthy, productive, and beautiful.
We have to promote the art of survival, the living vernacular culture, not the dead culture of the imperial, aristocracy and literati. The legacy of ornamental and consumptive landscape should be only considered dead ‘world heritage’, and landscape architects today have a far more important role to play, dealing with the issue of survival.
Are there any disciplines or exemplars doing this well?
Landscape architecture defined as the art of survival is the most promising discipline to respond to contemporary issues of environment, water, energy and food.
There are some prominent examples such as Dujiangyan Weir, but we can also be easily inspired by the common practices of peasants if we look into their way of living, their adaptation to the forces of nature and achievement of their desires within their environment.
For example, peasants farming in almost all parts of the world practice “cut and fill”, a tactic for transforming unsuitable swampy environments into productive and livable landscapes.
The cut become ponds for fishing while the filled, dry dikes are used for fruit trees and mulberries. Cut and fill also transforms mountain slopes into productive farming terraces for rice and has become the most memorable landscape in Southeast Asia and China.
In dry landscapes, the cut-and-fill technique is used to catch rain water and remediate salty and alkaline soils to create farmable sites. These agricultural landscapes are considered to be among the most picturesque in the world.
UNESCO World Heritage designated rice terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, Bali’s designated rice field system, and the Hong He Hani rice terraces as outstanding examples of the transformation of nature through cut and fill into sustainable and aesthetically resonant landscape.
Other techniques, such as irrigation using gravity, planting based on seasonal rotation, etc. are all art and wisdom of survival that will inspire landscape architecture tremendously.
Do we need to exert more influence in urban and regional planning?
It is important to recognize that the conventional approach to urban development planning, based on population projections, grey infrastructure and architectural objects is unable to meet the challenges and needs of an ecological and sustainable urban form.
The alternative urbanity that we advocate is the planning and design of ecological infrastructure, which is better to be laid out before urban and regional development planning. Ecological infrastructure (EI) is the necessary structure of a sustainable landscape in which the output of goods and services is maintained and the capacity of the system to deliver those same goods and services to future generations is not undermined.
The four categories of services are: provision, related to the production of food and clean water; regulating, related to the control of climate and disease, and the mediation of flood and drought; supporting, related to nutrient cycles and providing habitat for wild plant and animal species; and cultural, related to spiritual and recreational benefits.
For the sake of ecological service and cultural integrity of the land, ecological infrastructure needs to be safeguarded across multiple scales, landscape needs to be considered as the holistic totality of land, and landscape architecture as the planning, design and management of the holistic system of land and arrangement of elements on the land, including architectures, rivers, and cities and so on.
It is the ‘Negative Planning’ that I have stressed to mayors, to firstly demarcate large-scale ‘non-buildable areas’ for EI, or where not to urbanize, to eliminate the possibility of big mistakes in development and construction. In the past 18 years, Turenscape and Peking University has promoted these ideas in over 200 cities across China at multiple scales.
‘Negative Planning’ is an advanced version of McHarg’s ‘design with nature’ idea, and that of Patrick Geddes, trying solve the contemporary problems in China – rapid urbanism, fragile environment and unregulated environment, but this also has universal significance.
You have stated that the dominant desire for beauty detached from utility is weakening. Even though your realized landscapes demonstrate that productivity and beauty are not mutually exclusive, why is the merger of productivity and aesthetics (such as your work at Shenyang Architectural Campus) not more prevalent?
Simply put, productive landscapes often do not meet public visual expectations under current pervasive aesthetics. In the west, people have internalized the idea that a controlled, maintained and clean environment is a prerequisite to beauty.
Similarly, contemporary Chinese cities have a predominant taste for either Chinese traditional gardens or the high costs and maintenance of ornamental horticulture. The aesthetics of uselessness, leisure, and adornment have taken over in China as part of a larger overwhelming urge to appear modern and sophisticated.
Everyday, vernacular scenes like reeds, crops, terraces and other features are related to low culture and disregarded by mainstream aesthetics.
The reasons behind these predominant aesthetics include our professional education and orientation of public values. Our education in landscape design does little to advance aesthetics of students and gives practically no mention of the practice and wisdom of landscape shaping for human survival.
As a result, urban planning or design professionals seem to be weak and incapable in the face of the strong ‘City Beautiful Movement’ and even add fuel to its fire. Their theoretical and practical levels are also greatly limited due to their lack of international experience.
Mostly, they are reduced to simulating photos taken home from abroad by mayors.
Secondly, both modern agricultural and industrial practices boast exploiting natural resources and controlling natural process through technological advancement as being civilized and see those adapted to natural forces as primitive.
Policy makers favor showy and outrageously expensive architecture such as the CCTV tower and the Bird’s Nest, despite their 10 times cost respective to an ordinary building in China that functions the same. All of these have exerted influence on public’s aesthetics.
In post-modern times we need to call upon a new aesthetics that matches contemporary environmental ethics and the principle of sustainability. Designers, government and public must all adapt to this new aesthetic. I call this ‘Big feet revolution’.
How can we engage clients and landscape architects in productive landscapes of agriculture, energy, water, and raw materials?
Firstly, we have to change the idea of decision makers towards productive and functional landscape. As I mentioned, in China it is actually the mayors that determine city planning, thus we seek to transform decision makers’ values and aesthetics through discourse.
I’ve given lectures to more than 1000 mayors and CPC secretaries, and also distributed the book ‘The Road to Urban Landscape: Talks to Mayors’, with over 20,000 copies in circulation.
During this process they are informed of the lessons of western urbanization, the destructive consequence and cause of China’s city beautiful movement, a new aesthetics and road of establishing Ecological Infrastructure—which is our well-defined solution.
I also wrote a letter to Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. The prime minister responded to my letter quickly, followed by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, which sponsored our national ecological security pattern research and this is of great strategic significance. In addition, the ‘Sponge City’, which we initiated and promoted for over a decade, eventually picked up by President Xi Jinping, has now become a national campaign.
Secondly, we need to restructure educational programs to make younger generations well prepared for the challenges of survival. As the Dean of the College of Architecture and Landscape at Peking University, landscape architecture education is positioned at producing designers who understand contemporary environmental ethics, master modern science and technology and a keenness for negotiating the relationship of humans and nature.
I’m optimistic about their ability to play leading roles in addressing big environmental and survival issues.
Thirdly, mass media, both traditional and new, have powerful influence on the general public.
They can play an important role in drawing people’s attention to pressing social and environmental problems as well as productive and functional landscape as a solution.
In addition, our successfully realized projects are essential for increasing the confidence of collaborating mayors and media, since applying the principle of sustainability, ecological and functional landscapes is relatively new.
Also, public spaces such as parks and riverbanks have immeasurable impact on the formation of cultural values. The places that Turenscape have designed are full of educational meanings to the common people. Gradually, the public could internalize the aesthetics, become able to do their own interpretation and then educate others.
Do you think the term sustainability has been corrupted and a term such as survival is more appropriate?
First of all, I do not reject the concept of ‘sustainability’, but I believe Sustainability and Survival are twin concept. The former is ‘Think like A King’; the latter is to ‘Act Like A peasant’. We need both of course!
At the action level, I think survival is a more accurate word to describe our situation and a more powerful and practical word to lead action. First of all, sustainability is defined as meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
But how can we talk about sustainability when the survival of the present generation is threatened? For example, in China 70% of surface water and more than half of urban ground water is thought to be polluted, 10 million hectares of arable land are contaminated by heavy metals and pesticide residues, more than 20% of fresh water wetlands and 50% of coastal wetlands have been lost in the past 50 years, hundred of species of plans and animals are threatened.
On global level, climate change has brought additional floods, storms, droughts and diseases. ’Sustainability’ is an ideal vision but somehow vague and empty, and we are born with a tendency of wasting, with no concern for saving.
‘Survival’, on the other hand, gives a pressing sense to arouse people’s instinct through the history, story and images that they are familiar with, and at least gives a rough idea about how to act. People tend to regard sustainability as largely depending on strategic plans of governments or professionals, yet survival will help them realize that it should be the efforts of everyone.
In short, it is more likely to draw individual’s attention and inspire actions.
In addition, all around the world, our ancestors of different civilizations have accumulated survival experience and wisdom to tell and share, including dealing with floods, droughts, soil erosion, field making and food production under various circumstances.
They are the active energy essential to people’s survival and development. This can form a global think-tank that stores lessons and best practices that are ready for us to draw upon in the face of contemporary challenges. When they are actively valued, shared and practiced, they may eventually lead us to achieve the goal of sustainability.
You are one of the few landscape architects with a strong media presence and political influence, which you have achieved in contrast to the high-culture identity approach taken by most well-known designers (e.g. star architects). Your values embrace everyday people (functional vernaculars, the art of survival), with universal relevance (the need to change relationships between land and people, productive ecological infrastructures). Why isn’t there more widespread interest, coverage and global momentum embracing this approach?
The approach of strong media presence and political influence is actually resulting from a merger of various factors. First of all, my motivation is not becoming a mere star architect, but advocating a new aesthetics, stimulating new values and ways of thinking and initiating a revolution on the ground.
The message must be spread out loudly. Communicating only through design works are far less sufficient to convey explicitly my ideas.
Secondly, China has a top-down political structure, and centralized decision-making. Moreover, China is still undergoing the process of urbanization, which opens spaces for new paradigms to be practiced and accepted. This explains my efforts of lecturing to mayors, who are capable of receiving my interpretation and implementing effective change.
While in other places like Europe, where the majority of urban planning and development of many cities is largely complete, and decision making on landscape architecture or urban change might be based on different mechanisms, this approach could be much less effective.
Thirdly, graduating from Harvard and being the founder and Dean of College of Architecture and Landscape, I do not only have the obligation to educate but also have credibility to speak directly to decision-makers, academia and the public. However, if you only have theories, your efforts on building political influence will be in great discount.
Frankly, pragmatic practices of Turenscape that won international professional recognition such as ASLA awards have also helped build up foundations for decision makers’ interest and trust. In short, the unique combination of my aspiration, China’s top-down political structure and my credibility determines my approach.
What key strategies and lessons would you encourage and share?
(1) Influence influential persons. In China’s case, they are referred to the political leaders. In each specific case efforts should be made to analyze and identify the influential persons and seek effective ways to communicate your concept.
(2) Do what you mean. You need to accomplish examples to support your theory and advocacy. During this process, it’s key to refine your techniques in applying ecological principals to real projects;
(3) Make your productive attractive: In order to convey new aesthetics into the conventional notion of beauty, we should make productive landscape beautiful so that people will be touched by their sensual experience and then value, desire and nurture it.
(4) Perseverance. It will be a way full of challenges but we have to hold onto it. In my 2002 Zhongshan Shipyard Park project, my proposal of keeping remnant rusty docks and machinery and planting weeds were turned down by 99 of the 100 expert panel. It was our dogged persuasion to make it realized.
It was the same painful negotiation process with, for example, water resource departments to persuade governments to cease channelizing rivers through straightening and embankments with concrete and replace with a riparian wetland system or natural bank, considering our strategy in part contradicted the legally defined engineering code.
However, we shall believe that government, landscape architects and the public must adapt to this new aesthetic and value. My promotion for “Spongy City” idea has been turned down many times by decision makers as well as ‘experts’ for decades, until picked by China’s president, and now we are riding the tide and harvesting the returns. It’s advancing.
Is having a stronger and ‘mainstream’ voice and media presence something the profession and professional bodies should focus on?
I believe so. Landscape architecture is a social activity. We must educate and transform the value of policy makers, developers, designers, builders and users. It has already surpassed the scope of landscape architecture itself and reaches the realm of cultural transmission.
In China, I see it as continuation of the New Culture Movement, an enlightenment of new aesthetics and the foundation of a people’s progress. As new and dramatic as it is, it is not easy to make more people to accept it.
While media, such as print, television or social media, is dispensable and perhaps the most powerful tool in shaping the pattern of people’s thought and behavior and overall societies. We need to embrace these tools and make a change.
Effective landscape architecture results from site-specific, case-by-case responses. Yet we need much more structural influence in integrated and ‘big-picture’ approaches to the planning and design of urban regions and systems.
There appears to be much scope to redress the grey infrastructure and contrived (20th century and ongoing) design and engineering legacy.
How can the profession generate more demand, a larger, willing client base, and commissions, and thus more practitioners and ‘foot soldiers’?
(1) First of all, the whole society needs to be fully aware of the conventional approach to urban development planning, based on population projections, built infrastructure, and architectural objects, is unable to meet the challenges and needs of an ecological and sustainable urban form.
Landscape is a natural ecosystem but our current way of urbanity is treating it like other components of an artificial city—a sink of energy and services, rather than a source. As a result, its natural processes are disintegrated and contaminated and natural patterns fragmented.
The landscape completely loses it capacity to provide what would have been free goods and services for human communities. This is what should be addressed in urban landscape design.
(2) Secondly, we need to demonstrate that landscape architecture defined as the art of survival is the most promising discipline to respond to these challenges.
It is no longer the profession that create wasteful embellishment and superficiality like traditional Chinese gardens but the profession that nurture productive and functional landscape, and safeguard ecological service and cultural integrity of the land through identifying and securing ecological infrastructure across multiple scales;
(3) This further demands us to redefine the profession of landscape architecture as an art of survival, and restructure educational programs to make younger generations prepared for the challenges of survival and competent for this responsibility
(4) Finally, reshaping the values and aesthetics of society through mass and social media.