TURENSCAPE | lecture review

The Red Ribbon Park | TURENSCAPE (Image courtesy of Prof. Kongjian Yu)
The Red Ribbon Park | TURENSCAPE (Image courtesy of Prof. Kongjian Yu)

On September 30th Professor Kongjian Yu, founder and dean of the Graduate School of Landscape Architecture at Peking University and President of TURENSCAPE (Beijing Turen Design Institute) lectured at Harvard University Graduate School of Design.
A review by Dan Handel.

In front of a hall full of landscape architects, protagonists and students, Professor Kongjian Yu waited patiently while Neil Kirkwood, Head of the landscape architecture department, introduced him. Wearing a very red shirt, later to become an example of “Chinese” in his lecture, he quickly broke the ice by showing a few slides of himself with some of the professors sitting in the audience, ten years ago when he was part of the Harvard D.des. program. These slides immediately exposed the difference in pace between China and the states. Between Yu and his teachers’ professional resumes.

The Floating Gardens - Yongning River Park | TURENSCAPE (Image courtesy of Kongjian Yu)
The Floating Gardens - Yongning River Park | TURENSCAPE (Image courtesy of Kongjian Yu)

He than began his lecture and skillfully illustrated his version of the landscape history of China. In his view, two distinct trajectories have shaped the development, and our understanding, of Chinese relationship with the landscape. The idea of the “productive landscape” is the first determining factor. Growing out of necessity and needs for survival, the people of rural china, and later their rulers, have developed (since when) techniques and strategies to coexist with natural forces such as flood and droughts. That experience proved valuable not just in finding the right spots for new settlements or diverting the water for irrigation, but also in creating a distinct landscape which became known as “the land of peach blossoms”, a paradise of vernacular Chinese landscape. The second trajectory of development originated in the emperor’s desire to recreate this paradise in his own garden. That desire led to the view of landscape as a set of cosmetic operations, deprived of productive logic. These ornamental operations are what underlie all high Chinese culture, including its architecture and urban design. One could state that as such the idea on the landscape turned from an art of production turned into the art of consumption.

Shenyang Architectural University Campus | TURENSCAPE (Image courtesy of Prof. Kongjian Yu)
Shenyang Architectural University Campus | TURENSCAPE (Image courtesy of Prof. Kongjian Yu)

Ironically, the results of the Emperor’s ambition to create a high culture ware better communicated outside of China and became the dominant image of what represents China in the western eye. This “fake” culture is responsible, in Yu’s opinion, to most of the problems evident and present in contemporary Chinese urban and architectural developments . The ornamental approach leads the way in which cities get built, buildings are designed, and landscape is treated. What we get, from CCTV and the Bird’s Nest to the Channeling of the Yangtze river, is fake. More than that: Since these developments are disconnected from any productiveness by definition, they are irresponsible and when in large scale, unsustainable.

As the huge infrastructural works are leading China to an ecological and humanitarian crisis, Yu suggests another approach, again as an art of survival. This approach aspire to connect once again with the productive manner of designing landscape. It offers the rebuilding of an ecological infrastructure on all scales as a pattern for all future urban development. While doing so, is seeks to create a new vernacular and address the problem of identity, and consequent contemporary crisis, in Chinese culture. For Yu, the infrastructural and the cultural are well connected to one another through the notion of survival, once again a very real issue in the lives of people in China.

The Floating Gardens - Yongning River Park | TURENSCAPE (Image courtesy of Prof. Kongjian Yu)
The Floating Gardens - Yongning River Park | TURENSCAPE (Image courtesy of Prof. Kongjian Yu)

While Yu’s arguments are very convincing, the projects done by his firm TURENSCAPE are sometimes less clear. While some of the projects shown on the lecture, such as the Yongning River Park, or the rice campus of Shenyang Architectural University Campus, aligns with the logics of these arguments in their ability to capture an illusive notion of production recycled for non-productive programs, other projects, such as the Zhongchan shipyard park or the Red Ribbon and some which were not shown are strolling on the fringe of purely aesthetic gestures of design in a profit oriented environment. These expose the problematic nature of promoting such an agenda in the current Chinese environment, mixing together the interests and aspirations of government officials, private entrepreneurs, big corporations and star architects. This other type of development that Yu envisions for China, and the world, is still waiting to be discovered.

Review by Dan Handel

Dan Handel. Architect, research coordinator at City/State Unit, Bezalel Academy of Art and Architecture, Jerusalem. He is currently studying at the Architecture department, Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

MovingCities & CITY/STATE Unit

“What can we learn from China?-workshop | February 2008

TURENSCAPE links

TURENSCAPE | website
The Art of Survival: Recovering Landscape Architecture | Kongjian Yu and Mary Padua
Line13 SUPERLINEARITY workshop | TURENSCAPE | May 29, 2008
CHINA ACCORDING TO CHINA part I | interview with prof. Kongjian Yu | by 0300.TV

Author: dan

Architect and a PhD candidate at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology. Project and research coordinator at Bezalel Academy of Art & Design, Department of Architecture. Editor of the online magazine Bezalel Papers, assistant editor for the Harvard GSD publication, Invention/Transformation: Strategies for the Qattara/Jimi Oases in Al Ain, and co-author on a forthcoming book, Arizona Report. http://www.linkedin.com/in/danhandel

Leave a Reply