Udo Weilacher interviews landscape architect Kongjian Yu from Beijing, October 2016
Udo Weilacher is professor at the chair of Landscape Architecture and Industrial Landscape at TU Munich.
Kongjian Yu is professor and Dean of Peking University, visiting professor at Harvard University Graduate School of Design as well as president and principal designer of Turenscape.
Udo Weilacher: Dear Kongjian, you just arrived from Beijing and it is a privilege to have you here for the celebration of the 60th anniversary of our landscape architecture and landscape planning program at the Technical University of Munich.
Kongjian Yu: This anniversary is a very important event, because in China 60 years stand for a complete lifecycle. Your program has an excellent reputation and I admire that. Especially Peter Latz and several others in this school in the past had a revolutionary influence on contemporary landscape architecture in the world. But also the people currently working here, including yourself and your writings, are very influential for the profession in Germany and globally. So it is an honour for me to be here.
You were educated in landscape architecture in the United States and got your PhD from Harvard. Who were the most important professionals that influenced your career?
My first teacher was my father, a farmer. I was born and raised on a farm and that is a most influential fact because I was able to touch the ground, I know how water flows, how rice grows and so on. Until the age of 17 I lived in a kind of arcadia where the relationship between land and people was still intact and harmonious. The farm was part of a socialist commune with about 500 people and around 100 households. We grew rice, sugar cane, wheat, soybeans and so on. The people were working together, cooking and eating together in the same building. I was educated during the Cultural Revolution and this life touched me. Probably the most important lessons were how to manage the water and how to take care of the land. Every inch of arable land in China is very precious and has to be productive. The management of the limited water resources was important to cultivate the land and avoid conflicts between neighbouring villages.
So your understanding of landscape beauty is very much linked to the concept of productivity.
Exactly. Productivity and sustainability were always very important for me. As a kid I was responsible for one buffalo, because this animal was important for our survival. A buffalo needs water and grass, which hadto be good enough and nutritious. So I had to find lush vegetation in different places every day without destroying the fields.
This taught you how to read the landscape.
Yes, that’s a good expression. I had to read the landscape every day. When I went to university I got to know other personalities who were very important for my professional career and my theoretical framework: Federick Law Olmsted, Ian McHarg, Jane Jacobs, J.B Jackson, etcetera. Carl Steinitz and Richard T.T. Forman were my advisors at Harvard Graduate School of Design and taught me a lot. In terms of theory, McHarg and his understanding of ecological planning had an important impact on me. I learned about Ian McHarg by reading English books at college, which at that time were hard to get in China. My English was good, because at college I studied very hard and reading “Design with Nature” was most influential for me. Besides that, Carl Steinitz was the first American professor who visited China and lectured in my school. I was allowed to be his interpreter for one of his lectures. That’s how I came across his methods of landscape analysis, visual analysis and GIS. He influenced my analytical approach to landscape, especially on a large scale. Carl Steinitz gave me the tools and Ian McHarg this model of thinking. Jane Jacobs’ book taught me about the sociology of urban landscape. From J.B. Jackson’s writings I learned about the vernacular landscape and how to respect it. In terms of design, the works of Michael van Valkenburgh inspired me a lot with regard to ecological design, the works of Peter Walker, Dan Kiley and Laurie Olin stimulated my minimalistic approach to landscape form.
Once you were the son of a farmer and now you are running one the biggest landscape offices worldwide. 600 people are working for you. What is the secret of your success?
Partly I am probably a lucky guy, but Charles Waldheim in his new book “Landscape as Urbanism” is delivering a very good argument and it’s essentially about timing and my education as a farmer. I was the right person at the right time in the right place, because several decades after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, there was a huge gap in the development in landscape architecture and ecology in China.Before the late 1970s normal Chinese youth had no access to higher education, but suddenly I had the chance to study at the Beijing Forestry University. They offered the only program in China related to landscape architecture, but at that time they called it gardening. Most of the students came from big cities and I was the one of four from a farming village, the son of a landlord who was considered to be an enemy of the state. My parents were tortured during the Cultural Revolution and psychologically I felt humiliated. My self-esteem was quite low and I felt oppressed for a long time, but after the Cultural Revolution the door was open for me. I generated a lot of energy, was eager to learn and worked much harder than any other student.
So when you call landscape architecture an ”art of survival“, you refer to your farming experience.
Exactly. When I came back from Harvard, I found my village destroyed, my paradise polluted. That’s exactly what Ian McHarg experienced during the industrialization of his hometown, Glasgow in Scotland, before he went to Harvard in 1949. I studied gardening and learned how to create little paradises for the elite, but that had nothing to do with the problems we were facing in China. The need to survive as a farmer creates beautiful landscapes. Urbanization destroys these productive landscapes and at the same time we create shallow forms, ornamental design, neglecting reality. I am convinced that we need a revolutionary change in our profession, particularly in China, but also globally.
Gardens are said to be more than just aesthetic representations of nature, they also transport meaning and beauty, which also seems to be an important part of your design.
That’s right, but beauty for me is connected to the farming experience and linked to my concept of ”deep forms“. It is about form for the sake of productivity. Form is created by deep ecological processes and it’s a new aesthetic, because it is deeply rooted in working landscapes, in survival landscapes. Gardening is about a beauty related to affection whereas the beauty that I am interested in is more related to the art of survival. Both concepts of beauty have their right, but we always tend to forget about the deep beauty rooted in productivity.
I guess it is difficult to teach your knowledge to young students who didn’t grow up as farmers. How do you communicate the “art of survival” to the students in your newly founded landscape academy?
My academy is called the “Turenscape Academy” and it all started when I founded the college of architecture and landscape at Peking University PKU. It is the oldest and very prestigious university of art and science in China, founded in 1898. In 1998 we started with a program for landscape planning and design. It was a difficult fight against the bureaucratic system in order to develop a successful Graduate School of Landscape Architecture, established in 2003. Today, we have about 10 faculty members, coming from diverse backgrounds, but I learned that our kind of bureaucratic system cannot educate landscape architects. It’s too much based on the belief that students must be educated like scientists. Landscape architects have to be experiential; we need experience first because we are creating living environments. We have to allow people to touch the landscape, to be part of it. That’s why I decided to establish an independent academy, where we are training students at graduate level, based on professional training in design studios. We don’t award a diploma or any degree certificate.
It was always my dream to establish something like the German Bauhaus or the British Architectural Association School of Architecture, because these schools allow students to be immersive, to learn by doing.
But again: how do you, born in 1963 and raised in a farming environment, communicate your specific knowledge to young students, born in the 21st century?
The first important thing is to raise the students’ curiosity and their love for the land. They have to acquire personal experience of farmland. They have to touch the ground and go through the landscape, that’s most important. Second, we go with our students to the designed landscape and check what’s wrong. Many final theses are about post operational evaluation studies, because the program I teach at Harvard society. Our society is still based on agriculture, as well as our mentality, our social structure and even our political and administrative structure. We never had the Renaissance experience and until recently, we had no experience with an industrial revolution or modernization. Our society is still based on family lineage, on landownership, on a top down imperial system.
When I returned to China in 1997, I wrote papers criticizing my teachers and the old traditional garden theories and gardening methods. As a result, people tried to attack me in public media and so on. I was said to be a betrayer who forgot his own history.
That’s different in western culture, because it encourages you to be innovative, open, rebellious, critical, and individual. In China we are concerned about harmony more than innovation.
How can we help Chinese students in Germany to understand the European idea of landscape?
First of all you need to get them more socialized and acquainted with European people. You need to make them feel comfortable and open them up. Chinese students are very polite, they will listen very well and never openly criticize you. We educate them like that from kindergarten all the way to college. You should educate them, that it is okay here to openly express criticism. In order to introduce them to the European culture of landscape, you should have them experience the landscape. Before going to the classroom, you should take them around for a walk just around the corner. Experiencing landscape is the root of landscape design.
So far you never got the chance to realize a landscape project in central Europe. What would be the biggest challenge for you if you were asked to work here?
Probably the cultural difference. In my office I have 600 people, because in China you need big teams to finish big projects very fast. For example, to realise a big urban park takes us one year – that’s fast and only possible because I can easily convince the city mayor to do that. The top down system in China in this case is very efficient. In the USA, I realised two projects and the planning process was very time consuming. It needed five public hearings and had to travel five times, in some cases talk to a thousand people and answer many questions. I cannot afford that anymore in terms of time, expense and so on. In China, we need to fight water pollution, air pollution and ground pollution in order to survive. In Europe you don’t have such severe problems anymore and that’s why landscape architecture here is probably considered to be not so essential and so my experience is maybe not necessarily needed in Europe. In my country, landscape
has become a survival issue. I think that landscape architecture is always about problem solving, always problem oriented.
Our symposium “Landscape 2056” at the Technical University of Munich is about future cultural developments. What do you personally think will be the most challenging aspects for landscape architecture and planning in the next four decades?
Social and cultural conflicts will dominate your future discussions. The cultural impact from other countries will be significant and the immigrants will bring new influences into your society. The Americans have experienced these developments decades ago, but Europe used to be a very pure, white and Christian dominated society. Globalization will have a big impact on your society and on landscape architecture. How do you compose landscape culturally in the future? I think we should focus on the survival issues. What’s the root of human existence, what’s our common ground? How can we bring people together and make them share? We cannot share religion, but maybe we should share the garden, the landscape or our food in order to survive.
I am trying to use my knowledge in order to make the dream of a sustainable landscape development in China come true. The sponge city concept is one of the problem-solving methods I promote. It’s about creating a beautiful China with an ecological network on a national level. I try to recover the productive beautiful paradise landscape in an era of post-urbanization and post-industrialization.For our profession in China, we need to adapt the theories which the western world has developed in the past 50 years, but we also need to invent new theories, new tools because we are facing new challenges. In former times, Europe and America were the centres of innovation, but in the future, China will be most important, because severe problems are concentrated there. European landscape architects and professionals should pay more attention to the developments in China. You might want to think about a school or a TU Munich research centre in China and the developing countries, because there you might find the solutions for problems in Africa, India or South America. Maybe you should open a branch of TU Munich in China and educate, because if our vision is about saving the world, then we should educate more students and make them understand the art of survival.
What an excellent vision for the future. Thank you very much Kongjian for this fascinating interview!
More about it ：http://weihenstephanerforum.wzw.tum.de