Designers in China looking for a challenge are spoilt for choice. Rapid urbanisation has left the country struggling with environmental degradation, loss of natural resources and rising social inequality.
Yu Kongjian of Turenscape and Lou Yongqi of TEKTAO are two designers who tackle these issues head on. Both do so from multiple angles, through their positions as teachers, academics and practitioners. Both draw inspiration from Chinese cultural heritage, looking to traditional land management techniques and a way of life more rooted in place and context.
Yet from here, their approaches diverge. Yu Kongjian and his work on flood mitigation and water rehabilitation at Turenscape have influenced Chinese national land use policies, including the hugely popular ‘Sponge City’ approach that has transformed many Chinese cities. Lou Yongqi works at the opposite scale, engaging rural communities and grassroots organisations to create social change and opportunities in areas national policy has little impact.
Together, they present a picture of how design at all scales can create meaningful change.
Yu Kongjian | Design as a policy driver
HB: What do you see as the role of landscape architecture in Asia today? Why does the profession matter?
YKJ: Landscape architecture plays a key role in making countries sustainable. In Asian cities and China in particular, it is about death and life—the art of survival. We have problems of urban flooding and inundation, soil pollution, air pollution and loss of fertile agricultural land. My approach is to demonstrate how we can solve these problems through landscape architecture. Each project can be duplicated. My deep form approach can be amplified at a national scale, to create what we call an ecological civilisation.
Social change is the most important, because all sustainability is related to behaviour.
HB: This idea of an ecological civilisation comes directly from the national leadership in China. Do you believe it addresses what people need in cities? Do you think China is doing enough to achieve this vision, or is it falling short?
YKJ: President Xi says we need to be able to see the mountains and touch the water, that the green mountains and water are golden mountains, golden water. That’s a very powerful slogan to use in calling for us to protect nature and manage it wisely. These ideas really promote the ecological movement in China, and they have been a huge turning point for urban development. Even the local mayors now use a ‘Green GDP’ or ecological index to measure their success. It is great progress, but it is certainly not enough. It’s important for us now, as professionals, as professors, to be able to support these policies. We need a holistic transformation of our code system, our knowledge system and our education system.
Sustainability is not about technology. Sustainability is about the interaction of our ways of living with the surrounding environment.
HB: China has taken a very top-down approach to planning at the national level. What do you believe the role of policy should be in environmental management and ecological design?
YKJ: The Chinese top-down system is an effective way to promote the idea of an ecological civilisation across China at all levels of administration, from provincial governments to mayors of cities and to the individual conscience. Now, everyone wants their city to be a ‘sponge city’. Everyone wants their cities to be ecological, green cities.
All through China you still see rivers being channelised, dammed and paved with concrete, so it is still not easy.
In the past 20 years, the Chinese government has made tremendous progress in moving from a development-oriented policy towards a protection-oriented policy. I have made a great effort in promoting the transformation of policies and have been personally involved in developing five key policies. These policies identify where the most sensitive ecological systems are that we should protect, and which areas can be developed; zone national land use based on the capacity of the ecological systems; and determine how we use the natural systems and develop ecological infrastructure to handle problems like urban inundation. At the regional and city scale, we are able to develop these policies for ecological infrastructure planning, and in individual projects we use deep form to create ecological infrastructure, which will provide multiple ecosystem services, particularly flood and drought regulation and water management.
Lou Yongqi | Design as activism
HB: You generally work in rural areas of China and focus on changing perception of the countryside and its relationship to the city. Could you explain why you have chosen to focus in this area and why it is important for design?
LYQ: Urbanisation has contributed a lot to China’s economic growth, but in some way, we can also say that it sacrificed the countryside. In the process of our rapid urbanisation, the value of the countryside was looked down on, and most of the resources and efforts at the national level were put into the cities rather than the countryside. So, the gap between the quality of life in the city and the countryside grew. When Shanghai won their bid to host the 2010 World Expo, the theme was Better City, Better Life, which also translated to “city makes life better”. This kind of mainstream mindset can be dangerous, because at the time half of China’s population was based in the countryside. Moving to the city means hope, career, success… all kinds of beautiful things. The young people just cannot see the value of the countryside.
I thought rather than seeing this as a problem, we should consider it as an opportunity to reframe the question in terms of design thinking. So, in 2007 I started a very important project called Design Harvest, to bridge this gap between the city and the countryside by creating opportunities for interaction and exchange.
You need theory, you need education and you need examples in order to break through all these knowledge barriers.
HB: Where do you begin trying to create these interactions? How does this inform the way you
approach each project?
LYQ: We have a step-by-step process. The first step is always to seek out the particular value of the local area. This includes the value of their culture, the value of their ways of living, and the value of their ways of producing. The second step is that we explore ways to enlarge this value. Third is to work out how we could connect this value to the world, to communicate it to other places in the area, or further away. This is what creates better interaction with the city, because both the city and the countryside have values in different ways. Then it can be like the relationship of yin and yang—they both have something to contribute.
HB: What role does architectural form play in this process? How do you use form to achieve these goals?
LYQ: I’m not a fan of form. We change form just like we change our clothes, so I don’t think that the form of . architecture is something of the utmost importance. I think that form needs to follow the content, or character of the site. The best form is naturally an outcome of rational design.
If you talk about form in this way, it’s also the shape of the chi—its internal law, or internal energy. There is content, and relationships of different elements of the content, which naturally create the form. Form is the visible relationship between these elements.