Landscape architecture and garden design in China

Modern landscape architecture in ........?

Modern landscape architecture in ........?

I attended a talk today by an Australian landscape architect who graduated in the UK 21 years ago. She now works for an Australian design company engaged in remote landscape design services, primarily conceptual design, for projects in Hong Kong and mainland China (including Chengdu and Beijing). The conceptual design was done in Australia and the detailed design in the Philippines. Then the drawings were sent to China and then translated. It is an amazingly global operation but in my opinion it could be the beginning of a tragedy. The styles used are a mix of ideas from Europe and America, which will make the appearance of China more like that of the west. There is a saying in the west which I like: ‘think global, act local’. I was sorry that the landscape architect had not visited mainland China and hope she will come one day to find out how more about Chinese culture.
This is not a special problem caused by some specific people but the whole system such as the market , economy and something else, and therefore will not be solved quickly. But there are signs of a solution and Mr Yu Kongjian has made reference to “the rediscovery of Chinese cultural identity” problem. With its economic development, China is losing touch with five millennia of ancient identity. The Chinese classical garden is one of the world’s great garden making traditions. In China we are faced with developing a new tradition and a new style. It can be based on historic culture, natural topography and environmental studies of localization and contextualization issues. There are needs to develop China’s landscape education, landscape theory and landscape practice – with a historical perspective, cultural continuity and a perspective on the future of China’s landscape.


在西方,文化的态度是:本土的就是世界的,他们think global, act local(站在全球的角度去思考,站在本土的角度去行动)。 可这样的事情在中国却大量的发生着,因为中国市场需要。老实说,我是带着愤慨的心情听完讲座的,尽管她明明切中了中国目前的实情。我说,我非常遗憾听到这些,希望她有一天能够来中国,了解中国文化,设计更有中国文化的作品。

10 thoughts on “Landscape architecture and garden design in China

  1. Tom Turner

    Thank you for raising an interesting but difficult problem.
    Similar questions face every country: should they remain ‘true to their national character’ or should they become globalized and interenationalized and part of the modern world? The Japanese have given much thought to the problem and, I think, have kept much more context-sensitive ‘Japan-ness’ in their modern garden design than in their modern architecture. In the Gulf states, there was a rush to be western but there now seems to be a growing awareness that solutions are possible which are both Arab and modern. There are three aspects to local identity: aesthetic, ecological and social. My thought is that the ecological and social aspects are easier to deal with than than the aesthetic aspect. Is the distinctively Chinese social use of outdoor space reflected in current urban and landscape design in China? The above photograph, with the possible exception of the red building, looks as though it could be in a British New Town.

  2. xiaomin

    I agree the three aspects to local identity: aesthetic, ecological and social, which are related and relevant and are vital to the developing in cities and towns in China. But for the surviving of the largest population country, I think, the ecological issue nowadays is more urgent than the others.

    This picture is one of series scenes named Li Yue Chong Men, in Chinese Cultural Avenue, Beijing Olympic Park. Li means rules in society and Yue means music and pursuit for happiness, which are the core idea of Confucius. It is a sunken garden that has a comfortable microclimate with sun shining and without wind blowing, the columns represents a kind of ancient musical instrument Xiao, the black structure represents another musical instrument Bianzhong originated in Westzhou period. The red building is Tube station, used as the functional requirement instead of main scenery. I came here in autumn 2009, when the Olympic Park was open to public freely and saw lots people lingering in the whole sunken garden other than other places. And we say the most popular places verify the successes of a design. To some degree, it truly represents a trend of landscape design in China.

  3. Tom Turner

    You are right – ecology is the most important thing. But it overlaps into social and aesthetic issues. The ancient settlements of the Middle East, for example, had an ecological basis (in conserving water, producing food and defending against the sun) and this led to a particular way of making buildings, gardens and cities. And you have a good example of a modern ecological/social design in the Beijing Olympic Park – which I failed to recognize.
    I also agree about the popularity of a design place being an important test of its success – but there are examples of places which attract people because of their location, or because of a dramatic design, without being much of a success in ecological or social terms. London’s Jubilee Gardens (by the London Eye) are an example of this. It is just a dull patch of grass and attracted very few visitors before, I think, 1st January 2000.

  4. Lawrence

    My experience as working as a foreign consultant in China (on a competition, involving 2 months of work in Beijing and Chengdu) mirrors my experience in the Middle East. A “style” has emerged, similar to International Modernism in its context-free response to planning, which might be termed “International Landscaping”. It is based on a naturalistic design style common in England in the 1980’s and apparently still much used in America. Lots of curving paths, egg-shaped mounds, kidney-shaped pools and twee, gardenesque structures. One can see built examples of this throughout all of the GCC countries, and Beijing and Chengdu and probably strewn across South East Asia as well. All of the major, business-orientated offices can produce it in their sleep and still do. I have no idea why this “style” has found such a broad range of acceptance among clients from so many different cultures.

  5. Tom Turner

    Your account of International LandscapING makes it appear to have intestinal origins!
    Do have any examples of projects which escape the ‘intestinal-jacket’ – or do you have suggestions re what should be done to regionalize landscape design? My feeling is that not only are landscape architects under a historical/ethical/professional obligation to do so – they are also in a far stronger position, intellectually and artistically, to bring it about.

  6. Damian Holmes

    As a foreign landscape architect in China I am often saddened and frustrated to hear that the person you spoke to has not visited China. I have found this more and more common with Landscape architects from Australia, USA, UK, Germany, etc designing remotely for a country, landscape and culture of which they have little knowledge. How can they design for the scale and needs of modern life in China with its new dense cities when most of these foreign landscape architects live in one or two floor residences with a very low density with their main form of transportation being the car?

    I apologise for my ‘rant’ but I think that landscape architecture in China needs to evolve using its 4,500-5000 year history as inspiration for designing in modern China. Although it must not become stuck in the ‘traditional garden’ style as some cultures have become with architecture moving forward but landscape architecture lingering in the garden.

  7. Tom Turner

    Damian: I agree. The ‘only agreed principle of landscape architecture’ is that the designer should ‘consult the genius of the place’. And I very much like Humphry Repton’s clarification that ‘the design should not only be done for the spot – it should be done on the spot’ – preferably by sitting on the ground with a sketch pad.
    But the question of how to ‘extrapolate’ from a long history is difficult: (1) because the only visual evidence for the character of old Chinese gardens is from the last 1000 years – and most of it is from the past 500 years (2) because of dominant ‘theory’ that design should be based on reason and science – rather than on belief and tradition (3) because the world has so few examples of old civilizations making a creative response to their design traditions.

  8. xiaomin

    Thanks for all posts. Most professional landscape architects have the idea of the principal of context design. But in the practice in China currently, the reasons for “the international style” are complicated and comprehensive. I think some of them could be: the projects were planning and designed by the remote service; there are no disciplinary of landscape architecture in Chinese higher education until 2004; the period from the project approval to completion is often very short (most of them 2-3 years ); the demand for construction market is booming; decision making for a planning are actually dominated by the real estate developer or government official instead of by experts or users; and there is no restrict code or standards for landscape planning and design and so on. In the aspect of culture, I think, the idea of common people in the developing countries are mostly influenced by the developed countries, needless to say the modernization is an inevitable issues during the globalizing times.

  9. Tom Turner

    The list of problems seems overwhelming! One bright side is that, to me, the quality of the construction design and the horticulture seemed very high in China. Materials are well chosen and well used; plants are well grown and well maintained. In these respects, I would say that design standards are higher than in the UK – where most of the design effort goes into endless bureaucracy (planning regulations, building regulations, health and safety etc). From start to finish, a project which takes 2 years in China probably takes 10 years in the UK.


    In fact, lots of in the greats arrived towards unfortunate and lonesome ends.
    Test cases equally bring in a new standardization to the testing procedure.


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