Monthly Archives: March 2010

Social use of space in public parks and gardens

Social use of space in public parks

In public parks, things ain't what they used to be

The public park, as we still know it, was a nineteenth century invention. The aim was to give tired industrial workers an opportunity to enjoy fresh air, flowers and music – without being tempted by booze and girls in beer gardens. But times have changed. Most workers now spend most of their time in sedentary occupations. When they have spare time, they want exercise instead of rest. This is giving benches in public parks new uses. The photograph was taken on a hot day in Rome. Even the pigeon is going for a walk.

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。

On Top of the World

Vita Sackville-West was depressed by Hillary and Norgay’s ascent to the peak of Everest, believing that there should be places on earth untrod by human feet. How would she have liked the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai? I am afraid that she would be horrified, although this Burj is by far Dubai’s most beautiful building, hopefully now distracting attention from the horrible Burj Arab Hotel. Many people would like to ask God if he regrets Dubai, but now that we can ride the 800 metres plus to the top of Burj Khalifa and look at it from His vantage point perhaps we can see that he might like it the way it is, by night at least.

Scaling up and down

There is something endlessly fascinating about models of cities…Perhaps they enable us to relate to cities in ways that are normally not possible? Perhaps they give us a God’s eye view of the landscape and everyday life.

 So if we could play God for a day what would we say to those people down there that we created and who are now running around living their own lives in the various metropolis’ of the world? Or perhaps we would just make our own historical narrative films!

Would we be tempted to move the pieces on the board? Re-arrange them slightly? Why would we want to do this? ….There is certainly something very appealing about the detailed scale models of street furniture produced for the city of Toronto! And of the very different in quality abstract garden model.

In 2006 Prof  Michael J. Oswald and Professor Steffen Lehmann chatted about the use of models in architectural practice. Professor Lehmann said of his experience in the office of Arata Isozaki:

“When working in Tokyo, in Arata Isozaki’s studio in 1990, I learned to appreciate the luxury of getting ideas built in-house overnight. Isozaki always valued the resource of an in-house model workshop where exquisite pieces could be made quickly. Before leaving the studio in the evening, I would hand over the latest drawings to the model shop, and when I returned to the office in the morning, there would be an accurate polystyrol model on my desk, built overnight by hard-working, younger Japanese staff. Much effort and accuracy was put into these models, even if we only used them ephemerally, to instantly check a certain idea.”

Context-insensitive planning and design in Egypt

The Nile and the Pyramids - before and after the floods

The Nile and the Pyramids - before and after the floods

Here is (1) a nineteenth century painting of the Pyramids in time of flood [June and September – akhet – the inundation] (2) in an early twentieth century photograph (3) a recent after-the-dam photograph by trexcali. Were the climate change of the past 10,000 years to be repeated the River Nile would reclaim its flood plain. Egypt’s cities should have been built on the Red Land (desret), not on the Black Land (kemet) – and Egypt’s urban growth should still be on desert land, conserving what is left of one of best places on earth for agriculture, horticulture and garden design.




See English translation below

Wither Chinese landscape and garden design in the twenty-first century?

Where are garden design and  landscape architecture in China heading?

Where are garden design and landscape architecture in China heading?

With over 3 months till the closing date for the Tiananmen Square landscape architecture competition, and many Chinese competition entries to admire, it is worth asking some questions about the direction of garden design and landscape architecture in 21st century China. The classically dressed beauty with the coy smile, above, seems puzzled as she looks out from a towering block in Shenzen. She knows that her country has a brilliant garden tradition and she knows that her country has to modernize. But, she wonders, ‘does our future really lie with the evocation of dreary Holywood sets from the 1920s? – is Hearst Castle really the best source of inspiration for modern China? – is there nothing of value in the past 5000 years of Chinese art, architecture and gardens? – or is the problem that too much Chinese landscape design is inspired by American models and implemented by thoughtless automatons working in sweatshop conditions outside China?’. Still, she reflects, ‘at least the garden doesn’t have a Spanish Theme – and at least it is my Dad who owns the penthouse with the roof garden’. Then, I hope, she will decide to study garden design and landscape architecture so that she become an expert in context-sensitive design. As a small encouragement, I will be happy to give her a copy of my book on Asian gardens: beliefs, history and design – and will be content if she reads its last sentence ‘The farther back you look, the farther forward you are likely to see.’ It is said to be a quotation from Winston Churchill – but it may only be the sort of thing he might have said when half-way through a case of claret – so she may prefer Confucius’ observation that ‘When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.’

Masdar City Two & Abu Dhabi landscape planning

Hasan Fathy design for New Gourna (photo 1975)

Hasan Fathy design for New Gourna (photo 1975)

Without knowing too much about Masdar City, I am sceptical about Norman Foster’s proposals. So my suggestion is to develop a Masdar City Two with its focus on using a happy blend of traditional technology with as-little-as-necessary high technology. I would have David MacKay as the energy supremo and Hasan Fathy (had he not died in 1989) as the chief architect – and a landscape planner responsibile for the strategic direction of the new city. I guess there would be lots of mud walls, planting, and shade with excellent provision for cycling and electric floats for transport (as in Nanjing Street, Shanghai). All the roof space would be roof gardens with retractable awnings and limited vegetation supported by grey water. The gardens would be legendary – and related to the lost gardens of Ancient Mesopotamia. I think the result would be cheaper, better, more sustainable and more popular than Masdar City One. It might get less coverage in the architectural press but we could live with this.
Sorry about the quality of the above photograph, taken in 1975. I went to re-take the photo 30 years later and could not find the place – I guess it has been destroyed. The residents of Old Gourna (or Kurna or Qurna) did not want to leave their homes amongst the tombs of the nobles, which had rich pickings and many tourists. Fathy was unpopular in Egypt but designed some beautiful and environmentally appropriate homes for Saudi princes.
Odd that Iran should want nuclear power and Abu Dhabi should want solar power. What next? Will Iceland start making artificial snow? Or is Masdar City One really, as I will assume, an enlightened example of a rich country using its resources to develop technology which will benefit the world? The competition between Masdar City One and Masdar City Two would be very healthy and there should be a prize for the winning design team. Success would be judged from three criteria (1) construction costs (2) measures of sustainability (3) popularity with residents.

Optimism by design

Corbusier is credited with the title of the Father of ‘Critical Regionalism’. The Legislative Assembly Building in Chandigarh is said to typify his approach to design in this latter stage of his career.

The Legislative Assembly Building by Le Corbusier in Chandigarh was designed as an architectural statement “strong enough to embody a sense of power and permanence, of seriousness and exaltation.”

Chandigarh was commissioned by Nehru “to reflect the new nation’s modern, progressive outlook.” According to Nehru the new city was to be “unfettered by the traditions of the past, a symbol of the nation’s faith in the future.”

Chandigarh a social utopia, designed as a post-war Garden City, despite the proliferation of the contemporary problems of urban ‘slums’ and ‘squatter’ settlements ranks first in India in the Human Development Index for quality of life and e-readiness.

The design of Chardigarh was intended to provide “equitable opportunities for a dignified, healthy living even to the ‘poorest of the poor’.”

Although it has been stated that Chandigarh could have been designed anywhere, the UNESCO listing acknowleges  Corbusier paid particular attention to the landscape context:

“The natural edges formed by the hills and the two rivers, the gently sloping plain with groves of mango trees, a stream bed meandering across its length and the existing roads and rail lines – all were given due consideration in the distribution of functions, establishing the hierarchy of the roads and giving the city its ultimate civic form.”

Energy Intensive

Trying to imagine how the landscape of renewables will look in the future is quite a challenge. Will they be industrial or parklike in character? Or will the have the characteristics of gardens or wilderness places? If the future of alternative energy technology mirrors the evolution of the mobile phone we should look forward to an interesting future. How quickly will the first generation carbon neutral cities become technologically and aesthetically obsolete?

When will the classic designs of our zero carbon future become apparent?

Economic Downturns and Romantic Landscapes

Economic downturns are the coitus interruptus of major landscape and urban planning projects, but they bring unexpected benefits. In the 1970’s many of us lived rent free throughout central London in the empty properties the local authorities had bought up and then not had the money to redevelop.  During the 1980’s we gambolled through the derelict wastelands of a half-completed Isle of Dogs in landscapes stuck in a charming time warp between the abandoned Port of London and Canary Wharf. We took our girlfriends up to the forgotten terraces of the old Crystal Palace, where sphinxes emerged from clouds of flowering willowherb. All gone, these buildings and places, they are all designed spaces now, some of them very good indeed, all of them contributing once more to the wealth of the nation. But, what is it about abandoned or fallow projects, half completed places? Where does the romance go when we architects, engineers and landscape architects finally get the go ahead from our clients to finish them off? Perhaps it is just me, but these are the places that I remember the best and miss the most. The images show Lulu Island, created at enormous expense off the coast of Abu Dhabi. One day it will be bristling with residential tower blocks and all manner of designed parkland. For now it’s on hold. On the eastern side, the best views of Abu Dhabi City, on the western side a 5 km beach whose shade structures are one by one collapsing into the sand. Why do we have to wreck these places with finished projects?

The sacred lotus, Nelumbo nucifera, is the Flower Sermon and the holy flower of West, South and East Asia

Nelumbo nucifera, the Sacred Lotus, is an important symbol in Asian gardens

Nelumbo nucifera, the Sacred Lotus, is an important symbol in Asian gardens

Zen Buddhism grew from the Flower Sermon and thus from the growing habit of the Sacred Lotus, Nelumbo nucifera. Towards the end of his life, the Buddha took his disciples to a pond, possibly in the Jetavana. They were expecting a sermon but the Blessed One only pulled a lotus flower from the waters and held it before them, its roots dripping mud. Holding it before Mahakashyapa, he told the group:

‘What can be said I have said to you. What cannot be said, I have given to Mahakashyapa.’

Mahakashyapa became Buddha’s successor. The Sacred Lotus has importance in Buddhism because it grows from murky waters and struggles to raise its pure and beautiful flower into the sunlight, with the lesson that humans should do likewise.  Asians thought this was a truth worthy of contemplation – leading to Zen Buddhism. The lotus was also a sacred flower in Ancient Egypt and, probably through the influence of Buddhism, became sacred in China, Japan and South East Asia.

Perhaps we will be able to grow the lotus outdoors in London when global warming has gone a little further – but the winter of 2009-10 is not pointing in this direction. Meanwhile, I am wondering if I could rig up a solar panel to keep a tub warm enough for the lotus. But we would need more sunlight for this to work.

Chinese garden history, garden types and garden historians

Altar of Land and Grain in Zhongshan Park

The Altar of Land and Grain (now Zhongshan Park or the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Park in Bejing) had what western historians call a 'formal' layout. It is neither the garden type nor the design style which features in histories of 'the' Chinese Garden.

There is a regrettable tendency for garden historians to write about the Chinese Garden as though it were one thing which was invented about 5000 years ago, which was made for a single purpose and which has never changed. It puts one in mind of Edward Said’s comment on Orientalism (regarding the Middle East). He wrote of “a misrepresentation of some Oriental essence — in which I do not for a moment believe”. We are therefore pleased to publish a classification of Chinese garden types by Xiaomin Wu. The next stage in developing a systematic history of garden design in China should be to trace the evolution of each of these types through the millennia. This should be done in parallel with studies of the influence of Chinese gardens on neighbouring countries and the influence of neighbouring countries on China. One of the many neglected aspects of Chinese garden history concerns the influence of Buddhism. Maggie Keswick, who wrote by far the most influential western book on Chinese garden history, scarcely mentions the subject.
Another puzzling aspect of Chinese garden history is that it is normally studied without reference to Japan or Korea. To me, this is like writing compartmentalised histories of French and Italian gardens or of Italian and English gardens. It should not be done. With regard to China, Japan, India and Korea, part of the explanation is that the countries were not friendly during the twentieth century – American garden historians have considered the influence of Chinese on Japanese gardens, but they have given far more attention to Japan than to China or India or Korea.
The Altar of Land and Grain (now Zhongshan Park and the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial in Bejing) (drawing above) had what western garden historians call a ‘formal’ layout’. It is neither ‘the’ garden type nor ‘the’ design style which features in histories of ‘the‘ Chinese Garden.