Kongjian Yu – landscape architecture as an art of survival

I have praised Kongjian Yu’s work before and much enjoyed his lecture to the HGSD (above). I particularly like his advice to ‘make friends with the flood’ and to design for the ‘integration of contemporary art and ecology’. But I am having doubts about my call for him to be appointed Chief Technical Officer to the The Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development 住房和城乡建设部. For sure, he would be very good at the job – but the landscape architecture profession has greater need of him.
It is bad mannered of me to criticise Kongjian after he quotes me in his lecture, but there are two historical points I would like to correct. First, the history of landscape architecture in east and west can be traced back for thousands of years – though its name is but 185 years old. Second, the planning of western gardens and parks ‘for ornament’ dates from c1700 and is now in decline. Older parks and gardens were always planted for food.
So here is an invitation: next time Kongjian Yu is in London I would be delighted to show him round my local park and the new building for the University of Greenwich Department of Landscape Architecture. Greenwich Park was designed in 1660 primarily for food production – and it still produces a large quantity of food, much of which is collected by ethnic Chinese. So it is very appropriate that the roof of the new school has the production of food as one of its main design aims: it will be used for research into the use of living roofs for food production and other sustainable purposes.

25 thoughts on “Kongjian Yu – landscape architecture as an art of survival

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      The roof is a storage yard at present and due for planting in the spring. The last part of this video shows the green roof http://vimeo.com/20330403. It looks like a lawn, which it won’t be. The initial planting design is relatively dull but with a roofslab of approx 750mm and a similar depth of topsoil it should be possible for the landscape department to make something good.

  1. Christine

    It is great that the modelling and rendering tools are getting more powerful and it gives designers greater opportunity to test their designs in the virtual space.

    The video also suggests we still have a long way to go with download speeds and other technology enhancements. But very exciting!

    The coming film like quality will enhance the virtual experience of schemes and give greater avenues to advance the dialogue in design and planning arenas.

    Haven’t quite got to the viewing the greenspaces yet!…

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I recommend architects and landscape architects to ‘downplay’ the role of 2D drawings in their workflows and ‘up-play’ the role of 3D physical models.

  2. Christine

    It is a bit difficult to downplay the 2D to upplay the 3D physical model because they both have different roles in the designing process. But ideally the 3D physical model will come first as a tool of exploration and will continue to evolve within the design process.

    Gosh, from an architectural perspective I am wondering what it would be like to have the school backing onto your backyard?

    This is a bit of Rawlsian question. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Rawls%5D Perhaps it should be applied to planning law? He advocated in the original position – that the solution should be good no matter whose shoes you are wearing.

    I am sure no fly through or street view modelling would consider this question?

    What would a landscape architect given the commission to landscape one of those backyards do?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      X-rays, cross-sections and CT scans have important roles in medicine but they are subsidiary to to those of anatomy, physiology and biochemistry. I would like to have a 3D modelling programme which can take slices at any angle in order to find out ‘what is happening’ for a particular purpose. 2D obviously has an analytical role and therefore a planning role but it should not be the primary arena in which the design process lives and breathes.
      The residents east of the school definitely have concerns which, we hope, will be met by (1) growing climbers over the entire east-facing wall (2) planting barriers on the east crest of the building (3) using the easterly set of roof planes for such quiet uses as growing fruit and vegetables (4) limiting the hours at which there is access to the roof space. But, of course, everyone knows what happens to the best laid plans of mice and men.
      I love that phrase about ‘whose shoes you are wearing’ and have made a note to read more Rawls.

  3. Christine

    The solution to the eastern elevation of the school might have best been found in a creative planning law and property law solution. If a condition of planning approval had been the creation of a lane way on the eastern boundary the residential backyards would have backed onto this improving their access.

    The School also would have gained another street frontage perfect for intimate cafes, restaurants and bars and other shops which the residents would undoubtably have been delighted to frequent. This would have improved rather than diminished everyone’s property values and would have solved the functional and amenity issues you mentioned.

    I am all for gardens – but usually not to solve problems like this!

    Yes, a cross sectional study should have identified this issue. It is commonly, but not always done in 2D studies. So yes, you are so right X-rays and CT scans are no substitute for anatomy, physiology and biochemistry but can if applied appropriately as diagnostic tools assist doctors in their tasks.

    Is the school already built?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I think the planners were a tad short-sighted re the height of the building, by which I mean they were adamant that it must be no higher than the surrounding buildings. While I absolutely accept the principle of protecting views from around the Royal Parks, I think that if the building appeared 100% vegetated from the park then it would have not have damaged the skyline. Then, if the building could go up a story (1) much of the ground level could have been public realm: there used to be a market on the site and I would like this use to have continued (2) there could have been views of the Thames and Central London from the green roof. I am also regretting that the planners insisted on half the roof area being used for solar panels.
      I am doubtful about the residents of King William Walk benefiting from a back lane – because this is the traditional route for London burglars to access property.
      The building will be completed in spring 2014 for occupation in the 2014-15 academic year.

  4. Christine

    Oh, I am sure we can out design traditionally oriented burglars! There are some brilliant townhouse developments in Canberra with vehicle access to the garage from a lane. From the garage you then enter the courtyard and cross over to the house.

    Is there such a thing as a burglar culture? Are there national habits in this culture too?

    Yes there were probably a few approaches that may have allowed an increase in height as a trade off on the building footprint. The upper levels could have been green or transparent or both.

    Tell me more about the solar panels? Are they not useful as generators of electricity? Could they have been better sited? Do they compete with other potential uses of the space that could have been more valuable?

    Does the completion date for the building suggest that progress is such that there is no way to modify the design to better address the effect of the eastern wall on the residents of King William Walk?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      The ‘cat burglar’ technique cannot have originated in London but the term probably did. The Ned Kelly approach has not caught on here and its prominence in Australian culture may explain a lack of enthusiasm for cat burglary?
      The new procurement process for buildings (ie new since I was a student) is inflexible in the extreme (1) hold a competition (2) freeze the design and work up the details (3) hand the construction phase to project managers who ‘value engineer’ everything in the interest of cost control and regardless of users, neighbours etc etc
      The solar panels will generate less than 1% of the energy used by the building and their presence injures use of the roof space. I would rather have them fixed to the walls or suspended as ‘sun-shades’ above the roof. If they had been arranged as hit-and-miss slats they could have had the same total area and would have produced a very nice space underneath.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Congratulations to the ASLA for producing this paper on security and safety – and even more congratulations if they had asked a technical editor so produce an illustrated executive summary. The big differences between the UK and US are higher densities in town centres and lower densities in suburbs.

  5. Christine

    They say every cloud has a silver lining – the one with UK’s cat burglars is that they have an exception level of fitness!

    Ah yes, Ned Kelly – bushranger. He seems to have bequeathed a sort of anti-establishment mentality to Australia and the hero worship of those who possess this quality. There was no softly softly about his burglarly. Instead it was a highly visible type. His antecedent in the UK was the highway man. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highwayman ]

    Gosh, if the design process is thus stifled by the contractual process it is amazing any sort of value results. Perhaps this is part of the project management process which will be in need of attention moving forward?

    Yes,it should have been recognized as a design issue.

    However, the development of site surely required consolidation of existing parcels of land into a larger conglomerate? It is at this stage of the development process that the impact on the surrounding street and land parcel pattern should have been detected and considered.

    However, in the absence of it being addressed at the early site consolidation stage, or the design stage, it was something that needed to be picked up in the planning process. It should have been identified at a fairly high level given the type of discretion needed to make decisions on the creation of a laneway as a condition of approval.

    So it seems three levels of the process didn’t address the issue and given what you have said the project management level isn’t likely to either!

    Is the solar generation (alternative energy requirement) mandated? You are right other arrangements for the panels may well have been more satisfactory and still have contributed to alternative energy generation.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I did not represent the procurement process fully. There was a substantial involvement of the local planning authority and, through them, local residents and amenity socieities. I forgot to mention this because I was not involved – but nor did I notice many changes to the original design which might have resulted from the consultations. There never was a public route on the east boundary of the site and so I doubt if it was considered. It is not a very large parcel of land and there is good circulation on King William Walk. Re solar generation I guess ‘mandated’ is too strong a word but it was certainly a very strong ‘request’ from the planning authority. It is the kind of thing which looks good in a Development Plan but needs wise consideration, with regard to alternatives, before being implemented. My view is that more locally grown organic food, biodiversity, sound absorption, rainwater management etc would have done more for the environment – and the 1% energy generated from solar power could have been saved by using thermal clothing.
      I have always admired Australians for their anti-establishment attitudes – but maybe Ned Kelly took this too far!

  6. Christine

    Could you describe the substantial planning involvement? Was there high level council involvement? Was there a design review or planning panel process?

    Yes I am sure you are right that creation of a laneway was never considered. For that matter circulation wasn’t the issue that the laneway would have addressed. So it was very likely never thought of.

    Creative solutions usually begin (and possibly end) with the briefing of the architect/landscape architect. Clearly there are contextual issues outside of sites which also need creative solutions. Was an urban designer involved?

    Looking again at the photograph a number of other questions occur. What is the pedestrianized space that looks like a mall beside the Greenwich University building? Is it university or council land?

    Perhaps it would have been better (if the size of the site is a constraint) to have reconsidered the arrangement of public and private space with this area in mind. The Greenwich University buildings front it, but it seems a little ambiguous how it is connected with the block of buildings which back onto it?

    I am sure you are right about the alternative uses for the roof garden and the potential to save energy by other methods. Although from memory you get a little tired of heavy clothing through the long winter and peeling off indoors is a relief.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I was not involved with the planners on this project but normal UK procedures depending on the size and importance of the project. For this project I guess it would have been (1) consultation with residents, inviting them to send in comments (2) meetings between officials and the design team (3) meetings of the elected members to hear presentations from the officials and the design team with opportunities for members of the public to address the meeting (4) this type of meeting would be repeated if permission was not given on the first occasion (5) there would have been two meetings, first for the initial permission and then for approval of details.
      Does this differ from the system you are familiar with?
      The space to the north of the building is a railway in a cutting. There was talk of bridging it to make a pedestrian space but this is not being done. You can see the building site, marked by a white cross, here http://wikimapia.org/#lang=en&lat=51.480113&lon=-0.008224&z=18&m=b
      We need to remember that (1) plant cuttings root best when the roots are warm and the leaves are cold (2) human DNA sequences are over 95% identical to chimpanzee sequences and around 50% identical to banana sequences (3) humans can work well with ‘bottom heat’ and ‘top cool’ – and Japanese know how to do this with a kotatsu Note the electrical counterparts of hot stones. The studios are going to be open plan so using kotatsu instead of radiators would stop people gathering in groups to chat. They would just sit still and work, work, work. Then, if they get cold, they can go and do some digging on the roof! That’s my idea of sustainable urban design.

  7. Christine

    Yes, it is different from the system I am used to…at least in part. A project of the size and value of the Greenwich University buildings would have probably been subject to a presentation or review of documentation at a very high level at a relatively early stage well prior to lodgment of a planning application.

    This would have enabled the any comment to be given or issues to be flagged on perceived difficulties with the project or direction of the design. It would also have enabled people within the planning organization to have an understanding of the potential risk profile of the project and hence the appropriate pathway for community consultation (ie how extensive the consultation might be and how much time might be needed for the process). It might also have flagged whether any additional expert resources might assist in the consultation and potentially the assessment process.

    The consultation and assessment process may then have run similar to what you have described.

    Wow! The railway cutting does provide some physical separation between the site and the rear properties. This is good. But even better would be to cover this section of the railway and create the laneway giving access to Greenwich Park! Great for residents and Greenwich university.

    I am in favour of an alternative energy source so that Greenwich University can stand alone on its own powersource (at least to a minimal operational level) if needed.

    It is good to think we are so closely related to bananas on the evolutionary pathway.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      The Australian system sounds better – and I hope I am not doing an injustice to Greenwich planners. They have a lot of flexibility in operating the system but design review panels, which sound a great idea, are uncommon.
      The original plan was to extend London’s first railway line, which ran to Greenwich, through the Park at ground level. This led to one of the first amenity protests in London and to it being put in a cut-and-cover-tunnel http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_and_Greenwich_Railway#Greenwich. Definitely, the cover should be extended. But what budget would the money come from? The only one I can think of is a commercial developer who wanted to use the air rights but I can see the University objecting to the loss of daylight.
      Given my fondness for bananas I would not be surprised if I am even more closely related than the average human and this could explain why I am a little bananas.

  8. Christine

    Greenwich station in gorgeous! I am often nostalgic for the golden era of the railway – even if it is updated as per Southern Cross Station in Melbourne. [ http://navigatormelbourne.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Route-96-Tram-at-Southern-Cross-Station1.jpg ] Many stations even if the architecture is beautiful are not nice places to be here. [ http://static.panoramio.com/photos/large/50078207.jpg ]

    Could there be a community contribution levy to extend the cover? Or a tourism levy? Perhaps the Council could contribute too?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Greenwich Station has been ‘modernised’ in the past 20 years and they nearly got it right by accident. The charm of the station lies in its resemblance to a country house. There were no models for stations so, just as the horseless carriage became a car so the squireless manor became a railway station. The recent (c2000) landsape design is too-blocky and too-bollardy http://imvisitinglondon.com/Images/Greenwich%20station%20ws.jpg but it is near enough to that of a town square to create the image of an Italianate house on a Piazza della Signoria http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6f/Piazza_della_Signoria.jpg. I would congratulate them on a context-sensitive design – except for the fact that they roll it out whenever they have the opportunity.
      Yes to all those possible sources of money but I do not think they would yield enough gold to do the job.

  9. Christine

    There seems to be so much potential for the new university site to be part of a comprehensive urban design plan. With its proximity to the Greenwich ferry, main campus buildings on the river, Greenwich Park etc it seems there are potentially so many missed opportunities in not doing so!

    And perhaps by extending the cover of railway cutting up to Greenwich Station and creating a piazza as you say, so much could be gained in commercial opportunities and linked public spaces (both green and paved). The paved spaces would add to the amenity of Greenwich Park as well as giving another way of moving from rail on foot or by cycle through the piazza to the Park and through to the riverfront – connecting the campus buildings at the same time. Perhaps Brit Rail could contribute funds also?

    With more consideration I am sure that there could be enhanced retail and food and drink opportunities from the Greenwich buildings fronting the piazza which could also provide potential income. Enhanced property values (and rates to the Council) would offset the contributions from the community and other organizations.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Connections could certainly be improved but they are already excellent. The site is a hub for cycle routes, pedestrian routes, buses, ferries and two railways. The A12 and A102 provide far betters road egress than most Londoners enjoy. Even better, the site is surrounded by pubs, restaurants, coffee shops, galleries, buildings by Wren and Hawksmoor and a park to which Le Notre and John Evelyn contributed. Buildings by Richard Rogers and Caesar Pelli can be seen across the Thames. What more could a design student want? But, yes, they should certainly cover the railway and one day I guess it will happen (ie when land prices are sufficiently high). There has been some development of air rights above stations and tracks in London (eg above Charing Cross Station, Canon Street Station and Liverpool Street Station – and immense works are underway above and around London Bridge Station) but there is scope for lots more and we need to leave some opportunities for generations to come!

  10. Christine

    I am sure that the generations to come will not be short of design opportunities – even if those connections mentioned were made.

    I am hoping the design students, as well as having the sterling environment you describe, also get some personal attention from Richard Rogers and Caesar Pelli. (Not wanting to make them blush – but it may be that they are figures from what will one day be remembered as a golden era of design). Any wisdom they can pass to the next generation will be an unequaled investment in London’s future.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      There has been a much-enlarged involvement of outsiders in recent years and this will surely increase when the move to Stockwell Street takes place. The school has been moving around for the past 30 years but has mostly been in the suburbs. Greenwich has pretty well become part of Central London since the Isle of Dogs developed and this is a good location for a design school. There are reasons to be optimistic but, as always, reasons to be pessimistic!


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