Recently, I have watched videos with Bjarke Ingels, Rem Koolhaus, Fabrio Novembre, Marc Newson, Michael Van Valkenburgh, Karl Lagerfeld and many others to gain more of an understanding of idea generation and design in various industries. What struck me during watching these videos is the willingness of society (and some designers) to accept mediocre design as something that will just occur as part of the marketplace and mainstream design realm. So why is it that we accept this mediocrity in the design profession and its not just architecture or industrial design but it seems that mediocrity is more and more prevalent in recent times in all design industries.
Does it necessarily need to be this way? Personally it seems that many have gone down the ‘path of least resistance’ and that the ‘market’ is influencing the way we design as a shift occurs towards developing markets and away from developed economies. Design standards seem to have been calibrated to the market and aiming at the lower level to meet the standards of these immature developing markets with iteration after iteration of the same design to the point where is has become ubiquitous. Where this can be seen more evidently is in the car industry where Porsche, Rolls Royce, BMW, Audi, Lamborghini, Bugatti have produced numerous ‘special editions’ and variations of the same model with very little design development for developing markets such as China.
The same is occurring in landscape architecture where the same design language and style is being used over and over again with little departure from the previous design. Some may see this as a firm/person developing a signature design language, I personally see it as lack of design energy and also a lack respect for the intellect of clients. Landscape architecture should respond to the culture, place, climate, terrain and numerous other elements that influence the design process to develop a unique concept that will create the best design for that site no matter how big or small. I understand that in China there is often little time to analyse, understand and design with the extraordinary short deadlines but I think we owe it the community, client and most of all ourselves as landscape architects to design something to the best of our design ability and to shun mediocrity.
There is a growing number of landscape firms in China, some are foreign, some local and many a mix (often referred to as sino-american or sino-australia, etc). The company names are interesting to read some a very simple and aimed at a certain market, others keep their name from abroad or just create a literal translation of their name in Chinese. There is however a disturbing trend of ‘international’ firms in China that are international in name only. These are the chinese firms that register a name in Australia, USA, Canada, UK or another country and state that they are an international company. This is disturbing to me as many do not have any international staff or qualifications but are utilising the simple business registration laws in overseas countries.
Many of these firms are in a ‘rush to the bottom’ by alluding to clients that they are international – they maybe in a legal sense but not culturally or in their design approach. The reason many developers and governments engage international firms is to gain the broad experience and talented staff that many international firms have at their disposal. This is not to say there aren’t good local chinese firms with talented designers – there are many. However, the illusion the ‘international’ companies are creating will in the long run hurt their company, the country they supposedly represent and the landscape design industry in China. I am not disturbed that they are using international names or countries as selling point, I am disturbed that they are harming landscape architecture in China, which is very young although China has a long history of garden and landscape design, the landscape architecture profession is relatively immature.
Currently its leading up to the Chinese New Year holiday period with people heading home for celebrations with family. Building and landscape construction has stopped on many sites, most of the projects I have been working on had a rush until Wednesday (11 January) and now they are ghost sites with not a soul to be seen besides the security guards. Some sites have people still working up until the official holiday but these are often projects on a tight(often behind) schedule.
The workers have head home for a one month break and won’t be back until the first or second week of February to start another year of construction in China. Chinese New Year is early this year falling on the 22 January. The official holiday is 22-28 January but many people take extra days to head home or travel. Millions of China’s construction workers head back home (to homes all across China) for the New Year. Trains and Buses will be full of people happy to be on holiday and heading home to see loved ones they haven’t seen for a year or often more. Many will return to construction in February, but others will use the money saved from year/s of hard work to start something new in their home towns.
At last I got round to finishing my blog posts – Part 4 and 5 of Sustainable Landscape Architecture Series.
Although I believe that standards such Sustainable Sites and certification such as LEED AP can contribute to advancing landscape architecture and creating sustainable landscapes they also become a crutch that we point to and say it meets X,Y,Z criteria then it is sustainable. The problem is they may be ‘sustainable’ for when the standard or certification was formulated but as we all know technology, education systems and people change.
I believe that to create sustainable landscapes you have to analyse and evaluate the landscape in the moment in time and then with all the information at hand you then formulate an approach to create a sustainable landscape. Beginning with a certification or standard as the starting point for sustainable landscape design is fraught with the danger of creating a landscape that meets your expectations as a designer (and the certification organisation) as a sustainable landscape but fails miserably to meet the expectations of the users and thus the user don’t use the space and thus the space is not sustainable as no one is using it. This is true of many urban spaces, of course natural forests or spaces are inherently sustainable ecosystem although they are rarely used. So there in lies a conundrum. Many spaces we create attempt to replicate a natural ecosystem so we view them as sustainable but if we create a space of materials and plants that may not be ‘natural’ or an ‘ecosystem’ is it still not sustainable if the usage rate of the local community is high. I think that in an urban setting sustainable landscapes need to used to be sustainable, if they aren’t used you have basically wasted, time, energy in construction, energy bound in materials and so on to create a space that may be technically seen as sustainable. This is were I basically take issue with certification and standards, they often are not flexible and usually out of date as soon as we publish them.
To create a sustainable landscape we have to realise that as designers we need to assess and truly understand the landscape before we lift a pen, click a mouse, or swipe a tablet. Standards and certification assist and sometimes lead the design direction in the creation of sustainable landscapes but its the designer and the design process that create the best sustainable landscapes.
Kongjian Yu (俞孔坚) gave a keynote at the IFLA 2011 Congress in Zurich which give a brief history of his career and then moves on to his ideas about Big Foot Landscape/Urbanism. Kongjian Yu has been key in changing the attitude in China from traditional landscape gardening or landscape as floral art and creating a vision of landscape architecture as natural landscape. His projects have won numerous ASLA and other awards across the world for his parks and especially the Houtan Park designed as a wetland park on the rivers edge of the Shanghai EXPO 2010 park. Houtan Park is a landscape that is used by many in China as best-practice for wetland design.
Anyone wishing to know more about landscape architecture would be well-served in watching this keynote at IFLA.