Landscape urbanism is a cross-disciplinary profession where
surfaces are manipulated and artificial terrains are created.
In this context, Kongjian Yu founded Turenscape in 1999 after
taking his doctorate degree at Harvard University. He began
teaching, trying illustrate alternative ways of understanding
the urban process. But what happened when students and
architects asked him to go from theory to practice? With this
question in mind, we talked with Kongjian Yu about his most
recent project, the Qunli National Urban Wetland.
Ethel Baraona: Let's talk about the close relationship you have with natural environments. Where does this interest come from?
Kongjian Yu In Chinese tu means dirt, earth and ren means people, man. So, Turenscape means "people from the land", the wonderful metaphor behind our name is that we are "the land and the people". I come from a rural area and grew up with people who lived there for decades, which gave me a true sense of nature. I started Turenscape with my wife and a friend. One of our first projects began in 2000. We finished it in 2002. Suddenly it became really famous. People were admiring projects they never had seen before in China.
I suppose this interest comes from a real need.
That's right. People need ecological ways of thinking. We don't want to simply do huge projects. We try to find solutions for every specific situation.
In the Qunli National Urban Wetland you worked with a multidisciplinary team, didn't you?
We have a multidisciplinary team: architects, landscape architects, biologists, urban planners, environmentalists and engineers. Our projects are not merely landscape design. They are urban projects.
Thinking along these lines (landscape projects as urban
projects constructed in the cities and not in the periphery) it's
easier to understand the concept of "ecological infrastructure"
that you use in your work.
I speak of "ecological infrastructure" because I believe that nature has the capacity to clean water and air and regulate flows. Nature has the capacity to provide life and joy to human beings. Usually we can't afford all these services easily, right? I think that nature is a security pattern.
That's wonderful but radical thinking.
People usually depend on man-made infrastructure: drain pipes, motorways, lamp-posts... These provide services, but are expensive and sometimes even unnecessary. For example, in order to drain water we think that we need huge pipes. Or to prevent floods we think that we need big concrete structures. Our cities depend on these unsustainable pieces of infrastructure. It's a poor approach to urbanisation. My idea is that nature can provide even better service, for free. That's how we can define nature as infrastructure.
Can you explain how the Qunli National Urban Wetland
works to provide these services?
The wetland in the project acts like a sponge, absorbing the water. It's a project for storm water management. With this project we stop depending on drainage to flush floodwater.
Water has a spiritual, emotional meaning for Chinese people. How do you use this cultural influence in the project?
China is a country where people need to have the power to deal with water, because we have a monsoon climate, causing flood problems. Due to its intrinsic presence, it is also a philosophical issue. Industrialisation has led us to clean water by means of chemicals and mechanical engineering, and this destroys the whole meaning of water. The scientific understanding of "water" reduces it to H2O. But water is not just H2O. Water is a living system. It is related to land, life, vegetation and food. Water has colour and smell. We need to go back to the ecological meaning of water.
Why is there is a global interest in water nowadays?
I think it's a post-modernist way of thinking. We experienced the industrial age and we now understand that scientific or mechanical approaches are not enough. We can never fight against water or against nature. Nature has its own forces and human beings are part of this. Maybe we are coming around after having suffered in the past. Now we know that we have much better ways to deal with nature.
As for the Qunli National Urban Wetland project, I was surprised that it was built in just 18 months. How did you do that?
Yes, from design to finish it was about two years. We were asked to design a park, but then we thought about the different meanings that the term "park" can have today. We considered the park as an ecosystem, and working with nature is always faster and easier than starting from zero. That's why this park has a multifunctional approach. It is a recreational space, it can hold and clean water, it supports life. During the design process, we transformed the park into a wetland, using storm water. This ecosystem provides natural services that make the city more resilient, maintain biodiversity and are productive at the same time.
Is ecology part of an economical system?
That is a key point. Economy means ecology. Nature has no waste. If species can't have minimum energy to survive, they die. So, nature is economy. We should consider the city as an organism and parks should provide all these services. At the same time this project is very economic. We used a very simple cut-and-fill system on the ring with a minimum cost. We built the sky-walk, a kind of jungle inside the park, with wood, bamboo, stone: all local materials. And it is important as a social node too.
Qunli National Urban Wetland
Design Architects: Turenscape
Design Principal: Kongjian Yu
Design Team: Long Xiang, Han Xiaoye , SongBen ming, Li Hongli, Zhang Wen juan, Men Fanx in, Men g Xiangyun, Li Guo, Zhang Li, Giuan Miaomiao, Xu Bo, Yuan enk ai, He Chong, Chen Feng, Lin Hong
Client: The Municipal Government of Haerbin City
Surface: 34.2 HA
Design Phase: 06/2009—11/2009
Construction Phase: 2011