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Designed Ecologies for the Art of Survival

Lessons modern cities can learn from stunning landscapes in China.

Designed Ecologies for the Art of Survival

Increasingly, the intimation of ‘slow’ culture is being reclaimed from nuances of unproductivity and slothfulness – and is embraced by organisations such as Città Slow and Slow Architecture as a healthier and more conscious way of life.

So it was fitting to see the recent SIA conference on 28 September embrace the subject of ‘slowness’ under Archifest 2016’s overarching theme of slowCITY. Among the panel of speakers at the Singapore event, Stanley Lung from China-based multidisciplinary design firm Turenscape presented a refreshing perspective on this topic with the proposition: What if nature is placed as the highest priority in city design?

Dubbed “Designed Ecologies for the Art of Survival”, Lung presented the problems posed by rapid urbanisation and population growth in China, and strategies for new approaches to urban planning. “It’s not just about doing things slow to make things more sustainable and productive. In China, many things are about survival – because we are at the frontline of making things better for the world or making things worse. Turenscape has a mandate to slow down pollution. Our name, “Tu” and “Ren” means earth and man. How can we tie this relationship back together?” Lung posits.

Founded by Dr. Kongjian Yu, Turenscape works with mayors and city officials to design better cities by integrating ecological urbanism into policy, so that nature is accessible to every citizen in their daily lives. Essentially, their position is that holistic planning with nature nurtures a new relationship between land and people. Landscape in future should not merely be for aesthetic appreciation but serve as an intrinsic mechanism for survival within healthier cities and environments. Yu’s revolutionary planning approaches stemmed from observations that conventional definitions of beauty in China were deformed by urban elites. Citing the historical fascination with ‘little bound feet’, carved rock and manipulated bonsai landscapes as examples of misguided definitions of beauty, coupled with an imported Western preoccupation with bigness, Yu found that the majority of urban development in China was problematically heavy-handed and over-designed, and unnecessarily massive in proportion.

Through an extensive portfolio of projects across China featuring stunning landscapes, Lung shared numerous principles of innovative urban planning that emphasised minimal intervention in nature, necessitating a “Big-Foot Revolution” that redefined the natural as beautiful. The first principle he shared was to ‘make friends with floods’. Taking down concrete embankments in Yan Wei Zhou Park, Jin Hua City, and replacing them with natural embankments and planted terraces, their design allowed accessibility to the city parks even during flood conditions, as key scenic bridges hovered above the water level.

He also advocated ‘going productive’. Criticising the ubiquitous green grass lawns as non-functional verges that require high maintenance, Lung championed the use of productive and low-maintenance landscapes such as paddy fields or water-cleansing plants instead. This was the strategy for Shenyang Architectural University Campus in Liaoning province, Shenyang, where paddy fields were employed as landscape within the university. Each year, the professors and students roll up their sleeves for Harvest Day in the fields, involving students and faculty first-hand in the dialogue on sustainable food production.

Another example of the effectiveness of minimal intervention in their projects is found at Qin Huang Dao, Hebei – a 14 hectare site where they were given just 9 months to design and build. Letting nature do the work, their solution was a 500-metre-long red ribbon – a multi-tasking piece of urban furniture that combined wayfinding, lighting and seating into one single element. Forged in fibreglass, the ribbon glistens in the dappled sunlight, in vibrant contrast to its verdant forested backdrop.

The insights shared by Lung lights the way for a broader and more inquisitive review of urban planning policies in any modern Asian city. During the public Q&A session, an elderly man stood up and introduced himself as Tang Guan Bee, one of Singapore’s pioneering architects. He highlighted Lung’s presentation in particular and urged planning authorities and architects to take up the threads of thought shared, in hopes that it would cast light on Singapore’s direction forward.

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