A Force Of Nature – Susan Jakes

From Time Asia (link):

In 1999, officials in the city of Zhongshan decided to tear down a shipyard and replace it with a park. The city, situated across the mouth of the Pearl River from Hong Kong, has a tradition of putting its wealth to good civic use: its tidy streets are adorned with banks of flowers and well-manicured trees, and it has racked up model-city awards from Beijing and the United Nations. But these shiny credentials presented a dilemma for local leaders”their political promotion would depend in part on outdoing their predecessors, and Zhongshan didn’t leave much room for improvement. So when the Yuezhong shipworks went bankrupt, it wasn’t long before plans emerged to remove an eyesore, cut ribbons and make progress.

Yu Kongjian, China’s pre-eminent landscape architect, was brought down from Beijing to lend the project some cachet”and, as is often the case, his first move was to throw a wrench into other people’s plans.

Zhongshan didn’t need more flowers, Yu told the city officials; it didn’t need fountains, ornate wrought-iron fences, or hedges shaped like animals. Instead of bulldozing the shipyard, he proposed, they could put it to new use. A gantry crane would make an interesting gate, a crumbling water tower could become the base of a lighted beacon. Instead of grass, the city should grow weeds. Zhongshan’s leaders found the plan unsettling. “We wanted something distinctive, but this made us nervous,” says He Shaoyang, then head of the city’s planning commission. “It wasn’t like a Chinese garden with a rock here and a tree there.” But, in time, the ecological soundness and low cost of Yu’s ideas won them over. “After all,” says He, “Zhongshan has a lot of parks. They shouldn’t all have to look the same.”

That’s an unusual attitude in today’s China. The nation is in the throes of the fastest urban growth in human history. In recent years the country has built an average of 2 billion sq m of floor space annually”half the world’s yearly total”and plans to add another 20-30 billion by 2020. In theory, this should offer limitless opportunities for innovative urban planning. But as China’s cities have grown larger, they have only become more uniform, so that each now seems to boast a skyscraping government office, roads scaled like highways and a vast Tiananmen-like square. This alikeness results largely from a dearth of professional designers and from the fact that breakneck growth leaves scant time for subtlety. But it also reflects a value system in which city infrastructure is conceived in symbolic rather than practical terms and where extravagance is the accepted symbol for modernity.

For more on Yu Kongjian’s work, see the Turenscape website.

April 5, 2006 10:10 AM
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