YU Kongjian - Biography

Born a peasant's son, YU Kongjian grew up working in agricultural fields. Land was both part of the daily life and the source of livelihood. His hometown situates in the heart of Zhejiang Province, a region famous for its scenic mountain-water, and rich in vernacular architecture. The time-honored feng-shui concept remains deep in people's beliefs and plays important roles in site planning for villages, residences, temples and tombs, etc.

It all seemed natural for YU to choose landscape architecture as his major when attending Beijing Forestry University in 1980. He graduated in 1987 with a degree of Master in Landscape Architecture (thesis title: "The Quantitative Models for Landscape Assessment"), and remained to teach in the same department afterwards. China in the 1980s saw the beginning of domestic tourism, the development of landscape architecture as a profession, and the effort of adapting computational analysis in environmental studies. One of the main projects he participated was the Master Plan for the Red Stone National Park (Guangdong Province, China), which led to research papers on aesthetic assessment of landscape resources. After teaching for five years in landscape architecture and planning in China, Yu enrolled in the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1992 and received the Doctor of Design degree three years later in 1995. Professor Carl Steinitz, Richard Forman and Steven Ervine at GSD, and Ian McHarg from University of Pennsylvania were very supportive and influential to his efforts in applying ecology (especially landscape ecology) and computer technology (especially GIS) in the theory and method of urban and landscape planning. Taking his earlier project the Red Stone National Park as the case study, his innovative doctorate dissertation, "Security Patterns and Surface Model in Landscape Planning", integrates McHarg's suitability analysis and vertical "layer-cake" model with the surface analysis and horizontal process-pattern-network model. Following his graduation from GSD, he practiced as a landscape architect in The SWA Group (Laguna Beach) for two years. In 1997, YU Kongjian returned to China as a professor of urban planning and landscape architecture in Beijing University, where he has remained, working on the establishment of a whole new system of contemporary Chinese landscape architectural education and practice.

Chinese landscape culture is one of the overarching interests of YU Kongjian. Since the end of the 1980s, YU has studied Feng-shui theory in view of modern analytic methods based on geography, ecology and environmental psychology. His stay in the US did not interrupt this interest but added new thoughts to it. As a contemporary landscape architect and urban designer, he respected Feng-shui for its role in place making while fighting against its superstitious operation. Using evolutionary and anthropological approaches, he explored the origin, structure and meanings of Feng-shui and the ideal Chinese landscape models. Adapting statistic data, together with field observation and literature review, YU recognized that the Feng-shui landscapes share similar structures with other Chinese ideal landscape patterns. Soon after his return to China, he published his first book: 理想景观探源:风水与理想景观的文化意义 = Tracing the Origin of Ideal Landscapes: the Cultural Meanings of Feng-shui and Ideal Landscape (1998), a book he dedicated to his parents who "enlightened [him] the significance of landscape".

During the past ten years, YU Kongjian has been slowly building up the edifice of contemporary landscape architecture in China. As a professor, YU convinced people, from the university planning committee to national education administration, of the importance of landscape architecture as a discipline and created the landscape architecture program in Beijing University from scratch. Due to his strenuous efforts, China's first Graduate School of Landscape Architecture was established in 2003, offering two accredited master's degree programs (MLA in science and MLA in practice), with 60–70 graduate students each year and a wide connection with universities worldwide. As a practitioner, YU is the owner, president, and the design principle of Turenscape founded one year after the design school in 1998. Turenscape (Turen means "earth man" in Chinese) embedded his ideal of design for a harmonious living environment that unifies the worlds of nature, human and spirituality (天地-人-神). In recent years, the works of Turenscape had received numerous international design awards, and were featured in exhibitions and magazines worldwide.

YU proclaims I am a doer, and I do what I mean; teaching and practising are mutually nurturing for him. To keep a delicate balance between his academic and professional pursuits, he runs Turenscape as a school of design itself, linking theory with reality. It also acted as a powerful financial backup for the research and education at The Graduate School of Landscape Architecture, and became a functional base for international workshops and studios. The success of Turenscape made YU and his firm a model of innovative entrepreneurship, and he was awarded Overseas Chinese Pioneer Achievement Medal by the People's Republic in 2005. Most remarkably, he produced and financed a wide range of pedagogical publication to promote new urban landscape aesthetics among design professionals, the general public and government officials. What YU has done for the discipline has not only fostered a new generation of Chinese landscape architects, but also inspired them in their own search for a path of contemporary design and its social function in the context of Chinese culture.

Through all these activities, YU develops a body of landscape thinking based on his understanding and engagement with the reality, demands and concerns of today's Chinese society. Firstly, he sees landscape architecture as the important part of an integrative construction process for a new world. Taking landscape and ecology as the points of departure, he promoted the concepts of "Landscape Security Pattern", "Ecological Infrastructure" and "Negative Planning" on the levels of urban and regional planning. Secondly, he advocates a new aesthetics that is productive and functional, insisting on design as "the art of survival" and being adamantly against formalism and aestheticism. In recent years, his outspoken criticism of traditional imperial and literati gardens in opposition to the vernacular and the agricultural has stirred controversy, debates and thinking among designers and scholars. The numerous projects his office has built provide good demonstrations for his ideas such as "The Beauty of Weeds", "Protection of Agricultural Landscape and Industrial Heritage" and "Vernacular Urbanism". Finally, it is worth emphasis that YU sees education, in a broader sense, as his paramount task in the hope to elevate awareness of all parties in the process of landscape creation. He not only published textbooks, journals, but also a pedagogical book tailor-made for decision-makers-城市景观之路:与市长们交流 = The Path to Urban Landscape: Exchanges with Mayors (2003), a best-seller reprinted more than 10 times.

In retrospect, YU certainly came a long way from his native countryside to the central stage of contemporary Chinese landscape architecture. Thinking of the past 10 years, he ponders: I have come to realize that to confront the serious challenges in ecology security and land use in China, landscape architecture has to systematically break through the established patterns in order to invent new (including its concept, theory, method, education, and the model scientific studies, etc), while being firmly connected to the cultural reality.

by Xin WU

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