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Industrial Strength
At a former shipyard, a park design breaks with convention to honor China’s recent past.
By Mary G. Padua, ASLA

During the past half century, China has lived through a period of extraordinary change. In just over 50 years, the country has been transformed from a semifeudal society dominated by foreign interests to an economic superpower exerting claims to authority in the world. The nation has lived through revolution, famine, waves of massive centralization and decentralization, isolationism, and entry into the World Trade Organization. The Chinese record of lifting people out of extreme poverty is unequaled in world history.

Zhongshan Shipyard:
Mary G. Padua

This dizzying history has created major social discontinuities. The misery of periods like Mao Tse-tung’s “Great Leap Forward,” in which millions starved, and violent episodes like the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square have left the Chinese people with historical blind spots. Although these events are within the personal experience of many, there is a collective effort to banish them from memory. The result is a cultural split personality. People are enamored with things that are modern and international, and they show great respect for elements that are seen as classically Chinese, but much of twentieth century Chinese history has become forbidden territory.

This atmosphere poses particular challenges for landscape architects. A designer can appropriate elements of classical Chinese gardens and assemble them into landscapes that resemble the popular image of a traditional design. Or a designer can transpose elements from projects in other parts of the world and provide a completely contemporary solution. Either approach might satisfy the client, but the resulting design solution is divorced from context and offers little more than decorative content.

When seen in the light of these conventions, the award-winning Zhongshan Shipyard Park is a ground-breaking project for contemporary Chinese landscape architecture. Professor Kongjian Yu and his team from Turenscape took the risk of rejecting popular attitudes toward design and created a new approach that acknowledges and incorporates the recent past. The 25-acre park combines historical, contemporary, and ecological elements in a place that is both a living memorial to China’s recent past and a vibrant part of everyday life in the southern Chinese city of Zhongshan.

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