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American Society of Landscape Architects

 

January 2008 Issue

A Fine Red Line
Design tests the boundary between art and ecology.

By Mary G. Padua, ASLA

A Fine Red Line Courtesy of Mary G. Padua, ASLA

Riverside flood-control projects are one of the most common forms of public landscape architecture in China. Shifting drainage patterns created by urban expansion and development have become a major problem in many Chinese cities. The parks created by these flood-control projects have a predictable form: large areas of hardscape, a monumental plaza for national holidays, and a linear concrete promenade. Flood control in these parks typically is achieved by realigning and diverting the river’s natural course into rectilinear concrete channels that have high vertical banks and carry a larger volume of water than the original river. The natural river system is effectively replaced by an inhospitable drainage channel.

The Red Ribbon–Tanghe River Park in the coastal city of Qinhuangdao in Hebei Province, China, is an exciting departure from this approach. The park breaks new ground by bringing forms of artistic design previously unknown in China to landscape architecture. In the process, the designers have created an ecologically sensitive park that stands as a symbol of China’s contemporary connections to the world and evokes the nation’s history.

Red Ribbon Park occupies a 50-acre site along the banks of the Tanghe River in Qinhuangdao, a metropolitan area of about 2.6 million people less than four hours’ drive from Beijing. Completed in 2006, the park was designed by Turenscape, China’s first private landscape architecture design and consulting firm, and Peking University’s Graduate School of Landscape Architecture (GSLA) working with Qinhuangdao’s Landscape Bureau.

The park was an experiment for Turenscape and Qinhuangdao; it incorporated visually striking design elements such as a 1,500-foot fiberglass red bench that has more in common with the work of landscape architects such as Martha Schwartz, ASLA, and West 8 than the traditions of landscape design in China. At the same time, the park had important ecological objectives. It provided a means of preserving undeveloped areas of the riverbank and restoring areas that had become derelict in the course of urban expansion.

The park also provides a very different approach to flood control from the usual Chinese realignment and engineering of natural river courses. When major floods happen at 50- to 100-year intervals, Turenscape’s design allows the park to flood rather than carrying the water away in large drainage channels. The red ribbon was entirely sited above the historical level of the last major flood in the 1920s, and the greenway along the riverbank is a floodable zone. Areas of the riverbank that have been subject to serious erosion were consolidated with steel mesh-boxed rocks. Turenscape left the rest of the bank untouched.

This combination of art and ecological sensitivity in park design has helped to push the envelope of contemporary landscape architecture in China.

The Design Process

The idea for Red Ribbon Park originated when the mayor of Qinhuangdao contacted Kongjian Yu, International ASLA, who is president of Turenscape and dean of GSLA, seeking help with the city’s efforts to revitalize its riverfront. Mayor Qian had been introduced to Turenscape’s work when he attended a lecture by Yu on ecologically sensitive landscape design for urban areas at a conference of local municipal officials. The mayor was faced with a riverfront in Qinhuangdao that had been damaged by unmanaged urban growth and other segments that had been developed in ways that neglected the natural qualities of the site. The mayor brought Turenscape into the project in the hope that riverfront development could improve the quality of life in Qinhuangdao and contribute to the economic development of the city, a resort and retirement destination for government officials and Beijing residents near the shores of the Bohai Sea. The population of the area has been expanding, escalating pressure for development along the Tanghe River. The mayor saw a pressing need to upgrade the riverfront to support this new growth.

The site was a linear riparian corridor. During the initial site investigation, Turenscape found four discrete areas: a healthy stand of poplar saplings that was part of a plant nursery, remnants of a village that included a major irrigation ditch and brick water towers, an informal local trash dump from urban expansion, and lush native vegetation along the river.

The design process involved a good deal of controversy. Turenscape’s initial design, which incorporated an artificially constructed, bright red, 1,500-foot-long bench, didn’t sit well with members of the local design review board. The board was composed of officials trained in the traditional Chinese garden design school. In their view, natural parks should be modeled on the scholar gardens of the Ming Dynasty that peaked in popularity during the 16th century.

The board’s attitude has been typical in China where, until recently, virtually all university training in landscape design was based on an idealized version of the Ming Dynasty aesthetic. Designers educated at GSLA and similar programs are far more aware of global trends in the field and far more willing to be experimental, but in China innovative approaches to landscape design often meet with opposition. The majority of practicing landscape designers still come from traditional garden design schools.

However, Turenscape had the strong support of the mayor, and the project went ahead. It evolved as a cooperative process involving Turenscape and the Qinhuangdao Landscape Bureau, whose director, Yang Li Na, served as the mayor’s representative and client for the work. Yang was a strong supporter of the red ribbon design but saw the red design element in Yu’s early schemes as too rigid and too narrow in width. It lacked the fluidity associated with Chinese calligraphy, considered the highest art form in China. In a brainstorming session, Yu and Yang discussed materials that might be used to create an element that could vary in width and shape.

Their solution was to use a molded fiberglass used locally to fabricate boats. Yang knew the companies in the local boatbuilding industry and put Yu in touch with them to investigate color and materials. This collaboration turned out to be a vital part of the project: It allowed the bench to be fabricated in the fluid shape chosen by the designers, and it helped the project reach completion in only five months, while bringing local industry into the process. Yu’s team worked closely with the fabricator during construction and in the course of many on-site adjustments.

Yu approaches his projects with a focused design strategy. He recognizes that landscape architecture in China faces major problems as a young profession with an underdeveloped landscape construction industry. He responds to these problems by turning his projects into experiments where the challenge is to execute one “big idea.” The driving concept for Red Ribbon Park was a democratic vision: the marriage of art and ecology in a simple, economical design. The central design element—the red ribbon—had to be a strong symbol of the differences between this approach and the traditional garden school while giving coherence to the design.

The simplicity was meant to create a sharp point of contrast to another park immediately upriver: a standard flood-control park consisting of large expanses of paving, traditional Chinese rockery, a promenade, and a concrete embankment along the realigned Tanghe River. Yu viewed this existing stage-one flood-control project as something that violated the natural environment by reengineering the river course, and his objective for the new project was to create a different experience. Yu didn’t see the ecological side of the design as independent from its artistic objectives. On the contrary, the experience of a park, for Yu, is shaped both by its relationship to the ecology of the site and its aesthetics.

Turenscape chose the color red for the central element because red has traditionally been used as a symbol for good luck and success. The inspiration for the ribbonlike form came from the former leader of China, Mao Zedong, who was also a noted calligrapher. The Chinese character that provided the formal inspiration for the design of the red ribbon is the ideograph for “flow” when interpreted as a verb or “water” when interpreted as a noun. Yu notes that as the red ribbon meanders through the revitalized riparian corridor and creates its own harmonious force, it also acts as a metaphor for a Taoist interpretation of nature.

Project Visit

I first visited Qinhuangdao on a late spring afternoon. I started by looking at the adjacent flood-control project and park. Crossing the avenue to Red Ribbon Park offered a striking contrast. I entered the park through a small plaza that stepped down to two paths. One is a 12-foot-wide path that leads to a higher elevation away from the river; the other path is a six-foot-wide boardwalk that leads into the more ecologically sensitive areas and ultimately to the red fiberglass bench.

Walking along the boardwalk, I was immediately immersed in a lush green forest. The area is densely carpeted with local grasses and thickly planted young poplars, remnants of a plant nursery that had once existed on the site. An upscale residential community was visible from one side of the path. Various sight lines along the path provided glimpses of the river through the forest. The dappled light that passes through the poplar forest creates a strong sense of enclosure when walking along the boardwalk.

Turenscape’s vegetation management plan is based on minimal disturbance of existing foliage such as the stand of young poplars or the mature riparian trees. Apart from the introduction of indigenous plants in areas that had been damaged by prior development, the site has been left largely in its original state. Turenscape envisions that natural succession will take over and that the area’s vegetation will become more abundant with time.

This quiet woodland is suddenly broken by a clearing in the forest and a series of steps that leads to a viewing platform at the riverfront. The platform offers a view of the city across the river and open views down the native riparian corridor. Interpretive signage introduces the local plants, and a seating platform has been located here to help orient the visitor. As the intimate-scale wood boardwalk threads its way through the forested corridor, it is intersected by stone paths that lead from the upper pathway and adjacent housing development. The river’s edge is in constant view.

I found one of the strongest elements of the project to be the horizontal access paths from the adjacent residential development. The experience of walking along these stone paths perpendicular to the red ribbon bench and river was interesting and engaging. It was easy to make the connection with Yu’s landscape metaphor for past, present, and future from the vantage point of these paths. The past was represented by the walk from the residential community through a meadow of wildflowers containing remnants of the village’s old brick water tower. The present was represented by the new residential community fronting the park. The future was represented by the new riverfront park. The most striking feature of the project is the first sight of the bench as it is revealed in the meadow at the edge of the forest.

After 15 to 20 minutes of walking through the poplar forest, visitors follow the path into a meadowlike space where a white structure comes into view (see photo in “Land Matters”). The visual disorder created by the pavilion’s columns and the two-dimensional quality of its 20-foot-wide flat roofline mark a radical change in the experience. The painted white steel pavilion sits on an enlarged wooden deck that is oriented toward a stand of Salix manchuria that is rooted in the river. Like the first wooden viewing platform, this one has interpretive signage explaining the native plant species. The park’s main feature, the red ribbon bench, is aligned with one edge of the pavilion’s wood platform.

The red ribbon bench is set back from the water’s edge, and it wanders up and down, following the topography almost randomly. At points the ribbon is broken to allow the intersection of a stone path from the upper edge of the park and the adjacent residential community. Some of the breaks in the wood boardwalk and the red ribbon bench are meant to allow animals to cross from land to the water, though there was no interpretive signage explaining the local animal species or their habitat. Some areas along the path have been visually marred by security cameras that have been installed on top of large, intrusive steel posts to monitor visitor behavior.

The bench proved to be a faded orange-red, not the saturated Chinese red that I had anticipated. The faded red appears to have been caused by exposure to sunlight and possibly by constant cleaning by maintenance workers. Nevertheless, the ribbon defines a strong edge for the riparian corridor, varying in width as it meanders along the corridor.

The impression of the orange-red fiberglass form as calligraphy inserted onto the landscape is not very strong. I was also concerned by the fact that the bench was undergoing maintenance when I visited in the evening hoping to see it in its backlighted state. The project was less than one year old at that time. Taken together with the apparent bleaching of the bench, this suggests a real concern that the materials will not be durable and the project may come to resemble a temporary art installation more than a permanent landscape project.

Close up, the experience of the bench is less dramatic than from a distance. It might have been stronger if the local fabricator could have given a more curved, organic form to its horizontal and vertical surfaces. This could have lent the bench a stronger calligraphic quality. As it has been constructed, the bench is boxlike, with vertical sides and sharp angles.

The top surface is punctuated at intervals by translucent circles containing lighting alternating with circular planters with native grasses. The planters have been created as cutouts in the red ribbon bench but seem unnecessary in light of the large massing of native grasses throughout the project.

Certain elements of the park construction do not seem to be ideal choices for the objective of low-impact design. The boardwalk was built very close to the natural surface, leaving little space for the native plantings to thrive. The use of a wooden boardwalk also seems to be a questionable choice of materials given its application primarily at grade. Paving material such as local stone might have provided more interest and helped keep the boardwalk from becoming monotonous.

There are indirect indications that the red bench is succeeding in its objective of unifying the park. Informal unimproved paths to the river’s edge have been created in the area before the red bench begins, but I saw little evidence of similar paths in the area of the red ribbon. The bench appears to be successful in keeping the pedestrians along its alignment and away from the sensitive riparian habitat.

 Viewed in the larger context of Chinese landscape architecture, Red Ribbon Park offers an alternative to the cold, paved landscape improvements that are typical of flood-control projects that have been built in many areas of China. It also illustrates the visual power of color in the landscape and the effectiveness of Turenscape’s simple design intervention. The park offers a response to the mandate given to local municipal officials to create low-budget, environmentally sensitive solutions to the problem of providing recreational areas for the rapidly expanding cities of China. In the relatively short period since its construction, it already has been held up as a model for urban green construction due to the way it meets the Chinese government’s call for a “harmonious city and thrifty approach.” In the larger international context, it is a valuable contribution to a growing body of landscape architecture that integrates art and ecology in meeting everyday recreational needs.

Mary G. Padua, ASLA (mgpadua@dcp.ufl.edu), is associate professor of landscape architecture at University of Florida and principal of MGP Studio.

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