Chris Bently,

Director Boffa Miskell, Shanghai 

Place making has always been a significant component of landscape architecture, whether it be defining the form of a city such as the planning of Central Park as the centre of New York City or the reference to something of cultural significance within a pocket park.

Designing spaces that respond to site specific elements/ natural and iconic manmade features or historical and cultural references are essential components of creating places that are memorable, meaningful and special.  Successful place making is achieved through good design and often involves very simple, strong but understated design solutions. This is evident in most of the award winning projects worldwide.  

I have worked most of my life in New Zealand and have had the good fortune to work on plenty of projects that are good examples of place making. It is however my most recent experience, working and living in China as part of the world’s largest urbanisation movement that is probably most relevant and certainly most interesting to you.

Working in China is very challenging and one of the biggest issues facing the country and landscape architects working here is how to create a sense of place within the rapidly changing new urban areas. You may have heard stories of taxi drivers in Shanghai saying that they struggle to know where they are in the city because it is so large and constantly changing such that they need GPS to find their way home.

I work on projects all over China and have been to many cities. Local Chinese I meet are often amazed at the number of cities that I have visited. Unfortunately it usually involves a flight followed by an hour long drive into the faceless city centre returning to the airport in the evening on the same roads. My memory of these place is a blur because of the little amount of time I spend in a particular city plus the roads and buildings even vegetation looks the same.

Most of the cities are starting to look the same. The roads, conform to national standards for road cross sections and they are so large in width that everything gets dwarfed by there huge scale. Much of the architecture is standard and similar materials are used everywhere.

To make the picture worse, many Chinese property developers love classical European architecture and dictate that their developments are to have a traditional French or Italian style.

Having painted a fairly gloomy picture there is a change occurring and some local government agencies and enlightened developers are now looking to establish an identity with new districts and want a sense of place or at least a uniqueness for their developments. Some of our latest clients are looking for local culture reference in place making.

So how do we design to create a “Sense of Place” in China.  The following examples of recent work show the process of building on elements of local culture to design for new communities, how we go about explaining the cultural connection and how this is expressed in the design language.

We have two projects in Guangxi province and before starting them I took my holiday in that region which is stunning. It boarders Vietnam, has 26 indigenous cultures and diverse landscapes of national and international significance including the “Dragons Backbone” rice terraces and the “Detian Waterfall” which is the second largest cross border waterfall in the world. It straddles the borders of China and Vietnam.


Guangxi Cultural Street

The site for this mixed use residential and commercial development is very steep and looking at the architectural masterplan they propose to flatten it. One of our concerns was to retain some of the natural landform character as well as build on cultural references.

The sketch plan shows our recommended architectural master plan with buildings sited in response to the topography and a perspective of the villa housing located within a terraced landscape utilising storm water as a feature by creating a series of terraced waterfalls.

Bali Lake

Jiujiang Bali Lake is in the centre of Jiujiang New District, Jiangxi Province, China. The area is rapidly developing with new infrastructure but currently lacks community recreation facilities and any identity.

The area is low lying and wet with many lakes rivers and ponds making the area famous for fish and rice. Jiujiang has a deep cultural background with 2000 years of history. Many great philosophers lived here and passed down poems and literature making it a place famous for its cultural heritage. 

Our concept embraces the famous essay by local philosopher Tao Qian “Peach Blossom Spring”, which reflects the Chinese vision of “utopia”, and translates it into a landscape metaphor that forms the basis of the design.  The concept page illustrates how Tao Qian’s imagery has informed our creation of a contemporary utopia.

The park connects northern residential communities, including the Jiujiang Cultural Arts Centre via a journey through a series of wetlands and lotus ponds (which treat stormwater runoff from the roads) to reveal the spectacular Round Lake Park. The Round Lake Park is framed by a circular waterfront boulevard, the focus of which is a large fountain at the centre of lake.  Surrounding the waterfront boulevard are the various activity zones.  The three entry mounds planted in peach blossom trees provide a striking entry to the utopia-inspired Round Lake Park.

As you can see place making is an integral part of designing new urban spaces in China.

Xsection Issue Three 2013/14 Placemaking