Understanding China as a Landscape Designer

My life as the local foreigner (part 2)


When I started studying landscape architecture, I had a difficult time explaining to people outside design professions the significance of our work. To many people, landscape was seen as a dressing for the architecture — necessary in bringing the built environment together but not necessarily worthy of praise on its own. There were times when I agreed that line of thinking, but the more I studied and eventually practiced, the more I realized just how important our public spaces were. Unlike buildings, the gardens, parks, plazas, and courtyards that landscape architects designed were almost always for the public, and because of that, they reflected the what our society valued. In California, grassy knolls were common in projects because of how much we treasured relaxation and shared public spaces, and in Seoul, colourful, kitschy features were the norm because of the significant social media culture. Landscape is an uncommon lens with which our society can be analyzed and has been crucial to my understanding of China as a country.

Before I moved to Shanghai, I knew enough about the politics and history but nothing of the modern society and the people that inhabited it. My very basic understanding was fueled by personal prejudice and by even more biased articles and expatriates. Six months of working in China’s unique development sector not only changed my image of China’s ever-changing landscape but also gave me a more nuanced understanding of why modern Chinese society operated the way it did.

The Bigger, the Better

Growing up, I always imagined Shanghai as an incredibly romantic city — small streets lined with london planetrees, an eclectic mix of European architecture, and a busy street life. But even before I landed, my dreams were dashed. From the air, I could see the sprawling network of 8-lane roads and highways that extended even to the outskirts of the city. When I had the chance to actually walk the neighbourhood blocks defined by these monstrous streets, I found them so hostile, I wondered how anybody got around the city on foot. Rather than building according to the needs of the people, Shanghai’s city planning department wanted to build in a grand manner, fit only for the eyes of birds. This mentality of building without constraint to human needs was repeated throughout my tenure in Shanghai.

For a satellite city project right outside of Shanghai proper, our client sometimes gave us impossible guidelines. The land on which the project stood boasted no connecting, major roads, subways stations, or amenities, but the client insisted on having several thousand underground parking spots and several hundred ground-level parking spots. A few thousand parking spots may not have seemed like much for a developed city akin to Shanghai, but this was out in the countryside and with a fraction of Shanghai’s land mass. More importantly, the garage parking would have covered the entire sub-level of the project in a labyrinth of empty spots, and the ground-level parking requirement would have covered almost 20% of the entire project. Even if there was such a demand for parking, the landscape would have been consumed in a sea of vehicles — not exactly appropriate for a city hoping to become the new Silicon Valley. We voiced our skepticism at the need for so much parking spots, citing the lack of accessibility and surrounding amenities, and asked the client what studies had been done to assess the hypothetical parking demands. To nobody’s surprise, no study had been done. His believed that there should be “as many spaces as possible” or that bigger was always better. This way of thinking permeated to other projects as well.

Landscape features, usually benches and sculptures, were a common request. No matter the tone of the architecture and the surrounding landscape, clients always insisted on “bold and colourful” sculptures to attract users and potential customers. The space itself was never a factor in the size and design; the only thing that mattered was that it would catch the eyes of drivers at a minimum 50 meters away. Requests like these gave birth to 15 meter, usually red, monstrosities that were impossible to comprehend anywhere else in the world. The sites for these sculptures were often small, retail areas or on the edge of residential developments, and although they looked appropriate from a distance, they were absolute nightmares to be beside. The inner workings of these projects often suffered from this bird’s eye view of the world as well.

At weekly project meetings (an abnormality in the landscape design world), at least 15 people would be present. The majority of these people, myself included, never had anything to contribute to the discussion. It seemed like such a waste for so many people to sit in an 8-hour meeting, doing nothing other than to take notes that were already being recorded by someone else. When I asked my colleague about it, she told me, “It’s all about face. They want to show the client how many people they have on the project to make him feel good [about the progress of the project].” That was when it all made sense to me.

The incomprehensible number of parking spaces, humongous sculptures, and the unnecessary manpower were all about “face.” “Giving face” or putting up appearances so as to show the recipient of said “face” in the best light was a common, almost daily occurrence. For designers, “giving face” often entailed lying to the client about deadlines or shutting up about some aspect of the design even though it would eventually cause problems down the road. For clients, “face” was about how impressive their project would look from a larger perspective and how much respect they would gain from their peers. In China, having “face” was just as important in businesses as it was in personal relationships as wealth was often equated to personal success. This mentality gave birth to a kind of “cheap culture” that permeated many construction projects.

Uncultured Culture

The money that our clients had could buy most things in the world, but one asset that they could not buy no matter how much money they had was culture. The quick rise and maddening pace of China’s construction sector left little breathing room for the Chinese to cultivate their own taste or style. Clients relied on outdated but universal motifs to display a certain level of class and luxury in their projects. They preferred retail projects to closely emulate classic streets in New York or Paris during the height of the Art Deco Era and their campus and office park projects to have the same modern elegance as the High Line in New York. These places were classic images of prestige that they too wanted for their own crown jewels.

Many of the clients had the means to enjoy many of the places they wanted to emulate, and what they saw was the high esteem to which certain projects were held. Instead of accepting that these places’ history and culture played an important part in elevating the project’s status in the world of design, they believed that they could simply buy respect and notoriety for their project by emulating its basic forms. But in the midst of copying, clients were still tinged by their own basic understanding of what elements made monumental architecture and design. They would complain that designers’ interpretations of their case studies were not “bold” enough and pushed designers to add in incongruent design elements, usually very tall and very red, in an effort to add a sense of grandeur to their projects. The resulting monstrosities only showed their immaturity as developers and contributed to a mess of an urban fabric in which nothing stood out. This lack of purpose and congruency had a mirror in the populace’s obsession with brand names and luxury goods. It did not matter if the design was just but that it carried an air of importance.

Chinese’s narrow range of comfort in what they viewed as acceptable design reiterated the fact that China’s cultural identity was still at its infancy. Without time or incentive to experiment and to break out of the imagined mold of luxury, projects and clients’ tastes were doomed to become mere caricatures of a bygone era. Although it has been popular in the US to deride the Chinese for their poor taste, we often forget that the US and other countries considered to be pioneers in landscape design also had growing pains in the path to figuring out their respective identities. China had the misfortune of such bullish economic growth that no social or cultural policy could have possibly kept pace.

Competition for All

One of the most striking aspects of working on China-based projects was the speed with which they moved through the design process. Even though the scale could be a hundred times larger than projects in the US or South Korea, they would take only a fraction of the time. The first project on which I worked went from concept to detail design in the span of about four months and was slated to start building even before the final design was handed in to the client or before the land was even purchased. If the project was slated to be built elsewhere, it would have taken years to complete with rounds of public reviews. China’s development industry was all about speed. With viable land around established cities becoming ever more scarce, being the first developer to open a project in a given area meant striking gold; in this scheme, just a week of delays would have made a huge difference, and clients made their discontent known. The ferocity with which clients set impossible deadlines and pushed designers to complete their deliverables meant that even collaborators clashed.

Architects, landscape architects, and civil engineers often fought over the scope of work, hoping to push additional work away from their own teams and to blame each other for their own failure to meet the dreaded fang an submission deadlines. If a team was perceived as being slow or uncooperative, the client often replaced them with a new team in a highly counterintuitive move. In an effort to get paid for work and to stay on the project until completion, collaborators had to form alliances with the right people and to deceive when necessary. The bloodthirsty nature of the building industry mirrored daily life.

In public places like the subway or the post office, it was commonplace for patrons to disregard signs about lining up. In the US and other parts of the world, cutting in lines and just fighting for service would have been considered offensive and frowned upon, but the practice was perfectly normal in China. In fact, even when lines were neatly formed, they would automatically dissolve into chaos as soon as the person being served moved away from the counter. No one wanted to be a part of the next train even if it meant everyone would be a little more comfortable. Like replacing a long-time collaborator that wasn’t working up to speed at the moment, the desire to be first was a short-sighted action that although felt just in the heat of the moment, did not contribute to positivity or stability to social dynamics in the long-run. Although the concepts of family and community were once strong in Chinese society, modern Chinese people only cared about beating others and taking everything for themselves. The necessary tenacity of the past was passed down to the current generation of adults along with many unfair social policies, keeping the Chinese social and economic market highly competitive.

New is Better

The concern of developers was always to be the pioneer of a particular area in order to capture the most amount of wealth and recognition, but the problem faced by developers hoping to build in or around Shanghai was that the city was already over-developed. Not ones to take no for an answer, developers found a creative solution in the countless existing projects.

Visiting the many developments that have sprung up in the past 5 years, it was hard to believe that they had been completed so recently. Rows of neglected plants were covered by a permanent layer of various pollutants, and it was clear that the developer did not care to replace broken paving stones once the hype around the project had died down. Why spend so much money to build a project only to abandon it within a few years?

My uncle who had been working in China since the 1980s gave me some insight on the practice. “China has no concept of maintenance,” he told me, “because new is better.” He explained that although preventing an existing project from deteriorating would have been more cost-effective, it lacked the fanfare of opening a new project. His observation held true every time we recommend our client to apply a durable coating to the paving that would protect it from normal wear and tear. The client would complain about the cost and settle for something cheaper, lasting maybe half as long. When the time came around to recoat, the client often chose not to apply the coating so that the paving would deteriorate. It was the excuse he needed to tear it all up and relaunch the project. The reasoning behind this counterintuitive practice was part ego and all politics.

For a politician or someone with political ambitions in China, built projects were the golden ticket to moving up the political ladder; their success or failure determined how well a political career could grow. There was more than one occasion in which, “He must get it done no matter what. It [was] a government appointment,” was said during a meeting. The more projects that were built, even if at the expense of a recently-finished one, the more power and recognition the government officials involved in the scheme would have. In turn, they used their title to push along projects that paid the proper patronage or pressured certain bureaus to deny permits to contractors who slighted them in the past. In this way, built projects were also the way for contractors and clients to strike it rich. Anything could be done by knowing the right people and paying the necessary favours.

In a recent project right outside of Shanghai proper, a contractor filled in a canal without the approval of the local government in a bid to catch up to the demanding construction schedule. Instead of fearing delays, the contractor assured the client and us designers that it could be smoothed over. No one questioned what that meant. The mutual understanding between all the parties in the construction industry of its pervasive corruption was shocking at first, but I came to realize just how well it fit into Chinese society.

Since the Han Dynasty, one’s standing in Chinese society was decided upon familial ties. The only way one could move up the social ladder was either through marital alliances or through the grueling imperial examination. Those not fortunate enough to be born with the privileges of a noble family name had to live life through making beneficial social and economic alliances. Not much has changed since then. As an English speaker in Shanghai, I was constantly inundated with requests by strangers to teach them English or to help them with paperwork. The experience was unexpected to me because of these strangers’ expectation that I would be willing to help them even though I had never obliged to perform these services. For them, however, the constant fulfilling of favours for close and distant acquaintances was their way to expand their social network and ensure that they could cash in favours when they were in need.

Working in China has been a wild ride that made me constantly question everything I learned in school and while practicing in the US. The usual methods of developing a design did not apply in the Middle Kingdom, and I had to rebuild my own way of thinking in the likeness of my Chinese-counterparts. In that process of understanding China’s exceptionally unique way of functioning, I began to understand the quirks of Chinese society with a new clarity. The workings of the construction industry, with all of its ridiculous tastes and shady undertakings, revealed China’s growing pains that reverberated throughout to its social and cultural atmosphere. Although wealth and technology allowed the country to compete with the world’s leading economies, it still had a long way to go in balancing its ambitions with welfare and cultural development.

Although one can never be certain when that change will take place, I have hope that it will come in the near future. With a slowdown of the development sector, investors will hopefully seek to develop quality spaces over shoddy, mass-produced housing and repetitive retail areas. In some recent projects, clients have begun to take more interest in the human-scale rather than focusing on monumentality and have given us designers more leeway in the project’s style. Although a more developed construction industry will not lead to a more cultivated society, it can hopefully be a sign that better things are to come for Chinese society as a whole.


Part 2/7 of My life as the local foreigner, a series of photo essays exploring my time working abroad in China. To keep up to date on my latest adventures, follow me on Instagram.