The Architecture of Landscape Architecture Practices

by Yujia Wang, ASLA

Mountain View Pavilion
Mountain View Pavilion, a small, 200-square-meter service complex including a medical room, an accessible restroom, a small café, and plenty of public space. Designed by Urban Narratives Office L+P 一场景观规划

I have always thought the name of our profession to be very interesting—the phrase “landscape architecture,” a name that embodies a compelling combination and intersection of nature and the humanities. This may have even been one of the reasons I was drawn to enter the field in the first place.

Of course, the second half of the phrase, “architecture,” originally indicated “design” in general. As Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. wrote in his letter to Charles Eliot in 1886, “I prefer that we should call ourselves Landscape Architects…rather than landscape gardeners…because the former title better carries the professional idea. It makes more important the idea of ​​design.”

Interestingly, in recent years, I have discovered that the real, literal “architecture” aspect of landscape architecture is more and more reflected in my practice.

Part of this points to the fact that (small) architecture—some call it parkitecture—is oftentimes an inherent part of public space (for larger-scale  spaces, at least). Some of these architectural pieces are there to carry basic service functions, such as public restrooms, shower rooms, etc.; others provide operable square footage for the park: the likes of cafés, mini libraries, stages, galleries, and so on. They are a part of the programming and energize the public space. In the design of several large parks that I undertook, our landscape architecture office being the lead consultant, architectural design of this nature was considered by the client as a part of the overall scheme.

Some might suggest that we could have commissioned the work to an architectural office. But in reality, the small scale nature, rapid pace, and huge uncertainties rendered such collaboration difficult. For example, in one case, the client did not have a conclusive idea on how many buildings they needed, what they should be, and where to put them. We consulted with them to define the architecture as the landscape scheme developed, and eventually wrote the brief for them, which then changed several times. It simply would not have been feasible.

It wasn’t just a passive choice, though. In fact, we happily embraced it as a design opportunity. Because, like every other perfectionist landscape architect out there, we love to have full control of our scheme, and it provides us with an opportunity to ensure that the language, concept, and spatial relationship of architectural design are organically integrated with the overall scheme of the park. We were able to make the most out of it. In one of the architecture works, we discussed how it can reflect on traditional Chinese garden elements of colonnades and pavilions to become a public element, accessible in an equitable way. It becomes this very Southern-China piece where it is permeable and it embraces the humidity, the rain, and the occasional storms, providing shade and rest for park visitors. It was more than just interior rooms, but about creating a scene, a place in between the park and the room, and in between the contemporary and the memories shared by many.

In the Mountain View Pavilion, a 200-square-meter public restroom that also serves as a resting pavilion. Designed by Urban Narratives Office L+P 一场景观规划

Our clients commended us for what we proposed, stating that we were the best architects amongst all landscape architects. They appear very content to have let us handle it. We were, of course, also very happy. It started as one or two pieces but eventually expanded into a series of six buildings (there were eight of them at one point), half of which have been constructed and the other half are under construction as we speak.

The second part of this is small architecture projects that carry important public elements with them, often community buildings. A few months ago, an open international competition was hosted in Chengdu, China, entitled “2021 Design Award for Chengdu Public Aesthetic Space in Community.” All of these projects involve a significant community element, where defining the building together with the outdoor community space and thinking about how one could activate the other was very important. It was both architecture and landscape, and you could not have won without either.

Project list from the RFP document “2021 Design Award for Chengdu Public Aesthetic Space in Community,” Chengdu, China, representing a clear combination of architecture and landscape. / image: Yujia Wang

As a testament to this notion, of the list of over 300 participants, more than a few dozen were landscape architecture offices, ourselves included, which were either entering independently or forming consortiums with architecture offices. The line is blurred.

Recently, we were shortlisted in a design competition for a community building in Shanghai. Among the five offices on the shortlist, we are the only landscape architecture office. The other four are very reputable, large, and well-established architectural practices. Of course we were not trying to be architects, but interested in inserting ourselves with a position to think about larger structural ideas like the notion of “15-minute city” in an urban community. In this sense, architecture is a catalyst for experimentation with the ideas of public spaces and landscape urbanism.

Then there is the third area. Within a landscape architecture scheme, it is not unusual to see architecture or structural elements becoming the jewel in the crown, the centerpiece of the design. Fairly recently, the Tanglang Mountain Competition, a high profile mountain park in the glowing city of Shenzhen, China, attracted over 300 participants from all over the world. A significant focus in almost all the entries is the viewing architecture / structure at the peak of the hill. This project, although very landscape architecture-centric in nature, attracted renowned architecture offices like Zaha Hadid Architects and MVRDV. Against a background like this, to be competitive, it seems it’s not enough to simply know architecture, but it requires baking landscape architecture philosophies and conceptualizations into architectural forms and programming, and also to build on and even move beyond this notion of architecture as an singular artifact. Concentrating the spirit of the landscape on one centerpiece, or, as shown in the unbuilt airport competition project project Martha Schwartz, FASLA’s office won, expanding what is traditionally self-contained buildings into a part of the larger system of the built (and sometimes natural) environment, are two ways landscape and architecture are coming together in splendid forms.

Overall analysis of the Tanglang Mountain Park, with an emphasis on the significance of a viewing complex at the peak. Designed by Martha Schwartz Partners + Urban Narratives Office L+P 一场景观规划
Birds-eye view of the proposed scheme for Tanglang Mountain Park, depicting the viewing complex and the golden roof. Designed by Martha Schwartz Partners + Urban Narratives Office L+P 一场景观规划

Outside of these three lines of working, many practicing landscape architects could also attest to the fact that in urban design, campus planning, and many other projects, architectural design, or at least a good understanding of architectural design and architectural systems, is often a very important part of the capacities of landscape architects and landscape urbanists.

As a practical landscape architect and an educator (and as a member of ASLA’s Committee on Education), I am naturally interested in comparing the reality of practice and what we build with our curriculum and educational standards. I was trained as a landscape architect in a program under the school of architecture in China. We mixed classes with architecture and planning students in the first year, and went on to do a total of four architectural design studios in the second year. In a sense, I was half-trained as an architect. Today, many in my office share the same background, and it gives us the capacity to directly participate in architecture works.

In the United States, the situation is different. For example, at University of Nebraska – Lincoln where I teach, students have a collaborative design studio with architecture students in their fourth year. But usually, they play more of the role of collaborators—that is: the landscape students lead the master planning and detailed landscape design, while architecture students do actual architectural design. This makes for an interesting difference in the role and capacity development. Of course, there are still opportunities to engage landscape architecture students directly in some amount of architectural design within landscape architecture studios; for instance, through working on building massing in the landscape urbanism studio LARC310 (see image below).

Axonometric view of the overall urban landscape scheme, from 2021 Fall Semester LARC310: Towards New Urban Frontage at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Designed by: Jace Armstrong, Olivia Berck, Student ASLA, Jake Essink. Instructor: Yujia Wang, Liang Guo (Visiting Scholar)

Recently I wrote an article, “Comparative Study of Design Studio Plan at Undergraduate Landscape Architecture Program Under Architectural Colleges Between China and the United States,” that will be available in print in China soon, and it summarized these differences. I hope to publish this research in the United States in the near future. It raises an interesting question regarding our discipline’s education. More than a hundred years ago, when we began to call ourselves landscape architects, perhaps we did not think we would become literal architects. However, with the development of design practices in modern times, the blurring of boundaries and the multi-disciplinary nature of projects, it seems that the term “architecture” has to mean more, or at least it’s beginning to do so.

We should prepare the next generation of landscape architects accordingly.

Yujia Wang, ASLA, is the founding partner of Urban Narratives Office L+P (一场景观规划) and a professor at the University of Nebraska Lincoln in the United States. He focuses on the teaching, research, and practice of urban public space design and public space cultural narratives. He has led the planning and design of several influential public parks and greenways in China.

Yujia is a member of ASLA’s Committee on Education and chair of the Remote Teaching Subcommittee, a member of ASLA’s Climate Actions Committee, and a volunteer leader for the International Professional Practice Network (PPN). He is the first landscape architect to be included on Forbes China’s 30 Under 30 list, and is a recent recipient of Hurun US Innovation Outstanding Award.

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