A peasant’s son, Kongjian Yu grew up in a small village with seven ponds next to a stream shaped by 36 ancient weirs. For his first 17 years, he was immersed in the challenges of adapting to a monsoon climate and floods and drought. While originally destined for a life as a farmer, he instead wound up a student of the high art of Chinese landscaping and later a Doctor of Design at Harvard. Drawing on traditional intellectual philosophies of Chinese landscape culture, the accumulated wisdom of centuries of Chinese farmers, and modern western ecological science and planning and design theory, Yu began envisioning his own form of ecological utopia in the basement of Gund Hall. His theory of landscape security patterns, which identify ecologically critical landscapes for protection, and his concept of the “sponge city,” which embrace storms rather than fighting them with concrete infrastructure, were technical approaches to stem the widespread deterioration of the environment and ecology in China. But it was his social and political advocacy that ultimately led to real change. Yu’s numerous letters and proposals to top leaders helped move his thinking from the theoretical realm to concrete national policies and on-the-ground implementation. His “Big Feet” revolution called for nature-based solutions and a new aesthetics of sustainability that has not only been recognized with 14 ASLA awards, the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award and the IFLA Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe Award, but has also radically transformed the profession of landscape architecture in China. Based on his 25 years of teaching and practical experience with projects in over 200 cities, Professor Yu will share with us his insights into ecological, cultural and political design.
Kongjian Yu, DDes ’95, is Professor and founding dean of Peking University College of Architecture and Landscape, and founder and design principal of Turenscape. Yu’s guiding design principles are the appreciation of the ordinary and a deep embrace of nature—even of its potentially destructive aspects, such as flooding. His projects have won numerous international design awards, including 14 ASLA Excellence and Honor Awards and 7 WAF Best Landscape Architecture of the Year Award. Yu is also the author of over 20 books and more than 300 papers and is the founder and chief editor of the internationally awarded magazine Landscape Architecture Frontiers. His thinking about “ecological security patterns” helped shape environmental protection efforts throughout China. And his promotion of the “sponge city” concept, which uses landscape to capture, filter, and store rainfall for future use and reduce flood risks, helped to spur the Chinese government to launch an ambitious sponge city campaign across the country and has gained global attention. Yu was elected International Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016 and received the IFLA’s highest honor, the Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe Award, in 2020, which celebrates a living landscape architect whose “achievements and contributions have had a unique and lasting impact on the welfare of society.”
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