Gandong Cai and Alexandra Mei
GC: Today’s Global is the topic of the newly released issue of Harvard Design Magazine. In the conversation between the two main editors Sarah Whiting and Rahul Mehrotra, Sarah pointed out that on the one hand, the global has erased place altogether, and on the other hand, globalization has led to a nostalgia or fetishization of the hyperlocal. How do you see the global-local relationship and its impact on design practice and pedagogy?
I have struggled with this question a bit because I have definitely been part of, been complicit in, and pursued academic projects and research inquiries that fall on both sides of the spectrum that Sarah Whiting outlines for us. In my experience, globalization has involved the heavy and paralyzing impact of the spread of information. While communication and transparency have greatly broadened my own education, bringing knowledge and expertise not previously available so readily, this has also quickly created an appetite for the same, where what is deemed “beautiful” melds together in vastly different contexts and solutions are applied universally to places and cultures that have been erased. This is not a new phenomenon though - globalization can also just be interpreted as a new term for colonialism.
I agree that the answer to this is not to fetishize the local and the regional. It is extremely harmful when we romanticize what is very real to communities of people. I think what distinguishes fetishization from true understanding and appreciation is the removal of an agenda. As designers, practitioners, and academics, we often find ourselves pressured to create and produce something fast, which often results in placing our own ideas and our own experiences onto a place, or a client, with whom we are working. This focus on production and speed means our priority is usually not understanding what is local, but instead on forming an analysis of the local. What happens when we remove this agenda and this need for constant progress and just sit and listen to those who will use what we design? The expertise about a place is usually right in front of us. We just have to be willing to slow down and learn.
GC: The trend of designers looking into the ignored urban spaces and conditions can be arguably traced back to Morales when he talked about the Terrain Vague. In recent years, even if only look at the GSD, Sergio has published the book A Glossary of Urban Voids to continue the conversation on seemingly blank spaces, and Silvia’s new book Atmosphere Anatomies tells us that even the empty space is not empty – there is at least the medium of atmosphere. From the materiality to immateriality, and from the sociospatial parameter to the meteorological parameter, the ignored space cannot be simply ignored. My observation is that your research on the weathering landscape is part of this broader discussion since there are original design intentions, people’s memories and the histories of usage hidden behind the decayed landscapes. Is it the right way to interpret your research, and can you talk about why such space is important in the city?
Thank you. Yes, my research on weathering aims to look at these so-called “voids” by understanding the activity that happens when we, the designers, are not, or no longer, looking. I am interested in these interstitial spaces because they reveal how space is actually used - by people, by plants, by animals, by water, etc. It is important to look not just at the new and well-funded landscapes, but also at the sidewalks, the alleyways, and the vacant lots because they are integral to daily life.
I have always found it so special that the longer you look at a detail in the landscape, the more you learn about its narrative and its past. In my elective course at WashU last semester, I had students study one small 5’x5’ area that was on their walk to campus from their home every week. They chose a range of sidewalk conditions, seating areas, and plaza spaces, and had to draw this site in detail thirteen times over the course of the semester. They thought I was crazy! But when we looked back at their drawings at the end of the semester, you could see the subtle changes in materiality and use. Not only that, you could see how the students began to pay attention to these spaces even when I was not giving them an assignment. They started to care for these spaces. There is no such thing as an empty or void space - there is always something happening in the landscape.
Additionally, over the past few years, my interest in weathering has evolved into an interest in maintenance and what happens to designed landscapes after they are built. When working with communities in St. Louis, this has been the first question anyone asks. If we are going to redesign and construct a vacant lot, who is responsible for maintaining it? How do we ensure that this landscape does not become another overgrown lot, where the burden of maintenance work falls on the community? Maintenance changes the perception of a landscape being a void space, to a landscape being a place that is cared for. I think landscape architects need to be more centered in this conversation for every project - not only to design spaces that can be maintained effectively, but also to build partnerships and responsibility for the landscapes we are designing from the beginning of the process.
GC: We keep saying that landscape architects should contribute more to society and have our voices heard by the majority. I notice that you are playing many roles in the field: designer, educator, leader in ASLA, and founder of the WiLa Wikipedia project. How do you manage to balance these roles, and what are their influences on your understanding of landscape architect’s commitment?
I can’t say that I have balanced these roles all that well! More often than not, I feel like I am constantly juggling many hats and it is hard for me to keep one on. I started my career by taking on these roles somewhat haphazardly just because they interested me and I felt I could put my stamp on the profession through them. There was not much of an agenda beyond the fact that I wanted to help create a profession that was more accessible to someone who looks like me. Only recently have I been figuring out that these roles have all taught me how to listen and think critically about our profession, and how I want to design. The Wikipedia Project and my work with ASLA has broadened who I know to be a landscape architect and what a landscape architect does. Teaching has taught me how to communicate with others and how to experiment with ideas. And practice has taught me how to build relationships and realize design ideas. There are so many journeys you can take in landscape architecture, and through these roles I am slowly carving out a place for my own perspectives and experiences.
This text is a SIMPLE VERSION of the original interview. To see the full text in Chinese please go to Guangdong Landscape Architecture Journal volume 01, 2023. Full text in English will be published later in the form of a collection.