Yu Kongjian is the architect who befriends the floods


That night I had the opportunity to observe Yu in his natural habitat. He escorted Geng and me into the club through a set of etched metal doors and across the courtyard, where the traditional stone floor had been replaced by thick glass. Inside, he led us down the stairs to a huge table under that transparent floor. As we sat on ornate and carved chairs sipping bright green cucumber juice, I looked up at the moon. The finance ministers were also visiting the club that night, so Yu rotated between our tables. Before we left, he gave me a memory: a heavy tome titled Designed Ecologies: Kongjian Yu’s Landscape Architecture. After dinner, his driver took us in a brand new Mercedes minivan to my hotel, where Yu walked home, his daily routine.

A week later, I visited one of Turenscape’s ongoing projects: Yongxing River Park, located in Daxing, a remote neighborhood in Beijing. Satellite images from the “Before” three years earlier showed a river straightened and confined by steep concrete walls. The “Now” images were replete with buildings around a winding path more generous for water.

The project was almost finished when I saw it. About two and a half miles long and perhaps two blocks wide, the park follows the river. Workers removed concrete along the river channel and excavated soil to widen the river bed. Then that land was molded into a large berm that ran through the center, creating two canals. The river flows on one side; the other channel has large holes of different depths that act as filtration pools. During the dry season, the filtration side is filled with partially cleaned effluent from a wastewater treatment plant. The wetland plants in the pools clean it further, and the slow pace allows some water to seep underground. During the monsoon season, that channel is reserved for flooding and the effluent is treated industrially.

Beijing Yongxing River Greenway
Beijing Yongxing River Greenway

TURENSCAPE

Geng and I walked down a narrow concrete path above the center berm. Many of Turenscape’s designs feature walkways like this one, which rise above the wetlands, so people can enter the landscape year-round and appreciate the changes from season to season. The broader riverbanks, freshly freed from the concrete, are dotted with thousands of small sedges planted in rows tightly placed to hold the land, like a rendered pointillist landscape. We pass young willows, a native creek plant that can survive flooding. Elsewhere, reeds, dwarf lilyturf, and other native plants stabilize the soil. Turenscape primarily uses native plants in its designs because they thrive on available water, climate, and nutrients.

In the summer of 2020, during the heavy summer rains, Yu sent me photos of the Yongxing River Park. The trees and grass had grown considerably since I visited them. The canal contained a lot of water but was nowhere near overflowing. Turenscape does not yet have data on Yongxing’s flooding capacity, infiltration rate or water cleaning services, but Yu called its management of the monsoon that year a “great performance.”


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