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Students Turn ‘Blank Sheet’ Into Gardens

Students Turn ‘Blank Sheet’ Into Gardens
Columbia University's "Eco_Plane" explores man-made landscapes and natural ones.

In Xi’an, a city of more than 8.2 million residents, a “blank sheet of land” at the city’s northeast region will soon become awash in color, as envisioned by graduate architecture students from California, London, New York, Canada, South America and the Pacific Rim.

The city of Xi’an has pledged more than 100,000 square feet (10,000 square meters) to Qingyun Ma, dean of the USC School of Architecture, and the USC American Academy in China to create permanent gardens for China’s ancient capital.

During the Tang dynasty, epic poems spoke of the rivers and creeks running through the heart of Xi’an, then the most populous city in the world.

Today, this same landscape has lost the battle with human expansion. The nineties saw massive growth for Xi’an, leaving the ChanBa district, where the city’s main waterways meet, a colorless landscape of skeletal trees and bulldozed earthen mounds.

Ma has a different vision for his native city in Western China, perhaps most famous as home to the terra cotta warriors.

“There is an old Chinese saying,” Ma said. “You grow the trees — the shade will be enjoyed by your children.”

Ten selected schools led by USC, including Columbia University, Architectural Association (U.K.), Hong Kong University, University of Toronto, Universidad Torcuato Di Tella (Argentina), Peking University, Feng Chia University, University of California, Berkeley and University of St. Joseph (Macau) each have taken their own individual parcel of land and responded with a variation on the theme of “Creative Nature.”

The student designs for the “Creative Nature” gardens initially will be displayed in Shanghai from July 10 to Aug. 7 as part of a landscape design exhibition organized by the USC American Academy. The fully built and implemented gardens will be ready for the April 11, 2011 opening of the 2011 Xi’an World Horticultural Expo, an event expected to lure some 10 million visitors to Xi’an.

“Rapidly growing cities require attention to places for exercise and natural light. Social and cultural well-being requires places for community and exchange,” said Robert Harris, director of the USC Master of Landscape Architecture program.

Highlights of the “Creative Nature” gardens:

USC School of Architecture’s “Sky Garden” encourages visitors to “get lost in the sky” through such elements as a solar atrium and a sky reflection garden inspired by puddles of water. Designed by USC Master of Landscape Architecture students Bohua Xu and Rui Wang with USC School of Architecture lecturer Alexander Robinson.

Hong Kong University’s “Wind Poem” acknowledges its windy site with a wind-swept plan and wind towers.

Columbia University’s “Eco_Plane” is a man-made wetland that explores “edge conditions between water and land, and between man-made landscapes and natural ones.”

Universidad Torcuato Di Tella’s “Pampas Traces” recreates the feeling of Argentinean wheat fields with Chinese plants lit by LED stalks.

University of Toronto’s “Scent Garden” selects plants for their smell and then boosts the experience with artificial-scent poles.

“When people see the word ‘nature,’ they might think of mountains on a camping trip or forests in a fairy tale — the ‘untouched’ landscapes that stand in sharp contrast to man-made urban-scapes,” said “Creative Nature” curator Clare Jacobson, a design writer in Shanghai and former editor at the Princeton Architectural Press.

“But in truth, all nature that comes in contact with mankind is in some ways shaped by that contact, either physically manipulated or mentally appropriated. ‘Creative Nature’ recognizes a purposeful approach to interacting with nature, one that brings design intentions to the relationship,” Jacobson said.

As Jacobson noted, the famous gardens from history — the Gardens of Versailles, Ryoan-ji Zen Garden, Central Park — “were not designed as loving tributes to the existing environment, but as laboratories of landscape theory.”

For the USC American Academy in China, launched by Ma in 2008 to unite the shared China interests of universities worldwide, “Creative Nature” marks its second major exhibition. “Divergent Convergence,” last summer’s American Academy in China exhibition in Shanghai, focused on the future of the city and Chinese urbanism.

“Landscape is an all encompassing idea,” Ma said. “It’s everything under the sky. In China, we witness the density has gone so high; the city becomes intolerable. Green space becomes deprived.”

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