Perspectives: You Wu
April 26, 2020
You Wu, RLA, ASLA, is a landscape architect with OLIN in Philadelphia. After receiving a BA and MFA in Landscape Design from Tsinghua University, he earned an MLA from the University of Pennsylvania. Through his practice and research, You concentrates on the identity of places through the sophisticated and integrated design approaches of physical, cultural, and social perspectives.
What drew you to landscape architecture?
This question ties to the topic of my ontology. My understanding of ontology is that it is the origin of individual existence. It is related to personal identity and will sculpt the characteristics of a person. In my case, I was born into a family of academics. My parents are both chair professors and designers. My father’s research and practice focus on landscape and interior design. Through his introduction, my attention was captivated by drawings of different vernacular dwellings in China, and I was attracted by the variety and diversity of those buildings. I wondered how the form of those buildings reflected the locality.
My dreams evolved when I saw my father’s landscape project, a large city plaza that accommodated thousands of people. I was surprised by how a designed place could improve the quality of the urban environment and affect people’s daily life. That was the first time I realized I have a specific interest in landscape, especially the diversity and identity of living environments. I chose Landscape Design as my major when I went to Tsinghua University, then went to the University of Pennsylvania and received my second master degree in Landscape Architecture. What I learned at Tsinghua opened my mind to art and design, and what I learned at Penn brought me to a more dynamic and complicated world ranging from urban parks to regional planning.
What is driving you professionally right now?
I am enthusiastic about exploring and reshaping the genius loci of a place through sophisticated design approaches. This idea came from my educational background and practice experiences, including a Transformational Leadership course supervised by Lucinda Sanders. My research focuses on several related questions, including: How and when do designed landscapes reinforce cultural identity? What does transience or temporal process mean to designed landscapes? How do people that belong to different cultural backgrounds appreciate landscapes? How does this affect aesthetics? The larger purpose of these questions is to define landscape projects within the context of nature and culture, and then explore how landscape architecture can shape cultural identity and spatial characteristics.
Moreover, distinguishing spatial characteristics of a site requires understanding the spirit of a place and its surrounding context, including physical elements, cultural perspectives, and social influences. Since 2016, I have been developing my design methodology at OLIN, which carries core values of social equity and engagement in our professional field. The broader mission is to design a place that can enhance people’s lives. An example of this is an ongoing project, the National Desert Storm and Desert Shield Memorial in Washington, DC. One of the main goals of this project is to balance the site’s functions as a memorial and public gathering space on the National Mall and to provide a more engaging and vivid public space to the local community and visitors.
What challenges is landscape architecture allowing you to address right now?
In the age of a “flat world,” it is now required to identify a specific position more than ever. As oriental culture meets western culture, and as tradition meets modernity, crucial questions in our field are: What is the emerging cultural identity? And how can we physically represent it? Facing changes of context from modernity to postmodernity, landscape architecture has been less involved in art movements. In Weilacher’s words, “The aesthetic quality in landscape architecture was abandoned in favour of functional, sociological and ecological considerations.” The way that people appreciate the landscape has been less considered through the cultural aspect.
Understanding that we live at a historical turning point would help us identify the questions and dilemmas we are facing. Primarily, we live in an era of postmodern culture that “erases the distinctions between modern and classical or traditional culture”. Rem Koolhaas captured the critical character of postmodernity with his term “culture of congestion.” We need to embrace the culture of congestion and identify both its chronologic and geographical differences.
What challenge would you give emerging leaders?
Rather than drawing conclusions about the ever-changing profession of landscape architecture, I would encourage redefining our dynamic field. Consumerism and the capital-driven market have undervalued the potential and impact of research in the practice of landscape architecture. It is becoming more and more urgent to bridge theory and practice.
As a declaration, the Design with Nature Now symposium at Penn pushes the rethinking and extending of Ian McHarg’s legacy by addressing serious issues of the contemporary urban and natural environment. And OLIN has developed OLIN Lab, which provides the groundwork for primary research initiatives and education opportunities. As an integral member of the Tech Lab, I researched and explored VR technology as a new tool for both the design process and immersive representation.
Where do you think the profession needs to go from here?
Clearly, no single solution can solve the complicated issues in the urban environment. This requires an advanced model of collaboration across many disciplines. We need to move quickly and learn from other professions. For example, in the wake of COVID-19, public health professions have concentrated on studies related to health issues of the urban spatial environment. How can our profession respond to the newest challenges and get involved in advanced collaboration?
Furthermore, predominant design principles and philosophy have been influenced by the problem-solving methodology in the past few decades. Therefore, our profession needs the evolution of imagination. As landscape architects, we need to hold a twofold critical gesture – one to understand the mechanism of the blended society, and the other to relate transformational culture to the poetic quality of the landscape.
LAF's Perspectives interview series showcases landscape architects from diverse backgrounds discussing how they came to the profession and where they see it heading. Any opinions expressed in this interview belong solely to the author. Their inclusion in this article does not reflect endorsement by LAF.