Creating an urban oasis

Landscape architect Andrew Grant speaks about his Bangkok's sustainable and liveable future

Andrew Grant is right — Bangkok, he said, seems to lack a strong public idea about landscape. The renowned landscape architect's work have trailblazed and inspired environmental sustainability, incorporating the fundamentals of ecological planting, biodiversity and water use. Grant was recently in town as a guest lecturer at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Architecture.

Gardens by the Bay in Singapore.

The British designer has developed a global reputation for pioneering sustainable landscapes, such as the acclaimed Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, which opened in 2012. He founded Grant Associates, a landscape design company, in 1997. The company has worked on such projects as the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney, Australia, and Kuala Lumpur's new international financial district, the Tun Razak Exchange. In 2012, Grant received the prestigious title of Royal Designer for Industry, a distinction which only 200 designers hold at any one time. Other current holders of the title include Sir Jonathan Ive of Apple and fashion designer Vivienne Westwood.

While in town, Grant spoke with Life.

It is your first time in Bangkok. From a landscape designer's point of view, what does the city make you feel?

I get the sense that there has been, from a design perspective, an opportunity to contribute as a designer. But the opportunity has been quite limited over the last few years. Clearly, as with every big city, every commercial project will have some bit of landscape and you end up designing plantings, balconies, terraces, podiums and maybe water features. But I do not get the sense that there is a strong public idea about landscape here. Opposite the old park [Lumpini Park] that we passed, I was talking to few people. Actually it seems that they may have only been there once. They go there and see it and they don't go back. Maybe that is the wrong impression, but you get the sense that there is actually a bit of big green space in the city but it might not deliver what people want today. Maybe over a hundred years ago it was brilliant. The idea is that there is nothing to get excited about in terms of public parks.

 

Andrew Grant.

You said the small forest sanctuary in Wat Prathumwanaram Temple near Siam Square is highly impressive. You refer to this temple space as "The Forest of Imagination". Can you share your idea behind the term?

"The Forest of Imagination" is for me an idea of urban space, parks and public areas that can be inspirational instead of just a green backdrop. For me, during the last 30, 40 or 50 years, when you think of city planning and urban landscape, you have a number of typologies of landscapes. You have playing fields, regional parks or neighbourhood parks and it becomes a sort of formula. Everyone goes into it the same way but none of them offer a place with emotional and inspirational impact. In Bath, England, we created a four-day event in July by transforming a conventional 19th-century garden at Sion Hill into a magical parallel universe that can make people think about how to use and enjoy the space and be more creative. The sort of stimulated feeling I get from Wat Pathumwanaram temple's ambience — the sound of birds, colour, crafts and statues — are like the sources of ambience we created in Bath. I think there should be more places like this.

You worked in many cities in Southeast Asia and Asia. What do you see as major problems in the region?

You cannot be generic. In some places there might be something quite magical, like the temple [Wat Pathumwanaram] in which we are conducting this interview at the moment. If you go to Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Bangalore, the problems have been created by 20 or 30 years of crazy road and highway constructions. Cars and cities destroyed communities and everyone is trying to find a way to repair the damage. Getting commuters and people into public transport systems is a hugely important solution, which in theory should give opportunities for us to help repair the problem.

What are the urgent steps that need to be taken in order to design landscapes for a sustainable and liveable city?

For me, one of the key things is to communicate. We need to make people understand that the idea is that we have to live on the ground. For us to make a more liveable and sustainable city, we can't just create that space up in the sky. People need to know that we can't survive if we cannot have space for big trees, where we can have water, and bring in wildlife. We need to make sure that we protect and preserve plots of land on the ground, which is just full of those things.

What is your vision for Asia — and for Bangkok?

That is not easy answer. I think the landscape needs to have space to provide capacity for the design, the management to deliver a whole range of different uses. You may think of it as green infrastructure that can provide many functions, such as shelter, shade, air temperature, water management, biodiversity. These are big things that stitch the whole city together as a green web, corridors, spaces. I am absolutely convinced that those green elements are parts of the mechanics of a future city that have to be built in to make it sustainable in the long-term. But before that, we urgently have to replace the mentality of "highways are good" with "green infrastructures are better".

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