Stories: In the FOREST

It Does Get Better with Time: Attitudes are Maturing in China.


The forest is a metaphor for longevity, diversity and permanence, but more than a design idea and a project name, it represents a shift in attitude in certain corners of the Chinese development community away from stylistic applications toward the real. For too long, working as a designer in developing markets has required a willingness to leave important questions unasked, and much of our training at home. However, many years of relationship building and the loudening voices of a younger generation of Chinese designers and managers are beginning to pay off.

In the Forest is a mixed-use development in a fast growing third-tier city, that could easily have followed the typical model for such a development, where uses don’t actually mix and green space is a covering for a parking garage, linking the lifespan of a living landscape to the lifespan of underground reinforced concrete, always a disturbing marriage for a landscape architect taught to believe that all landscapes, natural or man-made, get better with time. However, the long relationship and trust built with this client, new young managers and even the fact that Changsha is a city somewhat out of the spotlight were all factors that suggested an open, experimental approach to the design process. Aki Omi's team, which would soon become office ma was invited into the planning process at the very beginning of site selection. Young managers at Vanke welcomed their questions and ultimately joined in asking even more. Foremost among those questions from the developer’s side is how to remain competitive with the next shiny object.

In the Forest emerged as an antidote, where natural processes, change-over-time and permanence are community benefits that permeate the residential development. Multiple life-stages and generations can be accommodated within this single development so that families living In the Forest can mature along with it. An existing stand of forest on the site, including a fine old specimen Camphor tree, legitimized the emerging concept of living In the Forest as a typology for the whole project. That camphor is treated with reverence and the space around it as a gallery. Preserving it became a significant challenge while raising the entire site grade by 10 meters. The resulting retaining walls and the artificial geology expressed in the carefully crafted banding of stone colors within the walls, heightens the impact of the 100 year old tree as the singular symbol of life In the Forest.

by Steve Hanson