Zhu Renmin made fifty-four trips over six years to a 10,000 mu (667 hectare) saline-alkaline desertified marsh in China's sandstorm-prone west, restoring it into the only "national wetland park" in the west or along the Yellow River Basin.
Yinchuan's winters are sunny. In this broad expanse of more than 13,000 mu (867 hectares) of barren, flat land, a lone willow tree stands on the vanishing horizon, like a pale gold impressionist painting.
The wind is still, the water calm. Neither shadows nor sunlight are perceptible in the dusk. This is the natural course of things in the winter. Where are the Azure Dragon and the White Tiger? Where are the Vermilion Bird and the Black Tortoise? [Note: These ancient mythological creatures are the Four Symbols of the Chinese constellations. They correspond to the four cardinal directions and four seasons. These celestial deities are important for astrological orientation in fengshui.] Who will tap into the qi (life force) of the dragon veins (the earth’s underground meridians)? This is necessary to determine the precise geomantic orientations on this 13,000 mu of sand.
Gripping the topographical map, I stirred up the dry loess with the toe of my shoe over and over again. Where did this strong and lush old willow tree on the Northwest China plain come from? Regardless of its origin, the water source that nurtures such life must be plentiful beneath this site! Undoubtedly, in the coming spring and summer, I will turn it into a place of splendid beauty, reminiscent of the region south of the Yangtze River. I will release this body of water onto this site and use it to delineate a verdant maze.
I held my breath and caught a hint of flavor, a gentle breeze, a handful of loess, a ladle of lake water, and distinctly heard the sound of thousands of acres of marsh reeds swaying; clearly saw the light and shadow of millions of waterfowl taking flight. This thin, watery sound and elusive image weave the park into its natural ecology. Here is where I found the qualities, order, and artistic naturalism I sought. I dared not give even the slightest offense to the celestial or earthly spirits, so I placed a thousand-step-long covered bridge very carefully on the southeast axis of this site. This boardwalk, constructed on a light frame, cuts across the park from north to south without disturbing the terrain.
--Ecology is the soul and life here.
Zhu Renmin, Spring 2001
Before the end of the last century, not quite yet 1999, a group of proprietors in Western China’s Ningxia Autonomous Region announced that they would openly recruit bona fide designers domestically and internationally in order to complete the two famous tourist sites in that region, the Yellow River Cultural Tourism District and the Wetland Ecological Resort. A delegation led by the director of the Science and Technology Department of the autonomous region and the head of the state-owned assets company was sent to visit the six coastal provinces. Each province selected three first-class big-name design agencies to confer with and make inquiries about these projects. They hoped during that period to carefully select the most suitable designers for the Western Development Strategy to undertake the task of completing these two important scenic areas, which consist of more than 10,000 mu. At the time, I was the dean of the School of Landscape Architecture and Design at the China Academy of Art. The design institute at that time was still in its early stages, but it was well-known in the region.
So I sat down for a solo meeting with the delegation, and the design concept of a West Lake landscape struck me. This sparked the interest of the western guests and they suddenly asked, “This West Lake concept is brilliant. I have been waiting for this for ten years. The natural environment of West Lake is lush; whatever is planted here grows well. Whereas the west is just a patch of wind-blown sand; whatever we plant dies quickly. How would you deal with this?" Well, wow! I excitedly exclaimed, "A patch of wind-blown sand! Whatever is planted dies. It’s this that I want. As an Easterner visiting the West, why would I travel so far to see what’s already in my backyard? Wouldn't I just go to the West Lake to see it? Would I not go to the South to see it? I intently said: I go to the West to see the vast expanse of desert, a pillar of smoke rising into the sky, the orb-like sun setting over the Yellow River [a quote from Wang Wei’s Tang Dynasty poem "Sent As an Envoy to an Imperial Border Stronghold"]. Are there trees in Mecca? What about in Dunhuang? Do the pyramids have trees? Why do tourists flock there? --Because there is culture! There is history! There is religion! Desolation is also a kind of culture! Give this historical barrenness and desolation a complete makeover and sell it. My creative idea is “selling desolation”, “selling the desert”, “selling hardship.” The proprietor excitedly said that he had never heard of such a thing, so he was pleased beyond expectation, and decided on this idea.
Trust is power. I put aside my multi-faceted work at the design institute and, with a hero’s hesitation, embarked on the six-year journey to develop the West.
What the old willow tree conveyed -- Here was once a wetland
When I stepped onto the original site of the park, one unusually inspired scholar from Eastern China, I was filled with boundless passion for every part of the park. I conducted a site survey that had already changed the Yellow River “red” with success. An expanse of fine, ocher-yellow sand, more than ten thousand mu, stretched to the western horizon. It gave me a feeling of “The sky was black and earth yellow; space and time vast, limitless.” (This is the first line from “The Thousand Character Classic”).
Suddenly I found a tiny gray speck on the horizon of the park’s vast desert. The drive amazed me! In this world of grays and yellows, how is there such an old willow tree, big enough to wrap your arms around, standing alone in the cold with its indomitable spirit? How mighty, how obstinate, how bleak! The setting sun drags its shadows out longer and longer. Whether or not it has quietly waited for me for thousands of years, it is silently telling me: underneath is the wetland that historically surrounded Yinchuan. Since it has a hundred-year-old willow tree, it must contain a plentiful underground water source, otherwise how could the old willow tree be so lush and green? Although the park’s water and soil is extremely saline-alkaline, the old willow tree at least has a fresh water source, not to mention the Yellow River is only ten kilometers away from the site. This scientific rationale gives one hope, encouraging spirit and strength. It confirms my original hope to squeeze in the lushness of the Yangtze here. Restoring the ecology, history and rehabilitating all parts of the Yellow River Hetao Plain became my primary objective in building this park.
I abandoned the creative goal I had promised the proprietors of “selling desolation, selling the desert, selling hardship." It is decided to build a deep jade-green Yangtze River region in this expanse of yellow sand, so that the old willow tree will forever authenticate the history of this time and space, as well as everything the people of Eastern China have done for this site. So I surveyed the tens of kilometers of boundless sand, investigated the local geological history of the land, and browsed materials on the local culture. I told the proprietors that I’d pay the funds myself to do exploratory excavations and uncover the water, according to my plan to restore the site’s Yangtze River lushness. If I can't uncover the water, I’ll pay the tens of thousands of earth-boring fees. The mayor said to do what the experts suggested, but not to hire them for pay. The din of bulldozers rang out across the 10,000 mu of desert sands in my plan.
Creating a relationship between ecological protection and use of the park
After more than half a year of surveying and excavation, the park was remarkably transformed. Its natural spirit, the changes in its vertical landforms, and alterations in the water level of the Yellow River, along with data reports on groundwater levels all conveyed the park’s verdant splendor, in sync with the Chinese character “Cui,” which means “emerald green.” Historically the site was originally a natural body of water and reed marsh environment. I began to excavate, restore and strengthen these rare ecological specimens of China’s western region. Even though there is water in the park, it is saline-alkaline and so cannot be used for irrigation. Even if it could be irrigated, the salinized soil cannot be cultivated. Our method is to 1) extract and reduce the alkalinity of the soil, 2) select a variety of reed that can grow in saline-alkaline water, and 3) deposit artificial soil for cultivation. Each tree has sprouted verdant foliage. I hope that after three years the reeds will be seamlessly woven into the natural environment. Of course, natural scenery is not like that of a garden. Only through the selection of elements and materials and the layout and composition of the different sections can we make the environmental landscape align with the public’s perception of a park. Here is where the customs of the area south of the Yangtze River are realized. The local circumstances and artistic concepts preserve the “emerald green” quality of the site forever, and make it into a great place for people to relax and stay healthy together.
Planning for ecological protection and utilization
The site is naturally trapezoidal. The park is laid out according to each section’s topology. The ecological zone around the central part is divided into three equal sections. I have divided this into three functional areas: the eastern, central and western districts. These protected ecological sections are also divided into active use areas, quiet areas, transitional areas, and absolute ecological areas. This has led to a perfect balance between protection and utility, gloriously uniting these two aspects. If one loses, they all lose. This was still a practice in China at that time.
1. The main functions of the Eastern District are gatherings and leisure activities. This section is comprised of the water viewing platform, the six bridges of the eastern embankment, the leisure center, villas, and so on. This section belongs to the active use area, with aspects of both movement and stillness.
2. The Central District is an ecological zone and is the soul of the park. The ecological zone is bounded by a thousand-step covered bridge and can be divided into a reed maze zone and a completely protected zone. In this area, we set up an observation tower to monitor and inspect the ecological system as well as the safety of the tourists in the ecological zone and throughout the entire park. This strictly prohibits any people or objects with pollution from entering the park and also acts as the tourism information center. This area is bounded by a covered bridge, with an ecological maze zone to the north and an absolute ecological zone to the south. The ecological maze zone is a relatively quiet area. It restricts access to visitors in pollution-free vessels for sightseeing cruises, while to the south, all people and vehicles are forbidden in the absolute ecological zone. Installed in the center of that zone is a bird island, where birds can live, roost, and breed in a completely natural habitat. This is an absolute quiet zone.
3. The West District is the main tourist area and control center of the park. The principle tourist facilities, such as the main entrance, the observation deck, the food and beverage center, park management and the cruise ship terminal, are all located here. At the same time, large-scale land greening has become an ecological component of the entire park. This is an active zone where the flow is not impeded. The two major sections of the East and West Districts face one another and share the ecological landscape of the Central District. In order to resolve the contradiction between tourism and ecology, a transitional zone has been set up between the eastern and western regions and the central region. The principle of strengthening environmental protection measures in the transitional zone guarantees that the ecological environment of the Central District will be absolutely protected. The transitional zone is divided mainly by bodies of water, making it easy to control and isolate. A controlled thousand-step covered bridge acts as the only thoroughfare between the east and west districts, effectively ensuring the environmental protection of the ecological zone. For example, there are two transitional zones in the three major districts, one each in the east and west districts. The thousand-step covered bridge that runs through those districts cuts through the main functional sections of the park. The ecology has been put to use while at the same time it is being consciously protected and developed. When people are immersed in the natural scenery of the region south of the Yangtze River, they will understand that we have used, renewed and developed history, creating a relationship between ecological protection and utilization.
We pay attention to the relationship between the three sections of the park -- the active, the quiet, and the active -- and the park’s theme as a whole. This relationship requires us to focus our attention on the transformation of the functional space in the broad expanse of this park. We considered each space from the perspectives of its scale, shape, topology, and specific characteristics, so as to better adjust and express the functions of each section within the theme, and connect them in a series of amazing/imperceptible and ever-changing routes. Planning here is two-dimensional, but the designer's mind must be three-dimensional or even multi-dimensional, full of color and life.
We set up a command post in each of the three districts of the park. First of all, these form a stable center in the park’s triangle. Along with the park’s entrances and exits and its ecological zones, they enclose and connect the space of the entire park. The three points of the triangle are the central points of the eastern, central and western districts, and also the high points of the central part of the park. From any position in the park, one can appreciate the stability of this triangle.
The three points, lines and faces of the triangle contain within them the essential characteristics and key elements of the park. From the observation deck to the observation tower and then to the water viewing platform, the thousand-step covered bridge connects the two major active use areas in the east and the west districts, which are both distinct from and in harmony with one another, indicative of the uniquely beautiful landscape of the Lake Mingcui Park. From the covered bridge in the center of the landscape, a teahouse has been set up with a road and the observation tower to the north and south. The bridge runs through the center line of the triangle which forms the central axis of the park, further emphasizing the significance and liveliness of the center. Analyzing the lines and surveying the landscape established the stability of the central idea and pattern of the enclosed central space of Mingcui Lake Park.
Reeds are the largest eco-art creative element in the park.
In promoting holistic “green” initiatives, I consider myself lucky that the original vegetation around the site-- the reeds-- thrive so easily. These will-o’-the-wisps are endlessly prolific. Each spring breeze gives life again to the West’s most outstanding greenery. As long as there is a little salt water, the reeds will spread unexpectedly, quickly propagating to take over all the sites in the park’s plan. This enabled the absolute ecological zone in my plan to take shape quickly. Its immense and well-developed root system, nourished by the Yellow River system, kneads the yellow sands of the west tightly together to form a complex and enormous water filtration system, providing an excellent breeding site for hundreds of millions of insects, fish and birds in this western desert. The reeds attract insects, and insects attract fish and frogs, which attract birds. This enormous patch of reed marshes, covering thousands of mu, provides the best habitat in the west for the migratory birds of the south. This is an unimaginable scene of western wetland ecology. I really don’t understand how the long-horned beetles destroyed all the white poplars. But the reeds are practically indestructible. Their robust health has astonished me.
In the spring and summer of the following year, the plan’s absolute ecological zone quickly took shape, and naturally became a green functioning part according to its landmark status. We managed to achieve an orderly and regulated water channel according to the plan. Accounting for tourists, birdlife and the entire ecosystem, we leveled land at the riversides, and built beaches, river mouths, ports, harbors, and overflow sites, forming the first phase of the water maze, which has become a major highlight of western ecological landscapes.
In the face of such a vast tract of reeds, I was very excited to devote myself to this long-term process of artistic creation. The park landscape faces the maximum degree of social use. The reed marsh landscape here is not only a matter of ecology and beauty. Its immense size and extraordinary nature can become a vehicle for certain artistic ideas, and it can express various forms. It can also generate artistic terrain designs and visual advertising designs for the park, as well as compete for additional and more extensive artistic and cultural concepts. By chance, a divine light came to rest and my mind flashed: Is this not a great work of land art?
On the base of the maze during the first stage, I designed and built four bird figures of approximately one kilometer in length, installing them on every side of the maze. They revolved around it, moving in cycles to spread their wings and flutter around. On behalf of the West, the park, the ecology and tourism, I have created something truly unique -- the ecological work of the century. Although it is man-made, it looks natural. It is my “In Praise of Reeds” (a poem by the contemporary poet Meishanzi). The plan is to create a performance art style of the world's largest land artwork on the lake each winter when it freezes over, using bulldozers and helicopters. I proposed that the proprietors buy a hot air balloon and charge fifty RMB per person for visitors to watch this land art performance.
The park’s reed maze is currently the world’s largest environmentally friendly work of land art. The maze pattern consists of four enormous birds, each with a diameter of 1.5 kilometers. This has yielded environmental protection through artistic means. It is Zhu Renmin’s pioneering work of environmental tourism expressed through art in the desert of western China. Five types of reed grow freely here, flourishing even more than the reeds in southern China.
The interaction between ecology and function is a significant innovation in the park.
The interaction between ecology and art is a significant innovation that integrates function, art and ecology within the park. The environmentalism sweeping the world continues to make designers and planners to prioritize “ecology.” Even though compared to Europe and America, we have only recently begun this task, our designers’ sense of environmental responsibility is at a historical height, at pace with the rest of the world. Link your own mission to the entire planet and humanity. Respect nature, restore ecology, and advocate the preservation and recycling of energy and materials. Use local materials as much as possible. Reduce energy consumption in manufacturing, processing, and transportation, and reduce damage and waste on construction sites. Environmentalism was a central component of the entire design and construction of the park, from beginning to end. Thank Heaven for giving me a good "proprietor.” Through six years of park construction, he followed my complete development of the site, and seemed to have finished reading my entire doctoral curriculum, going from respect to worship even to superstition. So, our pursuit of ecology has surpassed the pursuit of function and form. What wonderful and touching progress this is. Such a transformation in the proprietors’ ecological perspective is incredibly difficult to achieve in China. Given this, what can’t we overcome?
After settling on a water system plan with ecological aims, the chief task was to complete the excavation for the water system layout before the arrival of the harsh western winter. And use the excavated earth to make the necessary changes to the park’s vertical orientation. On the slopes, platforms, embankments, mounds and greening projects, revetments, whether using natural or artificial water filtration systems, we consistently pursued the most efficient use of water sources, reducing water consumption by various methods.
In the context of China’s West, historical and cultural heritage is deeply rooted in development and construction. The park’s construction provides a particularly powerful example of this. The regional and individualized historical culture, combined with the needs and analysis of the spiritualism of the times, form the current "contextualism.” Context
Ideology is the indispensable soul of all successful landscape design. We have to mine this to its full extent, especially in the west.
In the construction of each park, the context is realized through various means, and art is the most ideal vehicle for achieving this. Through the artistic process, whether it’s via communication, or metaphor, decoration, exaggeration or imitation,
the relationship between the deep structure of the historical context and the functional needs of the public is established. Every corner of the park is filled with the light of art, thought and culture.
We are not involved in worldwide debates on the history of architecture and landscape, but in this timespan, we are qualified to select the requirements of the regional culture. Postmodernism, artivism, localism, figurativism, contextualism, minimalism... Regardless of the -ism, generally, throughout the world, the works that are handed down are not based on artistic merit; only functional perfection can be cherished for generations.
Art is the best way to reflect the context.
A park needs to clearly convey its theme and cultural connotation to the public. It’s necessary to come up with an idea for a logo that flattens this theme and expresses it three-dimensionally. It will become a main element throughout the construction of the park, so that it is everywhere and constantly in one’s mind, yet not changed from its roots.
When the bodies of water and the reeds became the park’s most vivid main images, I continuously searched for the essence of its spirit and meaning. I had been ruminating over the concepts of environmental protection and “green” issues for a long time, and thought hard about this in a disorderly, abstract sense, ultimately to no end.
One day at the construction site residence, I happened to glance up and see the shadow of my own hand under the lamplight. I swiftly put my hands together into the shape of a bird. I was thrilled: Yes! Birds! They are the representatives of all the park’s living things, and are indicators of the park’s environmental protection standards. Birds are the best natural judges of the quality of environmental protection initiatives. Where there are birds, there are frogs; where there are frogs, there are insects; where there are insects, there are grasses; and where there are grasses, there is water. Consequently the park is a tightly woven ecosystem. I incorporated bird imagery into all architectural, structural, and sculptural elements. And I had the idea to bestow it with wings spreading out to fly, perhaps an inspirational image! Six years later, dozens of species of waterfowl, numbering in the millions, have made their homes in the park, making it one of the most extraordinary landscapes in Western China.
The Humanistic Art of Gardening in this Era
Since historical times, from imperial gardens to private ones, to modern public parks, the history of the development of gardens is a history of the development of the arts and humanities. Chinese gardening today is not nearly as elaborate as it was historically, when gardens were cultivated primarily by aristocratic literati, officials, and imperial houses. Arts and humanities, as expressed through the style and form of gardening, reflect the historical and national cultural context of the time. Historically the humanities held the “return to Nature” form of gardening in high regard. This was also the aesthetic manifestation of Chinese culture. Under the dominant culture of literati and government officials, Chinese gardening reached the pinnacle of perfection. Gardens like those in Suzhou are indeed recognized by global architecture circles as unparalleled achievements in architecture and gardening. Gardens today, in contrast, are mainly engineering projects funded by the government or by wealthy or powerful people. Moving the trees to create a lawn. These various forms of architectural styles all lack creativity. Typically they’re just secondhand international junk. There are thousands everywhere, and they’re all the same. Someone puts up capital and then they’re manufactured carelessly. Very few of China’s top humanistic artists are involved in gardening today. Instead, this earth-shaking urbanization movement is dominated by those seeking to show off their image and flaunt their political achievements. Gardens require financial resources and authority, both of which humanities scholars lack. Gardening also requires physical strength, but humanities scholars tend to be rather effete. As a result, top-tier humanistic artists of this era have mostly withdrawn from the ranks of gardening. This has produced major shortcomings in current Chinese-style gardening. On the other hand, contemporary Chinese scholars also tend to lack the thinking and spirit of traditional culture, not to mention that they are detached from the land, buildings, design and construction work, and have little interest in or familiarity with gardens. We only hope that our colleges and universities will cultivate artists and designers who possess the spirit of our great national culture, inheriting the essence of traditional gardening culture and becoming the eco-designers of this era. Presumably after we have made great progress in this era’s gardening movement, we can reflect soberly on the lessons we have learned, and create gardens with the distinct characteristics of both traditional Chinese natural landscape gardens and eco-friendly gardens.
The park's buildings are characterized by waterfowl and local cultural elements.
The buildings in the park are small and refined, and they are situated in the core area of the park. In order to avoid disturbing the birds’ habitat, the buildings are far from the ecological area, and their main colors are white, sandy yellow and the color of the stones of Helan Mountain. White symbolizes ecological purity and the waves of bodies of water. Yellow is derived from the color of this local sand, and the stones of Helan Mountain. This represents the local culture and history, giving people a sense of affinity and familiarity. Regarding the design of these buildings, I did not have any of the usual difficulty in constructing the site, no inaccurate drawings or other complicating circumstances. The difficulty was how to use this land’s space in a distinct and artistically significant manner, in line with its natural properties. With regards to the architectural form, I made all the buildings into the simplest rectangular and cylindrical blocks. The usage rate was as frugal yet abundant as possible. It was only on the décor of the buildings’ façades that I truly racked my brain. It looks simple but actually I made no fewer than thirty or fifty plans for the buildings. Fortunately at that time one could still buy large quantities of stones from Helan Mountain, which became the main material for the buildings’ façade. At that time, the buildings I designed used the stones of Helan Mountain. Later, due to numerous copycats, the stones on Helan Mountain were largely destroyed and became controlled.
The tower was designed as a vantage point for the entire park, a symbolic structure created to control all sides. At the time, the design did not yet take into account the safety problems caused by the reed maze construction. Many tourists entered the maze but could not get out. This endangered people's lives. Now there are vertical markers to help visitors identify their location. The top of the tower was originally a bird's nest. I came up with this idea long before the Olympic bird’s nest. But for various reasons, the bird's nest I designed was changed into a "rice bowl." This was disappointing, but at least it was completed. It is not easy in the west. At that time, the funds were extremely limited. Even now, several major designs, including the Thousand-Step Covered Bridge and the International Leisure Center, among others, have not yet been constructed. Even so, the western proprietors have created a truly unique work of ecological land art.