The Beautiful Big-Foot

Toward a New Landscape Aesthetic

By Kongjian Yu

The Red Ribbon (Tanghe River Park) uses minimal intervention to turn nature into aesthetically attractive, urban green space. Against the background of natural terrain and vegetation, the landscape architect placed a 500-meter, red-ribbon bench integrating lighting, seating, environmental interpretation and orientation.

“Little-Foot” Aesthetics

For almost a thousand years Chinese girls were forced to bind their feet so they could marry citified elites; their natural “big” feet were associated with provincial people and rustic life. At first, foot binding was the sole privilege of the high-class. The practice flourished until the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Respected intellectuals wrote poems and created paintings praising artificial, tiny feet, while today they would be considered grotesque and abused. Painters portrayed classic Chinese beauties with small feet, flat breasts, tiny waists and white skin, which was in stark contrast to the strong and healthy peasant girls of the day. For a long time the beautiful have been viewed as necessarily unproductive and exempt from the “crude” survival-oriented processes of nature.

This definition of beauty and its connection with high-status urbanites is not unique to Chinese culture. Pre-Hispanic Mayan priests and nobles deformed their children’s bodies in a quest for social status. Their “beautiful” features – sloping foreheads, almond-shaped eyes, large noses, and drooping lower lips – today seem as grotesque as bound feet.

For thousands of years the urban elite worldwide have maintained the right to define beauty and good taste in their assertion of superiority and power. Bound feet and deformed heads are among thousands of cultural practices that served to elevate city sophisticates above rural bumpkins and reject nature’s inherent goals of health, survival and productivity; now landscaping and city building are the most visible and extensive instances of this tendency.

“Little-Foot Urbanism” is the art of gentrification and cosmetics. Its superficial nature replaces the messy, fertile and functional landscapes associated with healthy productive people. Today’s Little-Foot Urbanism landscapes, cities and buildings are like the “Little-Foot” girl: unhealthy, deformed, deprived of functionality and malodorous. Little-Foot Urbanism is a path to death.

The massive movement of populations from rural to urban areas is a recent phenomenon, and the aesthetics defined by the pre-20th century, privileged, urban minority are eagerly sought by the masses. These migrants are eager to bind their feet—to gentrify themselves physically and mentally. Contemporary Chinese environmental design reflects the aspiration to become sophisticated. In the current Chinese “City Beautiful Movement” (or “City Cosmetic Movement”), urban design, landscape design and architecture have lost their ways in a search for meaninglessly wild forms and exotic grandeur. This kind of work accelerates the degradation of the environment and is desperately unsustainable. We need a new aesthetics of big feet – beautiful, big feet – that will restore landscape architecture and urban design as an art of survival.

Qinhuangdao Forest Park
The Qinhuangdao Forest Park, at 576 acres, is a transformed working landscape demonstrating strategies to “gentrify” a rural landscape without sacrificing its functionality. By changing the landscape at critical positions and with minimum intervention, a monotonous, artificial windbreak forest with a decaying farm has been transformed into a lively urban park. A skywalk and boardwalk were built at the edge of the farm, allowing visitors to have close contact with the farm, and to observe the working landscape.

Big-Foot Aesthetic Principles

The major “Big-Foot” aesthetic principles and qualities are based on ecological awareness and environmental ethics.

1. Make friends with floods.
Little- Foot Urbanism works against natural forces, especially water and landscapes, which are already present. As an alternative approach to conventional flood-control, do away with the concrete binding on the urban water system and take an ecological approach to flood control and storm-water management, revealing the beauty of native vegetation and the ordinary landscape.

2. Create a green sponge to achieve a stormwater resilient city.
Contemporary Little-Feet cities are not water resilient. Use stormwater parks as green sponges, collecting, cleansing and storing urban stormwater. This approach sustains other ecosystems’ services, regulating and supporting natural systems, and providing the city with cultural and aesthetic experiences.

Qunli National Urban Wetland
Qunli National Urban Wetland in China’s Haerbin City acts as a green sponge that retains and filtrates the urban stormwater, providing multiple ecosystems to residents. The design strategy uses cut-and-fill to create an outer ring of ponds-and-mounds surrounding the former wetland. A skywalk links scattered mounds, allowing surrounding residents to have an above-the-wetland and in the-canopy experience.

3. Go productive.
Millions of acres of fertile land have been transformed into urban landscapes; acres of crops have been gentrified into lawns and flowers in the past three decades in China. In a productive alternative, agricultural landscapes become part of the urbanized environment and remain aesthetically enjoyable.

Rice Campus Shenyang Jianzhu
At the Rice Campus of Shenyang Jianzhu University, stormwater is collected to irrigate the rice paddy in front of the classrooms, and open study rooms are placed in the middle of the rice fields, turning a rustic, productive rice paddy into an aesthetically attractive, urban setting serving multiple functions.

4. “Gentrify” a rural landscape without sacrificing its functionality.
When rural landscapes are urbanized, they are typically gentrified, meaning Little-Foot ornament. The alternative is to “gentrify” the rural and working landscape without sacrificing its functionality and productivity.

5. Value the ordinary and recycle the existing.
For a long time we have been proud of ourselves as human beings capable of building, destroying and rebuilding. Because of this, both natural and man-made assets have been overused, and we are on the brink of a survival crisis. As an alternative, machines and other industrial structures can be recycled for educational and functional purposes. “Messy” and “rustic” are aesthetically attractive. Environmental ethics and ecological awareness can be built into our urban landscape.

6. Let nature work.
From Versailles and historic Chinese gardens to the contemporary Olympic Park, great efforts are made to create and maintain artificial ornamental landscapes. Instead of providing ecosystem services, public spaces become a burden on cities in terms of energy and water consumption. Another design approach would be to let nature work, thereby providing an environmental service for the city.

7. Minimally intervene.
In the process of urbanization, natural landscapes are usually replaced with overly designed and gentrified gardens and parks. As an alternative, use minimal interventions to achieve dramatic improvements, turning a “messy,” natural Big-Foot into something beautiful by preserving its natural processes and patterns.

8. Design landscapes as living systems.
75-percent of surface water in China is polluted and badly in need of sustainable and replicable solutions. Landscapes must be designed as living systems that filtrate and heal polluted water systems.

Kongjian Yu's Houtan Park
Shanghai Houtan Park, built on a former industrial brownfield, is a regenerative living landscape on Shanghai’s Huangpu riverfront, a narrow, linear 35-acre band. Its constructed wetland cleanses 2,400 cubic-meters of water, attracts flora and fauna species and has become a favorite public space in the center of the city.

In China 18 million people are urbanized each year, immigrating to the city from the countryside, striving to be “urbane” and gentrified. When poor developing countries follow Little-Foot Urbanism, they encounter the American “jumbo dream” and the scenario gets worse. (Witness China and India who have pursued the American dream of jumbo cars, houses and whatever jumbo else.)

China has only seven percent of the world’s natural resources of arable land and fresh water, yet they need to feed 22 percent of the world’s population. Two thirds of China’s 662 cities have a shortage of water; 64 percent of the cities’ underground water is polluted; one-third of the national population is in danger of drinking the polluted water; and 50 percent of wetlands have disappeared in the last 30 years. Imagine where Little-Foot Urbanism combined with the “jumbo dream” will lead China. How can we survive in the future? We have misunderstood what it means to be developed. We need a new system and a new vernacular to express the changing relationship between land and people.

Kongjian Yu has been a professor of urban and regional planning at Peking University since 1997, and is the founder and Dean of the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. He founded Turenscape, an internationally awarded firm, whose practice covers architecture, landscape architecture and urban design across scales. Through his works, Yu tries to reconstruct ecological infrastructure across scales and to define a new aesthetic based on environmental ethics.

A portion of this article was excerpted from Harvard Design Magazine, Fall 2009.

All projects shown by Kongian Yu / Turenscape. Photos courtesy of the designer.