Tag Archives: landscape as social beauty

Overthinking It

I’ve lived and worked in China for almost three years now. There’s many things I still don’t understand but there’s no urgency. These things will sort themselves out.

Representations of grass (1)

A Chinese Tier 2 city with aspirations to becoming a New Tier 1 city will generally have a metro system in place and, where I live, people are on the case. Overhead power cables are being relocated underground. Footpaths are either being widened and/or relaid after being destroyed by the roots of roadside banyan trees. Roads are being widened to include dedicated bus lanes and dedicated bicycle and e-bike lanes. After about three years of inconvenience the major roads are mostly done.

Once the roadworks are over, rocks, mature trees and shrubs are moved in and sods laid. The verge landscaping is in place within two weeks at most, but usually within one.

There’s also much construction going on. Most is behind site hoardings that are usually one of two types. An actual wall built of concrete block on the site boundary and topped by a tiled or imitation-tile capping will probably surround long-haul projects of four or five years. When construction begins, these walls will be kept fresh with graphics and encouraging slogans, often against a backdrop of artificial grass. Here’s two of this type.

Less permanent hoardings on shorter projects will be freestanding assemblages of modular panels. A hundred metres of two-meter high metal panels spanning frames inserted into four-meter long concrete bases can appear overnight. By the next night it will be sheathed in artificial grass and by the night after will have the project name alternating with graphics and encouraging slogans.

“Life depends on exercise, Success depends on work”
“I will be first to raise my hand to sort garbage”

Sometimes, it’s as if metal panels simply have to be sheathed in artificial grass as quickly and expediently as possible. There’s a sense of urgency.

Sometimes, instead of artificial grass is a graphic of a close-up of a stylization of artificial grass. I don’t know how to understand this graphic representation of artificial grass that itself is a representation of grass. Is it post-modernism squared? I don’t think it’s a case of a representation of something being as good as the real thing because site hoardings aren’t situations where you’d prefer to see real grass anyway. Having said that, in Shanghai once I did see part of a site hoarding that was an actual living wall.

I used to think this fixation on natural over metal might be a Chinese aversion to the sight of metal. The five traditional elements (or phases) of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water each have their own properties, interrelationships and place in the Universe. [For more information look here. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wuxing_(Chinese_philosophy). It’s a surprisingly robust way of understanding the world.] However, the five elements may be different but they’re all still equal. No one is better or preferable. It can’t be that.

Nevertheless, I definitely see an effort to avoid the sight of metal in gardens or when surrounded by plants. Here are four examples including a wrap of a country scene, two views of bamboo screening a water treatment plant, and bamboo screening an electrical distribution box and the metal fence surrounding it. I’m not imagining this.

Drains alongside roads and paths are fitted with metal grilles that stop them being clogged by leaves but these grilles may be covered with a layer of pebbles. This is a nice thing to do.

If metal has to be used in a garden, it’s often the colour green. For now I conclude that the sight of metal and grass together is not unsightly per-se. It might just be that the natural colour of metal is jarring or somehow discordant.

Along with painting the metal green, I also saw this which I thought strengthened my theory even though I wasn’t sure what my theory was. Perhaps all it is, is that people just prefer plants to metal. I won’t go back to my Chinese elements theory or invoke feng shui but green and greenery seem to be consistently countering metal.

Representations of grass (2)

The city of Wenzhou where I live is between mountains and the ocean and there’s much surface water as well as subterranean water. This and the ongoing relocation of overhead power lines underground means there’s a lot of manholes. A lot. Manholes for 10kVa cables occur in the middle of footpaths and access roads but also in lawns where they will invariably be covered by a piece of fake grass. Fake grass being fake grass, the colour is never the same as real grass and nobody’s fooled. I think I’d rather see the manhole than these poor attempts at disguising them but, once again, I get the feeling there’s something cultural at work. If this were merely the personal preference of individual gardeners then I’d expect to see more variation, less consistency of approach.

Metal or concrete manholes aren’t a problem if they are not on grass.

For three years give or take this hasn’t worried me. It’s just something that I noticed I was always noticing. Focussed on fake grass as I was, I didn’t pay that much attention to what was happening with other manholes in footpaths.

• • • 

You see what’s happening.

Special cases are dealt with.

These next two are my favorites. I find it amazing somebody thought this was important. It’s all done by stonecutters with hammers and chisels and handheld cutters.

Here’s one being restored. These covers aren’t as robust as solid metal or concrete ones but still people think it is a good thing to do.

• • • 

I think I finally understand. Discontinuity, when it invariably occurs, must be countered by a continuity. Before, I used to see the artificial grass as a discontinuity rather than a continuity, and although I still do, not so much. One person’s complexity and contradiction is another person’s simplicity and consistency. These next five images can be read either way.

• • • 

Infrastructure as Landscaping

This article appears in the publication Infrastructure And Landscape produced by the Michael Graves College School of Public Architecture at Wenzhou-Kean University. I will post a link as soon as the book is published on ISSUU.

Landscape has long been valued for its role in the creation and enhancement of public space and the recognition that landscape is vital for the infrastructure purposes such as the control of flooding and the amelioration of storm surges is long overdue. Landscaping is now seen as a kind of infrastructure that counters the negative effects of excessive development in the form of buildings and those spaces between them called roads. There are many metrics by which urbanization can be measured but the quantity and density of buildings and roads is a usual one.

In Australia not too long ago, the felling of trees and the clearing of land was equated with progress and civilization. When the city of Perth was founded in 1829, the occasion was marked by a certain Mrs. Dance felling a tree. It’s clear from the painting that Mrs. Dance’s role was to fell the tree symbolically but that was the only symbolism the event had for, in the minds of the early settlers, the subjugation of the natural environment was not symbolic of progress but progress itself. Even today, Australian capital cities have a relaxed attitude towards the felling of trees and the clearing of bushland to create new outer suburbs farther out.

By George Pitt Morison – http://foundingdocs.gov.au/resources/picturealbum/i_wa1_72_1829b.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18168401

The desert interior of the United Arab Emirates is as much a part of Emirati national identity as the Australian desert is to Australians and, in both countries, the amount of land not yet built on remains a measure of how much urbanism is yet to be done. The contrast in the U.A.E. is more extreme as no hinterland buffer zones separate city from desert. The inner desert landscape is respected for its cultural associations but the adjacent desert is merely land yet to be developed.

Dubai receives much attention for its artificial islands, peninsulas and other landforms that have added more than 1,600 kilometers of coastline to the original 72. Much of this attention is negative because, while the building of islands and reclaiming significant areas of land for airports and harbors is generally accepted for economic reasons, the building of islands to generate lengths of coastline for tourist and residential investment is typically seen as frivolous. Both have economic imperatives but the former counts as infrastructure and the latter doesn’t. Artificial landforms such as The Palm Trilogy are landscape and infrastructure combined but exist outside an architectural and urban discourse that admits and comprehends them only as branding devices.

Roads and bridges are more clearcut and the 1960 First Dubai Master Plan by British planner John Harris shows the new Al Maktoum Bridge crossing Dubai Creek to link Deira on the north bank and Bur Dubai on the south. This road didn’t yet extend south to Abu Dhabi or north to the historic town centers of the other Gulf coast emirates that had grown up around other natural harbors for fishing and pearling vessels. In time, this road was to become national route E11 but its historic and continuing importance is evident by its other names such as Sheikh Maktoum Bin Rashid Road and Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Road in Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai, Sheikh Muhammad bin Salem Road in Ras al-Khaimah and National Road in Sharjah.

In 1960, the modern roundabout had just had its form and simple give-way rules standardized in the U.K. and could regulate significant amounts of traffic without recourse to traffic signals. Harris’s masterplan features roundabouts on all major intersections not just to regulate the increased traffic but to represent increased activity and prosperity. Not all of the roundabouts in this masterplan were built but, of those that remain, the one at the north end of Sheikh Maktoum Bridge is known as Clocktower Roundabout. Before the bridge connected both sides of The Creek, travelers would enter Dubai at a point close to this and the clock tower was built to house a clock given to His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the then ruler of Dubai to commemorate the occasion of Dubai’s first oil exports. Clocktower Roundabout had a presence as symbolic landscaping and entrance to the city before the bridge was completed to become functioning infrastructure.

Dubai Clocktower Roundabout, circa 1962, with the off-ramps from Sheikh Maktoum Bridge under construction in the foreground

Other roundabouts from the same time include Satwa Roundabout and Fish Roundabout, both of which still function to commemorate a place and a point in time. In Dubai roundabouts and the roads they connect are most definitely infrastructure as development but they also represent progress and that progress is celebrated with landscaping that, in turn, represents a kind of progress by the greening and watering of the land. In the short growth period between one global crisis and the next, it was almost a condition for any important transportation infrastructure to be celebrated with landscaping such as grassed verges interspersed with beds of marigolds or petunias. Infrastructure and landscaping do different things but they both represent progress.

In the 1960s, Sheikh Rashid made the decision to shift the centre of the city away from the mouth of Dubai Creek and its fishing and pearling, and towards the E11 and trade with Abu Dhabi to the south and the other emirates to the north. When Dubai World Trade Center opened in 1973 at the stretch of E11 that was to become the new Dubai, it was the tallest building in the Arab world and a symbol of Sheikh Rashid’s intention to make Dubai a centre of not just national trade but also global trade.


The adjacent roundabout is still known as Trade Centre Roundabout but is also sometimes called Interchange One. This next image shows Dubai World Trade Centre in the distance, the white building which was Dubai’s first residential tower completed in 1974, and Interchange Two which was then called Defence Roundabout. It already had two slip roads to facilitate traffic flow.

This next image shows the former Defence Roundabout in 2007 after it had been renamed Interchange One and reconfigured to handle more than 16,000 vehicles per hour, still without traffic lights.

Image Credit: Gulf News archiv

This is it in 2012 after it had been reconfigured once more, this time as a three-quarter orbital and one-quarter cloverleaf interchange with four slip roads.

Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Burj Khalifa opened in 2009 as the centerpiece of a large development in the quadrant known as Downtown. This entire side of Dubai is also known as New Dubai, as Sheikh Rashid had envisioned. As recently as 2012 much sand could still be seen from  the tourist observation deck on the 125th floor of Burj Khalifa.

By 2015 there was a plan to landscape the 14 hectares of sand in and around the interchange. That plan was implemented and completed within two years. This landscaping is visual amenity for drivers and passengers on Dubai Metro and wasn’t designed to be accessed or even appreciated by pedestrians. The design has obvious visual associations with the ramps and the flowerbeds are planted with annuals such as marigolds and petunias.


Simultaneous with the 2015 Interchange One landscaping project was the demolition of some social housing that had been built by the Sheikh Zayed Foundation in the 1970s and that had had 40+ years of ad-hoc extensions. By 2019 the redevelopment was complete.


Two blocks south was some similar housing known as Sha’abiyat Al Safa and that was distinctive enough and by then incongruous enough to feature in the U.A.E. exhibition at the 2017 Venice Bienalle.

This too has disappeared and the site is currently being redeveloped piecemeal and slowly, as a subdivision of detached villas.

Image: author’s own

This redevelopment can be thought of Middle Eastern gentrification and a consequence of economic pressure to exploit to the maximum land that has suddenly become central. Alternatively, it could just be seen as ‘tidying up’ by removing and replacing building stock that, however historic, is not in keeping with an image of modernity and mastery of one’s environment. Not too far down the line of Dubai Metro are places where the infrastructure represents modernity and progress but the landscape has yet to catch up.

Encroaching landscaping

This pressure is particularly strong around Burj Khalifa and the encircling Downtown high-rent and tourist hotel band designed and masterplanned as a single piece of infrastructure with Burj Khalifa as its symbolic centre and The Fountains as the geometric centre of the three-quarter circle of The Boulevard and, increasingly, walled by the apartment and hotel towers lining it. Dubai Mall completes the last quarter of the circle.

The three above views are of the stretch of The Boulevard in the top centre of the image below.

The Boulevard may never be one of the world’s great thoroughfares to rival New York’s Broadway or Paris’ Les Champs Elysées but, for something brought into existence within a decade, it might be too early to say.


Landscaping in Dubai is still being used to celebrate infrastructure. Roundabouts and exit ramps are continually being irrigated and prettified with combinations of rocks, lawn and pampas grass. However, and beyond the call of the usual role of landscaping in celebrating infrastructure at ground level, that in the Downtown District is also designed to do so when seen from the gulf side of the observation floors of Burj Khalifa.

  • The tall building in the foreground and its smaller neighbor have screened rooftops to hide unsightly equipment.
  • In the distance, the numerous eight story apartment buildings of the Citywalk development all have roofs screened in similarly decorative ways.
  • Newer towers close by have tapered rooftops that minimize rooftop area.
  • The 54th floor bridge structure of The Address Sky Views Hotel and Apartments has a pool deck which is a new focal point but neither landscape nor infrastructure. However, the projecting tip of this bridge-deck structure has a glass-floored observation platform celebrating the infrastructure and landscape at ground level.
  • Landscaping alongside Sheikh Zayed Road and in and around Interchange One has large geometric motifs most legible when viewed from above.
  • Much of the green you see in the photograph above is not grass but a succulent that requires less water and produces a constant and more vibrant green.