A five-hectare open space creates the centerpiece and defines the character for this mixed-use project in Changsha, China. The landscape architect was brought into the project at the site selection phase and was key in defining the overall image and program for the project. Existing stands of mature trees and dramatic grades became the defining elements. Preservation of existing trees was paramount, requiring construction of large retaining walls, which became the secondary defining element of the landscape design. The landscape architect remained intimately involved through construction to ensure a high level of adherence to the concept and design details. In the Forest became a theme and an approach, permeating all aspects of the development. Un-manicured ground-plane plantings, rough-hewn wood seating carved on-site, stone walls layered in colored bands and permeable paving all contribute to the sense of a landscape design derived from what is real about the site. 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 design/development community away from stylistic applications toward authenticity.
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 manmade, 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 a progressive approach to the design process and an openness to experimentation. The landscape architect was invited into the planning process at the very beginning of site selection. Young managers at Vanke welcomed the designer’s questions and ultimately joined in asking even more. Foremost though among those questions from the developer’s side is typically how to remain competitive with the next shiny new 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 special outdoor room. 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. A disc of pure white crushed stone marks the dripline of the old tree, recording its form in shadows as if it were art in a gallery.
The sales house sits perched above, nestled within a hillside of uncharacteristically untidy understory plantings evocative of native forest, overlooking a river. It’s prominent siting and views will have it well positioned to be transformed into a restaurant when the entire development is completed. Five hectares of undulating park planned around existing stands of trees will become the center piece and breathing space for the five high-rises, ground level retail and amenity spaces. The forest concept permeates all levels of detail design from the patios with their bespoke pattern of precast paving, evoking fallen leaves, to heavy solid recycled timber benches. Parking here is under the buildings so that none of the forest is on-structure. With only native soils below, the forest will be allowed to grow and flourish, marking time—as forests do—growing old and wise alongside its many human inhabitants, now and for generations to come.