It took very little coffee to light this conversation on fire over breakfast on a rainy winter Saturday prior to Kongjian Yu’s Seattle Art Museum lecture.

Image by Kongjian Yu

The Red Ribbon. Girls sitting on the red ribbon watching the sunset. Photo: Kongjian Yu/Turenscape, courtesy of the designer.

Central to this issue of ARCADE is the imperative to change how we live and consume resources. It must be a source of joy, or change will not happen. We must address the fear of change. Your work is fearlessly pursuing change in China, a situation that is a little like David and Goliath.

Values are the fundamental issue. It’s about shifting an entire culture. This kind of change is frightening for a developed civilization, especially for America. It means people must give up their current lifestyles and do something different. It’s fearful. If you elect someone who has different values and says that you won’t be driving a car or living in the suburbs or have a green lawn, this totally changes your daily life.

Changing American values is fundamental. For 150 years, the American lifestyle has been wasteful, and it causes so much trouble – war, fighting for oil and energy – and it‘s a model being replicated by developing countries.

Why are the value frameworks of countries overtaken by the American lifestyle?

This is the theory of cultural transformation. All cultures feel inferior when compared to others, and in this case, they say, “We will follow the American standard.” Large houses and cars become valued. This is about power—economic power and social status. In my own culture, we have “high” and “low” culture—“high” culture is elite, imperial. The emperor defined the values, and his criteria drove society. Everyone seeks this “high” culture. In China, the resources are limited, and not everyone can live in this way, so we also have the “low” culture that grows food, saves, conserves resources for survival and uses minimum energy. In the last 20 years, this pattern has changed from saving to consuming with the application of American consumerist values.

The key to capitalism is consumption. That is the basis of the political system and economy. It was good for America at the beginning when the country needed to be developed and resources were abundant—then capitalism worked. When resources lessen, the model does not work. The resources cannot sustain the consumption.

Image by Kongjian Yu

Qinhuangdao Forest park—transforming a working landscape into an urban park. Photo: Kongjian Yu/Turenscape, courtesy of the designer

You’re taking risks in what you’re doing—the challenges you’re posing in your country by asking questions of moving from “high” to “low” culture.

In China, you sacrifice your status when you demand a shift from “high” to “low” culture. You lose your value as defined by the imperial culture. American society encourages risk. My culture literally beats people who take chances. I avoid taking political risks; instead I take intellectual risks. For example, I gave a lecture in Minneapolis in 2006 in which I criticized both Chinese and US culture. I was reprimanded by Chinese landscape architects for criticizing China. I was told, “As an intellectual, you have a good background. You went to Harvard and have a professorship at the prestigious Beijing University. You can easily climb the ladder to high status. Don’t criticize the past. Don’t take risks. Follow the rules.”

American society still encourages you to act freely. In my culture, the situation is risky and infused with fear. I wrote a book called The Negative Planning Approach that takes issue with current planning methods, and it was not published. Writing my book was not a political action; it was intellectual. This kind of censorship would not happen in your country, and this is why you Americans have to take real risks and make change happen.

I think as the Chinese GDP drops from nine to seven, social debate will increase. I see the arts and artists like Ai Weiwei as the indicator of social change—with the increased silencing of social comment.

A 1930-40 revolutionary used the metaphor of the box. You need to go outside the box to get inspiration, new criteria and a new value system. That is what I’m doing. As long as the system is closed, it will not change or grow. The whole civilization needs to evolve.

US culture is defined by consumption, so I think the economic recession is an opportunity to shift cultural values. We have to do more with less and take care of each other. This experience changes us.

That’s a good point. This means the culture itself becomes sustainable. With the Chinese economic change to the lower GDP, this is an opportunity. When the Chinese system was closed to globalization during the last century, the culture was more sustainable. Now the Chinese system is globalized and emulating American culture, and until the US changes the rules, the Chinese will still want more—more of everything. You Americans have to change the values. You have to address the water and energy problem.

There is a powerful trajectory in Chinese and American cultures, which the US is curating. The US needs to present a new lifestyle. Everyone is looking to the US for social status. In China, only a very small group understands that America is struggling to find a new direction. This can be done, and I’m very optimistic. This is why I keep taking risks. I ignore what people are saying, and I find that more people in China are trying to follow what I am doing. For 13 years I have struggled within myself, against society and against the intellectual culture. [My firm] Turenscape is serving more than one-third of China. With more experience, people will have different aesthetics and values.

As designers, we need to present values through the materials we use. We have to say, OK, cheap materials can be as fashionable as expensive ones and even look better: “Your backyard of native grass looks better.” How can you make messy-looking, natural landscapes that use less energy a new type of design aesthetic—a new value? This is how the design professions should think. We know we can have the Frank Gehry fantasy—beautiful, fancy and expensive. Can we find another way?