Recently, Modelo visited Sasaki Associates in Watertown, Massachusetts. We had the opportunity to meet with Senior Associate Landscape Architect and Ecologist, Tao Zhang. Zhang provided us with some thoughtful reflections on his journey and what he thinks the future holds for landscape architecture. Full interview below.
On discovering his voice as a designer
It’s a long story. I was pursuing my PhD in Ecosystem Ecology at the University of Michigan — Ann Arbor after years of scientific training when I finally discovered landscape architecture, a profession that I did not know existed. The field appeared very attractive to me because it requires as much deep understanding of the natural environment as artistic pursuits in expression and perception. Although I always enjoyed science, I had never given up the dream for creative pursuits, as I grew up in a family with two artists. In my early 20s, I even deviated to pursue a music career after college. So I was drawn to landscape architecture right away as an ideal way to combine my science and research background with my creative interests. This birth mark of my entry to the design field is easily evident today in my design as I often seek inspirations from science.
On his philosophy for landscape architecture design
There are two aspects. First of all, I highly value diversity, as modern culture and globalization are so pervasive that homogeneity dominates mainstreams. Curiosity of unlimited possibility drives creativity.
Secondly, genuineness and sincerity is what I respect and seek in design. There are many ways of successful design and expression. It could be purely abstract and artistically driven, or ecologically inspired that advocates rights for wildlife. As long as the intention is genuine and clear, you gain my respect at least. But if ecology or sustainability is abused as a greenwash term to disguise superficial design, or using aesthetics as an excuse to discount environmental integrity, then it becomes nonsense. Of course, the best landscape design should be holistic in both aesthetics and functionality.
On his role at Sasaki as a Senior Associate
My role as a designer at Sasaki includes initiating and facilitating design ideas and overseeing team progress. As a project manager, I communicate between the principal in charge, the client and the team. Senior associates at Sasaki might have very different roles. It’s a very democratic place that to some extent you define your own path and discover your role in the office. Because of my background, I am more active in the arena of ecological design and research.
On collaborating and resolving conflicts of opinion
Collaboration is a very critical part of my creative process and daily professional life. I used to play in bands for years so I know how crucial it is to focus on the collective whole rather than the individual ego, and how to work seamlessly with your teammates. The best part is improvisation when creative ideas emerge and bounce between the collaborators. It requires trust and no fear of conflict. I often believe that when a design or project goes too easy, it might not be the best solution. Different or conflicting opinions give opportunities for critical thinking and careful reevaluation of the proposal. Timely and transparent communication is essential to resolve conflicts. Convincing reasoning and clear logic in front of the entire team will always win. I guess a real-time and transparent platform for this kind of communication is what Modelo is trying to offer too.
On the state of design software tools today
I used to be savvy about technologies and software in design. But more and more I feel that the essence of design and creative thinking is not necessarily correlated with the tools. Any tools can be helpful if used properly and can also hinder creativity if they dictate design thinking. There are still many functions that the design community craves. So there is much room for innovations. Besides Adobe products and most of the current 3D software, Sasaki has its own strategy group that develops tools tailored to our practice needs, such as S-cube, SmartPlan, MyCampus etc. They are mind-blowing when you see how much they can facilitate design thinking and communication.
On Sasaki’s unique approach
Interdisciplinary practice and democratic culture is what we embrace. Because of the collaborative spirit, it is almost impossible to generalize Sasaki’s design or even graphic styles because we never stop evolving. Everyone from staff designer to principals can give voice and leave their footprints in the final design. There are hundreds of projects under the firm’s belt each year. I can’t speak for others, but for the projects that I was involved in, I would say Zhangjiabang Park represents it well.
On his favorite project with Sasaki
I tend to favor the recent projects. But it is difficult to pick one or a few out of about 200 projects we take on each year. To name a few that I’m familiar with: Chicago Riverwalk, Tecnologico de Monterrey Urban Regeneration Plan, Zhangjiabang Park in Shanghai and Bolling Municipal building in Dudley Square etc.
For more on the Zhangjiabang Park project check out this video (Courtesy of Sasaki Associates)
On what defines a successful design firm
I think a successful firm has to be independent with a clear vision that is never afraid of reinventing itself. Curiosity is very critical. Without it, design becomes stale, so does a design firm.
On disruptive innovation
I’m unsure if disruptive innovation will come from inside of the discipline. Landscapes manifest many invisible and complex societal and natural processes. Design facilitates yet is substantially influenced by these processes. Environmental movement in the recent history has strongly shifted the field of landscape architecture. I foresee more social and environmental awareness will propel the field to certain trajectory, but unclear whether disruptively.
On the next 5–10 years for landscape architecture
I think the intellect behind innovative and thoughtful design will remain the essence of the profession, no matter how advanced technology and tools have developed. But I do believe that designers will have to be open and responsive to broader public critiques in the digital age of social media, compared to our predecessors when design could succeed by serving much smaller demographic, often privileged groups.
On advice he would give himself at the the beginning of his career
Don’t be defined by other’s perception of who you are and what you are capable of. Believe in yourself and carve out a path to grow to who you want to become.