Placemaking Originality for More Memorable Cities

By Peiwen Yu
Being a creative, I sometimes suffer from “originality syndrome” as many of my fellow designers do. It feels harder and harder to create unique and insightful designs I’ve never seen before. Nowadays, the lack of innovation due to commercial survival is quite common in the marketplace. There are so many inspiring ideas on the internet, and such easy access to others’ ideas seems to have changed the creative culture, blurring the line between inspiration and copying. Many designers’ approaches to their work tend to be the easy and fast way – borrow some existing design that looks cool and apply it to their projects. However innocent the intentions might be, a design process without in-depth critical thinking downgrade our city-building today to a shopping-like experience. Some may say, after all, when it comes to functional design, originality is not the only measure of success. While being useful and functional meets the baseline goals of creating places for people, our cities nowadays are suffering from the result of “copy-paste Pinterest design” – many new places start to look similar and generic without unique characteristics, memorable and lasting aesthetic values. In the age of instant solutions, quick and easy design for the built environment worsens our nostalgia for magnetic cities that are made through time and embody an authentic cultural expression of their context.

The image above: What’s popular and iconic? Today’s architecture scene – many buildings share typological similarities, and more buildings are being produced based on similar and trendy ideas. 

The article is intended to explore how design originality can be achieved in the world of landscape placemaking, and why it is crucial in adapting to the needs of our changing world and climate.

Design originality is yours to claim

In order to be original, you need to first have a Vision that gives a unique style to what you create.  At its heart, originality is the ability to create something novel – new solutions, new experiences, and new ideas that can better people’s living experiences. Where did the vision or idea come from? In the age when an explosive amount of knowledge is spreading fast, it’s not surprising to say that everything is built off something that preceded it. It’s true in many fields of design, fashion, creative writing, film making, and performance art. The individual creator then becomes the key in crafting designs with a new identity, which comes from that person’s particular interest and point of view about the world. Even though the idea that inspires you may not be new, you can still put your spin on it and turn it into something that is uniquely you, claiming originality by interpreting any idea with a fresh and personal touch and not just imitating what’s popular.

The images below illustrate how we explore a unique vision for a high-density lakefront mixed-use development. The project site’s existing condition affords vegetated rolling hillsides, a large reservoir, and lush natural grasses around the lake edge. We’re hired to design the waterfront open space system for the residential community. Our concept celebrates a Vision of creating a” luxurious wilderness” experience and recreational opportunities for the residents. The design preserves the ecological system and habitats as valuable assets, while carefully embedding outdoor landscape rooms with exquisite amenity into immersive nature. Putting interior-quality space into a landscape setting is not a new idea for a resort type of placemaking. But when adapting to the site’s unique natural conditions, shoreline setting, and active cultural programs, we craft an “in-water social room” with a unique experience for the client, with our version of originality.

The image above: site photo of lake edge vegetation, and landscape schematic design illustrations. 

The image above: in-water amenity room sketch study and vibe images. 

The image above: in-water amenity room renderings illustrate an interior design quality feel is infused into the space, providing a social vibe for community residents within a luxurious wilderness wetland setting.  

Expanding the knowledge bubble

As a designer, our knowledge, experience, and memory are what help us to build that uniqueness. Creativity in design is the ability to take past experiences and new information and synthesize them to create a new Vision. Understanding the history and staying up to date with current trends provide a perspective for what you’re trying to create. Knowledge is power. That’s why designers should always be passionate about expanding their knowledge of the world and staying up to date with current trends. They need to understand what is generally acceptable and what has been done before. This cumulative knowledge and experience are what help us craft more insightful designs. It’s important to have a curious and open mindset and NOT get stuck in our little bubble. One of the best ways to do that is to deliberately try new things, travel to new places, eat new foods, meet new people. Do things that put us out of the comfort zone, expanding our knowledge bubble.

From storytelling to design drafts

Some famous designers are lucky enough to sustain a lasting success with certain particular niche their work is standing for, such as Frank Gehry’s architecture, Diane von Furstenberg’s fashion design style. For landscape architecture, design originality is particularly important, as each site is unique in its own history, culture, and natural settings. Instead of simply providing a standard design product each time, creating a unique story for every given design problem is at the center of successful landscape placemaking. My design approach in landscape placemaking has involved a considerable amount of storytelling through research, narrative writing, and mood board study. Starting from a story provides me a compass in developing detailed solutions later on. Specific form-making, aesthetic and functional considerations are derived from the story and supportive of the overall vision.

To achieve originality, one key thing is that the story of a landscape often involves dynamic and complex life cycles, as it is constantly growing, not just stuck at one stage. The landscape spaces are changing over time as the plant materials mature and people re-appropriate the settings while using the space for their daily lives. Such a living and interactive placemaking process make the experience unique and require the design to be open-end and inclusive. When the site’s natural and cultural processes are fully integrated into the placemaking, the designed space has a much better chance to adapt to the local conditions, grow as the city age, and tackle the climate issue through sustainable ways of changing the built environment.

When 90% of today’s-built environment is generic, based upon existing ideas, making an extra effort for more insightful design requires passion and commitment, specifically, a long refinement process. The legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese used to comment on the film editing process, “If you don’t get physically ill seeing your first rough cut, something is wrong.” For any creative work, the best process takes rounds of revisions in order to hone the idea from draft to draft. Better designs always benefit from the fullness of time!

Two examples below illustrate how the placemaking originality is explored for projects in the world’s emerging design capital city at different scales.   Shenzhen Longgang River Blueway project is a major municipal civil project in Shenzhen’s upcoming low carbon district, transforming the 13 miles long main trunk of the Longgang River blueway. The construction of the new riverfront involves extremely complicated systems and development constraints. The river gives rise to Hakka culture, which is the primary inspiration for the vision of the project, and reinterpreted by landscape elements along the river.  Building upon a rigorous ecological and habitat preservation framework, the design blends old and new experiences into placemaking, incorporating many on-site adjustments based on local conditions, providing unique solutions required by the climate, hydrology, and material palette. All mature vegetation on top of the existing riverbank will be untouched when the new places are created carefully around constraints, delivering a Hakka architecture-inspired new riverfront experience.

Hakka lantern marker is a multifunctional structure, located along the riverfront trails at the ecological downstream, functioning as overlook, lighthouse, and meeting points. Inspired by the traditional Hakka architecture and contemporary notion of lanterns, the design aims to create memorable, culturally enriched objects at various riverfront settings. Sharing typological similarities, each lantern object carries unique thematic characters based on its location.




The second example explored the original and artful way of making urban furniture with materials and stories that are unique to the local context. Proposed by UV Architecture LLC, the 2018 Urbanism\Architecture Bi-City Biennale (UABB) venue’s public service area interior design, creatively converted recycled bicycles and mosaic tiles into engaging urban living furniture. This original design not only served the UABB event, but the portable “bike-tables” also became key furniture for multiple arts and social events in the following years, continuing its journey to other urban living rooms, serving the local creative community.




Project images in the article: Courtesy SWA Group and UV Architecture LLC.


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