Having designed Bangkok’s first park in 30 years and Asia’s largest urban farming green roof, Thai landscape architect Kotchakorn Voraakhom invites us to dance with nature, to understand its functions, in finding new and adaptive ways of living well with our natural environments.
How did your growing up years influence your interest in landscape architecture?
I grew up in a very urban setting with few experiences with expansive open and green spaces. My play areas were car park lots and other urban spaces. Every once in a while, there would be some glimpses of nature in the form of finding small creatures and plants in between cracks in the concrete pavement.
But we as humans always long for nature. It was this longing that fuelled my curiosity for wanting to be part of designing and shaping our natural environments.
When designing with nature, what should we bear in mind?
Nature itself is a very powerful medium. Beyond just enhancing its beauty or creating beautiful environments, we should also focus on learning more about nature’s functions and processes and how it relates to the climate and the larger challenges of urbanisation. Learning about this can enable us to use landscape architecture more effectively to help restore and regenerate our natural environments.
Even our natural infrastructures are important. In Thailand, for example, we have many canals which we use regularly to commute, to take showers in. But we often do not take good care of them.
We need to learn how to cultivate and nurture our relationship with such natural infrastructures, so that we can better embrace and integrate them well in our environment and daily lives.
The revitalised Chong Nongsi canal in the heart of Bangkok. Image credit: Ded Filmlandscape.
You designed the Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park which opened in 2017. It was the first park in Bangkok in 30 years.
The challenge of designing public spaces especially in the dense city of Bangkok was how to make such spaces more multi-functional, to serve many different needs and purposes.
So, besides designing the park for public use, we also deliberately inclined the park to sit on a three-degree angle to enable the park to collect, treat and hold rainwater in a retention basin. This helped to prevent the surrounding streets from flooding and the water held can also help irrigate the park. In addition, we designed spaces in the park that can be used for recreational activities, including an amphitheatre for concerts and other events.
Illustration showing the design of the Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park. Image credit: Land Process.
The larger significance of the park was also about changing people’s mindsets. In Bangkok, we have fewer green spaces compared to many other cities. Growing up, many people may have become accustomed to living with lesser green spaces.
With this park, I wanted people to understand that having parks and green spaces should be a basic human right. Hopefully, in the long run, our younger generation can grow up having more access to such green spaces.
Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park with event spaces. Image credit: Land Process.
Within this park, you have included stationary bicycles for people. Why did you introduce this feature?
With the bicycles, I wanted people to see that water is an integral part of the park. The stationary bicycles are located at a retention pond at the low end of the park, where rainwater flows from the park’s green roof and other surfaces. The bicycles are a way for people to be an active part of the park’s water treatment system. Their peddling of the bicycles will help keep the water aerated.
The stationery bicycles at the Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park. Image credit: Land Process.
Besides your work as a landscape architect, you also started a non-profit group, Porous City Network (PCN), working with communities to co-design water management solutions. Why is this important to you?
As a landscape architect, I see my work as not just about building something or beautifying our environment. It is also about serving our communities, helping them to have a voice and working together with them to address larger urban challenges.
One of PCN’s projects involved helping the Hat Lek community of fishermen and their families. They have no land rights on paper, so they built into the ocean, in Trat, Thailand, located along the Thai-Cambodia border. The Thai government wanted to displace them.
We worked closely with them to equip them with the knowledge and insight to have a voice in negotiating with the government. We co-developed a plan with the community that allowed them to inhabit land in the ocean and enable them to also help restore mangrove forests. They are the first community to receive government permission to remain where they are.
You have shared that we should learn to live with water and not fear it. What does this mean?
Bangkok used to be known as the “Venice of the East”. Water has always been a key part of our way of life. Water is our source of food and supports many of our activities in our daily lives.
Yet, our relationship with water has changed in a negative way where we have grown to fear it. If we fear it or want to fight it or try to fix nature, we tend to find solutions that may not be as effective.
Instead, we need to learn to live with our water, our land and nature. To dance with these elements. It is a very Buddhist approach – accepting the world as it is.
With this acceptance, we can then design solutions that connect more with nature, where we delve deeper into understanding how our land and nature systems work and find more holistic and new ways of adapting to nature.
The Thammasat University rooftop. Image credits: Panoramic Studio, Land Process.
What does an ideal environment look like to you when we design well with nature?
I’ve learnt a lot from the agricultural language of our landscape and our relationship with it. To me, an ideal environment is being able to live harmoniously with nature, to tap into our past, to respond to our context and to leverage on technology to make best use of our land and what we have.
When we designed the largest rooftop in Asia at the Thammasat University in the greater Bangkok area, we had leveraged on green roof technology and designed the roof to mimic the structure of rice terraces to harvest the rain and yet grow food as well. This natural infrastructure also becomes a part of nature. To me, this is part of living harmoniously with nature.
Construction of the Thammasat University rooftop, reflecting rice terraces. Image credit: Land Process.
In designing with nature, what should architects and designers do more of?
Beyond focusing on beauty and form, I hope architects, engineers and designers can work more with landscape architects. To consider making landscape architecture a key focus of their designs and not as an afterthought.
It is not about inviting landscape architects to work within the building’s spaces but it is about us working together to design spaces that are all part of our larger natural environment.
What is the potential impact of well-designed spaces for people?
The value of well-designed spaces tends to be more intangible. It is about the little things that matter – places that enable us to connect with each other, to smell, see, touch, and feel, to have a richer experience, to feel a sense of belonging and a sense of place. These are the things that are important to us, and well-designed spaces should give us these and so much more.
Spaces within the Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park for people to gather and relax in. Image credit: Land Process.
Kotchakorn Voraakhom is the 2023 President*s Design Award (P*DA) Jury Member of the Design Panel. This interview is part of a series with P*DA Jury Members to explore the importance of design and its potential impact on our lives.
About Kotchakorn Voraakhom
Kotchakorn Voraakhom is a Thai landscape architect who works on productive public spaces, tackling climate change in urban dense areas. She created the first critical green infrastructure for Bangkok, Chulalongkorn Centenary Park. Kotchakorn works also include, Thammasat Urban Farm Rooftop, the biggest urban farming green roof in Asia, and the first bridge park across the river in any world capital, Chao Phraya Sky Park. She was awarded from UNFCCC for the UN Global Climate Action Awards, featured in 2019 TIME 100 Next, 15 leading women fighting against climate change from TIME, BBC 100 Women, and Bloomberg Green 30 for 2020.
The President*s Design Award is Singapore’s highest honour for designers and designs across all disciplines. For more information about the award, go to https://pda.designsingapore.org/presidents-design-award/
Thumbnail image credit: Property Management of Chulalongkorn University.