Interview with Jasmine Ong
A former director at Martha Schwartz Partners, Jasmine Ong, has experience running projects of all scales from concept design through to site overview of construction works as a Landscape Architect. With a career that has spanned across Australia, China and Europe, she holds a unique perspective on the differences of working in the Asia Pacific Region and the EU.
I was fortunate to meet Jasmine and ask her a few questions about her experience as a Landscape Architect. In this interview she shares her thoughts on what Landscape Architecture means to her and the difference of working on projects in the UK and China:
What was it that brought you to landscape architecture?
Since young, I’ve been drawn to Japanese gardens, particularly the promenade garden (kai-shiki-teien) and small courtyard garden (tsubo-niwa) styles. I was fascinated with the beauty achieved through replication of nature in a miniature form, as though you are wandering through a 1:10 model of what you would see in the natural wilderness. I was also impressed at the level of perfection sought, whether it was the still reflection of water in a lake or fallen leaves in position. I also wanted a career that combines environmental sustainability with design. Both are important to me and I wanted to combine the two in a profession that would keep me passionate for a lifetime.
When you graduated, did you go straight into working for a Landscape Architecture firm?
I started working while I was studying because I felt the need to apply what I was learning at university. I was fortunate enough to work at a small landscape design and build firm, which gave me the opportunity to see my designs being realised and understand the practicalities of construction. This helped form a good foundation for my landscape architecture career.
When you started off what type of projects were you working on?
My first job was at Taylor Cullity Lethlean, Melbourne, Australia, which was hugely inspirational in its design process. I worked closely with the director Perry Lethlean, building models for parks and residential developments. I then moved to work on private residential gardens for a design and construction firm. And then felt the urge to explore the world and ended up in the UK, where I worked on a mixture of residential, commercial, recreational, institutional and urban projects around the world, with my last workplace at Martha Schwartz Partners, focusing mainly on business development in China to expand our Chinese portfolio.
Are you currently working on any projects in the Asia Pacific region?
As Projects Director at Martha Schwartz Partners, I was overseeing most projects, predominantly mixed-use developments in China. My recent projects in China included Beiqijia Technology District, which consisted of sunken courtyards, a large central water feature to cool the site in summer and gateway structures; and Fengming Mountain, a sales centre/ demonstration zone within an urban escarpment park with a visitor route sign posted with cloud pavilions.
How do you find working on projects in China compared to the UK?
Chinese clients are big into branding and the design narrative, often focusing on how they market their developments. This means signature designs and a more experimental approach. They also set demanding time frames, which relies on excellent project management to avoid abortive work, but the advantage of that is you get projects realised at a much faster rate than you would in the UK where statutory bureaucracy can sometimes constrain innovation and prolong time frames. I find the development ethos in China slightly unnerving, in that the rate at which development is coming up does not always respond to demand, and the way in which development sites are acquired often lack consideration for existing residents and cultural heritage of the site. In general, the pros of the design process on UK projects, are owing to a more generous time frame, allowing thoroughness and careful design consideration and better coordination between consultants.
Do you find clients you have worked with in China open to sustainable design?
There is a desire for sustainable design, but more for a marketing tool. As there is minimal statutory requirement to adhere to environmental sustainability, this desire is quickly lost once we discuss associated costs. If more sustainability champions are involved in projects, and more sustainable projects are successfully built and maintained, this could lead a trend or benchmark that others will follow. The Chinese are competitive and want each project to be the best, which is incentive for constant improvement. An argument needs to be formed where the client/ funders of the development have a stake in the post-construction management regime and subsequently the longevity of the project, for the benefits to be understood from a financial point of view. It is challenging to engage international ecologist or sustainability consultants in a Chinese project, however, as they usually have concerns over intellectual property rights and tendency for ideas to be replicated without permission. As introducing sustainable ideas, such as Sustainable Urban Drainage strategies or water harvesting, proved difficult, our main objective on most Chinese projects was to use local materials and create a robust design that was fairly straight-forward to construct and maintain, with the objective to improve people’s life, create better communities and increase the value of the area, which in turn lends itself to a sustainable development.
What type of projects are you working on in the UK?
I am currently working on a high-end residential development in central London, consisting of ground and podium landscapes, a sun deck and a sunken courtyard, with challenging weight loading and buildup restrictions.]
What is the most rewarding project you have worked on?
Beiqijia Technology District, as mentioned above, is one of the most rewarding projects I have worked on at Martha Schwartz Partners. It had an extremely demanding time frame that required us to rethink our project management process and methodologies in order to keep up with the client’s expectations. The systems and project management tools we developed for the project set a benchmark for the studio and ended up being used for all projects that followed.
Beiqijia is a mixed-use development incorporating Sustainable Urban Drainage systems (SUDs) to comply with LEED Gold accreditation. The site is 60,000 sqm, including a demonstration zone with accompanying show garden. The benefit of having a demonstration zone with a faster timescale for completion than the rest of the site was that we were able to test our palette of hardscape and softscape materials in a smaller area before applying it to the rest of the site. This allowed us to see what materials and plants worked well together, and to fine-tune the design and construction of bespoke furniture and structure. The demonstration zone phase of the project was built within 12 months of commencing design, which was gratifying. The most difficult part of the project, which is often the case with projects in China, is being confident about construction quality as our role in this stage of works is limited. Chinese clients prefers to be the central point of contact for all consultants, so communication is subsequently disconnected or miscommunicated as the right people are not speaking to each other to sort out technical issues.
Another rewarding project was Tooronga Village in Melbourne, Australia, where I worked at Murphy Design Group. This was a mixed-use retail, office and residential development that created public spaces for visitors and a private communal garden for the residents, blending street level to podium using a complementary palette of materials. The design and coordination processes were very thorough.
Do you have any other interests that intersect with your work?
I practice Feng Shui, which is a Chinese traditional science that dates back over 7000 years and engages in the essential creation of good chi energy for living in harmony and balance with our surrounding environment. I am now a certified Feng Shui practitioner, you can find me on www.yingyangtian.wix.com/fengshui. I have applied Feng Shui principles in several large mixed-use landscape architectural projects in China to meet client expectations and the needs of the end users.
What is the most exciting thing in your career?
Making a difference in people’s lives. A well designed landscape has the power to psychologically change people’s impression of spaces, how they use it and interact with each other.
Within a team environment, the things that motivate me are good interpersonal relationships, and an understanding of team members’ skills, values and how they work. Having a strong team with relevant experience and skill set are crucial, but so is having fun while working to maintain good team morale.
What is the most challenging for you?
The most challenging thing I find is combining the clients’ aspirations, sustainable design principles (as part of our responsibility as landscape architects) and the needs of the end users in each project. Sometimes it takes a bit of persuading to get clients on board for the latter two aspects.
What are your plans for the future?
To maintain a balance between family, career and spiritual life.
Interviewer: Andrew Slater