The recent announcement of Kongjian Yu, FASLA, as the winner of the 2023 Cornelia Hahn Oberlander Prize sent us back to the archives for this piece on his work at Hing Hay Park in Seattle.
—October 26, 2023
By Betsy Anderson, Associate ASLA
On a steely afternoon in late January, the soft notes of a dizi floated over the sound of construction in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District. The flutist played amid a line of safety fencing and the maneuvers of a carry deck crane. This was not an unusual scene in a city filled with building projects, in a neighborhood that proudly cradles cultural expression. But today, anyone crossing the intersection of 6th Avenue South and South King Street would not be greeted by the usual half-built shell of a mid-rise. Instead, a much less orderly silhouette emerged on the street corner. Asymmetrical, animalistic, and unapologetically red—a bending steel-clad structure reached up, piece by piece, to embrace the district’s most recently completed park.
“You need a touch,” says Kongjian Yu, FASLA, whose Beijing firm, Turenscape, led the park’s conceptual design. “You need one stroke—that’s important. Otherwise it becomes too quiet. The whole tone of Hing Hay Park is red,” he continues, explaining the new gate. “We want to keep the sense of ‘Hing Hay,’ which means happiness.”
The gesture was a long time coming. The gate’s crisp concrete plinths were ready for the park’s opening six months earlier and waited, fringed by purple moor grass. People in the community held their breath as the bold structure they’d known only through renderings came to life. In the intervening months, the gateway had transformed itself from an iconic design feature and technical achievement to a symbol of tension, embodying the debate that emerges whenever a neighborhood with a fiercely guarded past looks to the future.
To underscore this point, the new gate is sandwiched between the upturned eaves of two traditional and venerated structures: the 45-foot-high Historic Chinatown Gate, in eyeshot one block away, and an ornate pavilion just uphill, designed and built in Taiwan. Yu’s “one stroke” reaches across the park’s southwest corner at an oblique angle, and a series of terraces radiates upward from here. Yu drew on his agricultural roots, as he so often does, and deployed the formal language of terraced rice paddies to mediate the site’s 12-foot drop.
“The rice paddy texture was Kongjian’s way of speaking to all the different cultures in the neighborhood: The terracing was a kind of common language or common ground,” explains Nate Cormier, ASLA, who collaborated with Yu on the park’s conceptual design beginning in 2013. At the time, Cormier was a principal landscape architect at Seattle’s SvR Design Company (now MIG | SvR); he is now with Rios Clementi Hale Studios. He had eyed the project as the perfect opportunity to try out a long-desired collaboration with Yu. The park, about one-third of an acre, is Turenscape’s smallest project.
The translation of Yu’s celebrated Big Foot design principles to the site’s diminutive footprint demanded some concessions, namely in the type of plants permitted by Seattle Parks and Recreation to meet security and maintenance requirements. “In the plans I tried for something grassy, a bit messy,” Yu recalls. “We wanted to keep all the big trees, but no shrubs were allowed, because we couldn’t block the view. That’s why it looks quite empty to me, but it’s a safety issue.” Instead, the undulating terraces are dotted by compact Chinese natives—white crape myrtle and the slow-growing lacebark pine—that create definition without obstruction. A flush of blueberries above the middle terrace is an American take on Yu’s signature productive planting schemes.
“You’ll see in Kongjian’s work that even though he says ‘farmer, farmer, farmer,’ there’s always a contrast,” Cormier says. “There’s always an extensive solution and an intensive solution. The terracing became a kind of extensive solution—this is our farm—but it needed a frame.” Anyone familiar with Turenscape’s work is familiar with these punchy flourishes: the ribbon at Red Ribbon Park, the raised walkways and platforms of Quzhou Luming Park, and the Bayong Qiao Bridge at Yanweizhou Park all serve as a means to both shift and direct the gaze, allowing us to see something new in everyday processes. In the case of Hing Hay Park, Yu’s frame is focused less on ecological or agrarian performance. Instead it is directed unflinchingly at people—the human bonds that are needed to maintain cultural identity and a sense of place.
Early in the design process, the concept of a theater emerged in response to the unique social conditions of the site. The neighborhood has welcomed Asian immigrants since its conversion from a tideflat in the early 1900s, serving as a cultural anchor and home for Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Pacific Islander, Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian people. “These are places that hold a lot of memories,” says Jeff Hou, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington and a longtime supporter of community design initiatives in the neighborhood. “It’s not just a Chinese park, or a Filipino park, and the park’s not very big anyway, so how do you come up with a design that allows all the different groups to feel like it reflects their cultures?”
This question informed the criteria used by Seattle Parks and Recreation to select the new park’s design team. An active friends group that formed in the park’s early stages participated in the selection of MIG | SvR and Turenscape. The Friends of Hing Hay Park is reflective of the different cultures in the neighborhood and representative of local organizations, businesses, and residents. “It was really important that we integrate the character of the Chinatown-International District, the different ethnic groups—that they somehow reverberate through the park,” says Maria Batayola, a member of the group.
The design team resisted requests to fill the new space with monuments to specific events or people. A Chinese painting of a theater inspired a solution—a stage with a brazen red frame that would embrace all cultures and provide space for future generations. “Instead of each culture placing a physical object in the park, we would make an abstract theater that would become a stage for each group. This was so important to be able to say, ‘your event will happen here, instead of your war memorial,’” Cormier recalls. “We don’t want to disrespect each of those things, but if you fill up the park with those, you won’t have a collective statement.”
These preliminary ideas were presented and refined in a series of three community meetings, hosted by Seattle Parks and Recreation in late 2013 and early 2014. Although the city department expanded its typical outreach efforts to include listening sessions, a youth workshop, and surveys in multiple languages, the public involvement felt stingy to some residents and stakeholders in the neighborhood, which has an especially strong history of community activism in the city. Beginning in the early 1960s, residents and business owners galvanized around the fight to protect the neighborhood from the construction of Interstate 5, the north–south highway that would eventually cleave the district in two. Ten years later the community again battled an outside incursion, this time from a 60,000-seat stadium (the now-defunct Kingdome) constructed on its borders. These impositions came on top of the neighborhood’s long history of enduring and resisting displacement from economic pressure and racism. “The history of activism anchors people to a common understanding that this Chinatown-International District is born of pain and has become the beloved community,” Batayola says.
The site for the new park was a decommissioned post office, long eyed by the parks department for its adjacency to an existing 0.33-acre park, already named Hing Hay. The city was able to purchase the parcel and set the stage for a Hing Hay expansion in 2007, using funds raised by its 2000 Pro Parks Levy. The old building was deconstructed, and contaminated soil was removed, but the post office’s north wall was preserved to retain a parking lot next to it. Now painted yellow, it provides a vivid vertical edge for the park as the neighborhood evolves around it.
The old Hing Hay Park still stands to the east and is woven into the new addition by two curving paths that descend into the central gathering area. Designed in the early 1970s by the local firm of Sakuma, James, and Peterson, the original park was created in response to community demands for public space in the wake of the Kingdome fight. “Seeing the park expand is a physical and symbolic image of the community continuing to advocate for ourselves,” says An Huynh, the public space and community coordinator for the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority, a nonprofit community development organization that facilitates most public engagement efforts in the neighborhood. “This park has always been at the heart of the community and is a symbol of community activism.”
Spatially, the park is the community’s heart, nested within both the Seattle Chinatown Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and a city-designated International Special Review District. Its protections include programs and groups that zealously support low-income housing, neighborhood improvements, and services. “There was an urgency to keep these historic buildings and prevent people from being displaced,” Hou notes. “This allowed a stable population of residents, which is not the case in some other Chinatowns.”
Even a damp winter evening can’t suppress the neighborhood’s night life, which bubbles over from nearby cafés into the glowing space, punctuated by red seat steps—called assembly areas—that are lit from within to display plant and animal motifs. “We got a huge pile of books from the Asian Art Museum and went up there with a bunch of community members and searched for common themes,” remembers George Lee, a sculptor and environmental designer who worked on the project both from the Turenscape studio in Beijing and from MIG | SvR’s downtown Seattle office. The assembly areas’ “cultural perforations,” as Lee calls them, are articulated in a series of waterjet-cut triangles devised by their fabricators, Studio Fifty50.
The studio also tackled the design and fabrication of the gateway, transforming it from a nebulous, shape-shifting rendering to a constructable 15,000-pound artifact. It was this inevitable translation that undermined some of the community’s trust in the design process, as anxious questions about aesthetics, cost, and safety arose unexpectedly and late in the game, requiring the design team to scramble to address the new concerns. To increase its transparency, a triangle pattern is layered into the gate’s 109 red skin panels, in an attempt to evoke a tree canopy. The metaphor falls a bit flat in person, however, for the arch more than anything resembles a pair of clasped arms muscularly but benevolently holding the site.
The gate remains a polarizing feature, even after installation. For those involved in the design process, it continues to raise provocative questions about the relationship between tangible amenities and art, and whether a single artistic voice should be allowed to reflect the cultural identities and aspirations of many. “What the design process has done, at least for me, is to provide a discussion about what is truly Asian Pacific American or Chinese American art,” Batayola reflects. “One could argue, why didn’t we get a Chinese American or an Asian Pacific American designer? But at the end of the day, I suppose that if it helps somebody here go back to their roots, then that’s part of the emotional impact of the art.”
“People have really mixed feelings about the gate,” says Jamie Lee, the director of community initiatives for the district development authority. “I would have rather spent the money on things that people could use. Versus one of my friends last night, who said ‘I really like the gate! Am I not supposed to like it?’”
People in the park seem unburdened by these existential questions. It has become the neighborhood’s living room, offering a cool respite on summer evenings and a lively common. During the day, children, professionals, and elders play ping-pong, eat, play cards, and use the exercise equipment the community requested. Outsized Jenga blocks and a giant chess set are put out every day by the park’s concierge, sponsored by a nonprofit association that partners with the department of parks and recreation. Holes installed in the concrete plaza will allow easy installation of a badminton net. “Hopefully now if someone comes to the neighborhood and they don’t know the trials and tribulations and heartaches behind it, they just see a beautiful park,” Jamie Lee says, smiling as a young girl in a tutu toddles up one of the pathways.
In the end this sense of home may be the most significant measure of the park’s success. “The community really wanted to take this place as their own place,” Yu says. People revere landscapes because they carry the continuity of our stories. The former post office site might have been redeveloped into housing or businesses. Instead, a diverse community united around a uniquely American project of public space protection and civic participation. In so doing they have posited a new design idiom to express the Asian Pacific American experience—one that is less about form than the space of opportunity it frames.
Betsy Anderson, Associate ASLA, is a Seattle-based landscape architect and park planner.
Prime/Landscape Architecture MIG | SvR, Seattle. Conceptual Design Turenscape, Beijing. Civil Engineering MIG | SvR, Seattle. Structural Lund Opsahl LLC, Seattle. Lighting Dark Light Design, Seattle. Electrical Travis, Fitzmaurice & Associates, Seattle. Cost Estimating C&N Consultants, Seattle. Gateway and Assembly Area Design/Fabrication Studio Fifty50, Seattle. Soil Remediation Eco Compliance Corporation, Seattle.