Design Anthology Issue 9
Loving the Land
Landscape architect Chang Huaiyan’s designs reflect his quest to understand the vast complexity and immaterial aspects of one’s natural environment.
From his Facebook page, you can tell that landscape architect Chang Huaiyan leads quite the adventurous life. When I last checked, he was in Rajasthan, holding a camel’s reins while gazing into the orange glow of the setting sun. A few months back, there was a photograph of him standing under giant trees in a Bogor forest. Last year, he was building a temporary cinema above the lush, wild treetops of Borneo, patronised by curious monkeys and homing hornbills.
Even from the name of his Singapore-based company, Salad Dressing, it is clear that Chang is no ordinary creator of plant landscapes. A contemplative, explorative language defines these worlds that span from curvaceous waterscapes reminiscent of hilly rice paddies in The Minton condominium, and reflective pools embracing an existing temple in the Alila Seminyak resort, to hardscapes in architect Kerry Hill’s Aman Tokyo and a house in Singapore where rocks and stones intricately carved out Japanese craftsmen are placed to produce meditative sceneries both rough and refined.
Like a born storyteller, Chang speaks in a lyrical manner, punctuating the conversation with humorous anecdotes. But there is also the seriousness of tone from someone who has taken responsibility of his craft. His career started off in a rather serendipitous way. The Malaysian-born Chang was studying architecture at the National University of Singapore when, during a lecture, his doodles on the topic captured the attention of the lecturer, famed garden designer Made Wijaya. Wijaya got Chang to illustrate his book while mentoring him on landscape design in Bali.
The stint in Bali, Chang shares, opened up a whole new way of looking at life “in a way where we adapt ourselves to live in the environments that we are in, and to fall in love with the land, and become aware of its history, the geography and even at times, the literature of being in the tropics,” he says. “Unfortunately we are not mindful of it because we are trapped in the air-con room; we hardly see the waxing or waning of the moon.”
In 2002, Chang founded his company in Singapore, getting his hands dirty working on several small gardens. “I got a bit of a tan, got familiarised with acquiring the basic skills of a gardener, which is in fact a very deep-seated aspect because your physical activity is now attached to your product.” Now 13 years later, the company designs landscapes mainly for condominiums and hospitality developments. Work has also taken him all over the world, from Singapore to the Carribean, India and Italy. “We started to learn how to study the world, instead of just the tropics itself,” says Chang. Simultaneously, he also reached new levels of understanding of various garden cultures. From Borneo – “a real rainforest” – where he is currently working on Alila Dalit Bay, he became appreciative of its rich bio-diversity; in Japan, he pondered upon the theory of minimalism as applied to landscape architecture.
“Minimalism is the Japanese term for ‘as little as possible is as much as possible’, or in a single moment, your design is so powerful that you have the feeling of paradise,” Chang reflects. The search for this “feeling of paradise” has led Chang to involve the firm in several personal projects aside from bread-and-butter work. These include The Bowing Plant’s Dream for the 2014 Gardening World Cup in Nagasaki, featuring a bed of mimosas enclosed within a wooden cabana in a tropical rainforest setting that reacts to synchronised water droplets and a soundtrack, and the treetop cinema for the Borneo Rhythms of Rimba Wildlife Festival to project the film Sandokan by Sergio Sollima (1976) based on Emilio Salgari’s famous novels set within Sandokan in Borneo.
“I think this is when you can be truthful to yourself…when you try to answer some of the most difficult questions you are facing by yourself instead of hiding behind a client,” explains Chang on these projects. Despite the extra hours and challenges, such as the encounter of a poisonous tree in the treetop project for example, it is part and parcel of the ongoing artistic search to try to understand more about the land, says Chang. “At the end of the day, sitting at the top of the trees, watching the hornbill flying back to its nest, I think that was the moment of paradise [in our tropics] that the Japanese have been so eager to find in their zen garden.”