Interview

Mikyoung Kim

Boston-based landscape architect, Mikyoung Kim, was studying to be a pianist when tendonitis caused her to rethink her career. She speaks to Kath Hudson about growing up feeling different and how landscape architecture has been a pretty good plan B


Read on turning pages | Download PDF | sign up to CLAD

Over the past two decades, Mikyoung Kim Design has crafted an exceptional portfolio of award-winning work, spanning from healing gardens in children’s hospitals to the expansive and high profile ChonGae Canal Restoration project in South Korea.

Trained in both music and art prior to studying landscape architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Kim’s work sits at the intersection of art and science, seamlessly combining art, manmade installations and nature.

In 2018, Kim was awarded the ASLA Design Medal, which recognises individuals who have produced a body of exceptional design work at a sustained level for at least 10 years. In her book on built landscapes, thought leader and author Sarah Goldhagen describes Mikyoung Kim’s landscape architecture as a ‘public amenity, and social condenser, which also inspires a graceful sense of play and deep imaginative thought’.

Last year, Kim also received the Cooper Hewitt Design Award from the Smithsonian Museum and this spring was included in Fast Company’s list of the World’s Most Innovative Companies in 2019.

You have a huge and varied body of work. How do you approach your projects?
It emerges out of a collaborative process. When you start a project, you feel like you’re in a dark hallway and there are all these doors you could potentially open up.

We don’t focus on a style: our work emerges out of the process of being interested in the client, the ecological issues, the design process, and the community we work with. Rather than going in with the attitude that we know what the end result is going to look like, we seek to discover the identity of each project.

Sometimes the idea comes very quickly, as if it was always there and waiting for the project; other times it can take years. We’re very lucky we attract clients who want to go on that journey with us.

What are the questions you ask your clients?
The first question is who are we designing for? It sounds simple, but 90 per cent of the time, the clients either don’t know, or get it wrong. The cities we live in are changing and evolving so quickly that understanding the neighbourhood and who is shaping the work is difficult.

We like working on projects where our clients don’t even know what the question is, and helping them to form the question. That’s very exciting to us and that’s why we rarely do competitions, because there isn’t time for that slow thinking, where the art emerges, like a tapestry.

When did you decide to be a landscape architect?
I originally trained as a pianist and was planning to be a musician, but when I developed tendonitis in my early 20s, I had to change my plans. It was devastating, because for as long as I could remember I had spent four or five hours a day playing piano, and my identity as a young person came from sound. Eventually I started working with some environmental and installation artists and found a real love for creating these immersive environments in the landscape and watching people engage.

There is a connection between landscape architecture and music, in that there is the idea of practising something. The music has the ability to be very responsive, but when it goes out into the world it has the capacity to be interpreted in many different ways. When it’s released into the world, the landscape work has to stand on its own and has to be strong enough to hold that identity.

Have nature and landscapes always been important to you?
I had a lot of freedom as a child, which I think children have less of now. I have really vivid memories of riding my bike to a local reservoir and exploring the woodland; I can remember the sound of water and the smell of the forest floor. It was like a childhood novel, to have no adults around and the freedom to immerse myself in these natural landscapes. Nature isn’t rigid or didactic. It’s open ended, that’s its beauty.

Has your childhood impacted your approach to landscape architecture in any other ways?
Growing up in the 1970s, I was the only Asian kid at my school. It was hard and I often felt very isolated. The other kids and the teachers were horrified by my packed lunches, because my mum made Korean sushi with seaweed and rice.

One teacher even wanted to change my name to Marianne. Despite being born in the US, it was hard to feel part of the tribe. As a child, you don’t want to be different and stand out, but my parents engendered in me the importance of being authentic.

I have since learnt that everyone has something inside them which they feel unsure about and which they feel differentiates them. Now, I can appreciate that being different was good for me. I was like a cultural anthropologist, watching what it was to be American, so now I find that I can go to places and truly see them.

What are the current trends within landscape architecture?
One of the things we are seeing from our clients is a greater interest in the health and wellbeing aspects of nature. There is now lots of research to show the neurological and physiological benefits: within three to five minutes, green spaces can normalise our bodies, ease muscle tension and the electrical activity in our brain.

People spend an average of 10 to 12 minutes outside every day. The rest of the time we are inside, often looking at screens, which makes living in cities difficult. Also, we’re spending more time online, curating who we engage with and where we get our news from, which is making societies more and more divided.

Can landscape architecture lessen this divide?
It’s important to me that with our designs we create communities where people who don’t know each other can start conversations. Small neighbourhood parks are equally as important as huge central parks; no matter how small the project, it must have something iconic or memorable about it.

For example, with the 140 West Plaza: Exhale project we created an installation based on the concept of stormwater. This was an issue which needed to be dealt with and the region gets very hot during summer, so I had the idea of creating an installation which “exhales” the water and lowers the ambient temperature of the plaza. It encourages people to sit and watch, and acts as a conversation piece.

Every project has to strike a balance between bringing something new to a community, addressing resiliency problems and creating a place value. At their foundation level, all cities have resiliency issues, and our practice is trying to make places which are compassionate and have social value.

How do you judge if your design has been a success?
What I find most rewarding is when I look on social media and find people using the spaces in ways that we couldn’t imagine. The mark of what I consider a success is when I don’t have to hire a photographer. It’s great to see people interpret the spaces in their own way – like the way music inspires different reactions. I love to see people using the spaces creativity.

Chicago Botanic Gardens Learning Campus
Chicago, US
The aim with this Chicago project was to create a learning gateway for children to the natural world Photo: Kate Joyce

Creating the space for discovery and imaginative play in the natural world was the intention of this six acre project. Features include an upland play mound area, a lowland fountain fed from an adjacent lake, an interactive stone water runnel for discovery and play, willow tunnels, an arborvitae contemplative room, hornbeam council ring and hollowed out logs in which to climb.

The design immerses children and families in a range of outdoor experiences Photo: Kate Joyce
Photo: Kate Joyce
ChonGae Canal Restoration project
Seoul, South Korea

Mikyoung Kim Design won this prestigious and transformative project through an international design competition. The main requirement was to highlight the future reunification of North and South Korea, through daylighting a seven-mile canal which had been covered with a highway since the 1960s. A vibrant public plaza has been created at the source point, with stone donated from quarries in each of the eight provinces of North and South Korea.

This redevelopment project has transformed the urban fabric of central Seoul
McIntire Botanical Garden
Virginia, US
Mikyoung Kim Design were recently selected to lead the design team for this project

Located on 8.5 acres, this modern day botanical garden will be a resilient place of botanical discovery. The design makes the most of the site’s natural features and is defined by a series of stepped gardens and woodland walks. Visitors will be encouraged to explore and engage with the natural world through experiences such as pine groves, a waterfall and mushroom gardens. There will be an event space and amphitheatre for holding public events.

Alexander Art Plaza
Florida, US
Photo: Mark Larosa

An open space for informal gatherings, this plaza features a sculptural seating piece made of laminated natural stone slabs which manage storm water and act as a rain garden. The project uses native stone materials draped across the site to create a wave-like form, referencing the local geology of the Florida peninsula. Surrounding the stone pavers and sculptural bench is a grass landscape. Visitors can sit in the shade of the canopy trees and view the integral art piece, or interact with the sculpture itself, finding ways to sit, stand, lie and climb.  The striations from the laminated stone slabs represent the groundswell of cultures that have influenced the region.

Mikyoung Kim created a new open space for informal gatherings Photo: Mark Larosa
Gallery
Click on an image to open the image gallery
company profile
Company profile: Matrix Fitness
Unrelenting drive to be the best at what we do underpins activity throughout our vertically integrated business life cycle.
Try cladmag for free!
Sign up with CLAD to receive our regular ezine, instant news alerts, free digital subscriptions to CLADweek, CLADmag and CLADbook and to request a free sample of the next issue of CLADmag.
sign up
features
The Center for Sustainable Landscapes in Pittsburgh, US
José Almiñana
"We are committed to designing evocative landscapes informed by the best environmental science"

The Andropogon principal on pushing the boundaries of landscape design for the benefit of humans and nature

The book was published in 2019 by RIBA Publishing
Elina Grigoriou
"Temperature, noise level and colour affect our stress levels. As designers we should be asking ourselves, how do these things match up?"

The London-based interior designer and wellness expert hopes her new book will help readers understand how to design with wellbeing in mind

Reflective panels on the underside of the roof minimise the loss of crowd noise
Populous’ Christopher Lee has designed more than 30 stadia across five continents
"Our new stadium and wider scheme has been developed to deliver an unrivalled fan experience and significant benefits to our local community. We want to make this venue a world class sports and entertainment destination for everyone, in our birthplace of Tottenham - Daniel Levy, Tottenham Hotspur FC chair "

Tom Walker exploresthe storybehind TottenhamHotspur’sgroundbreakingnew footballstadium

features
Lucky dip
The museum’s glass façade was designed to evoke a pleated Roman toga
Elizabeth de Portzamparc
"We need to stop the destruction of our world through predatory practices. We need to think of the future"

The architect behind Nimes’ Musée de la Romanité on designing to counter loneliness and the need for more cultural buildings

features
"We tried to take over in a friendly way"

The Standard’s first London hotel is bold, fun and full of surprising touches

The hotel features two restaurants and two bars, including the Julep Herbal & Vermouth Bar
Olga Polizzi is director of design for Rocco Forte Hotels and also owns two of her own hotels
"On Via Sistina, everything breathes history. At the same time I wanted to reflect the modern hunger for the fantastical - Tommaso Ziffer"

Following the highly anticipated launch of Rome’s Hotel de la Ville, Rocco Forte’s director of design reflects on a fascinating project

WeWork’s Rise gym was designed by Brittney Hart
Dror Benshetrit and Di-Ann Eisnor will head up the team
"We will work to fuse nature, design, technology, and community in our cities in order to measurably improve the lives of citizens"

High profile design hirings for the We Company

cladkit product news
Paul Kelley pushes 'technical boundaries' with modular furniture cube system
The system is designed to enable users to create multifunctional, adaptable pieces, where they are in complete control of the design and function of their furniture
Lauren Heath-Jones
British designer Paul Kelley has created a modular magnetic cube furniture system that enables users to create multifunctional, adaptable pieces, ...
Duravit launches Tempano shower trays
The Tempano trays feature a state-of-the-art design that combines a linear slope with a high drainage rate
Lauren Heath-Jones
Duravit, a Germany-based bathroom fixtures company, has launched Tempano, a series of easy-to-install shower trays for the home. Available in ...
Alusid's Sequel collection combines craftsmanship and sustainability says founder
The Sequel collection is billed as the 'most waste-efficient and sustainable' on the market
Lauren Heath-Jones
Alusid, a creator of eco-friendly surfaces, has partnered with Parkside to launch the Sequel range, the brand's first collection of ...
cladkit product news
Mater partners with Ditzel family to create eco-friendly furniture using reclaimed plastic
The furniture uses plastic from recycled fishing nets
Lauren Heath-Jones
Mater, an ethical design brand based in Denmark, has launched a furniture collection made from plastic reclaimed from the ocean. ...
nea studio showcase seaweed's design potential with hand-crafted algae lamps
The seaweed lamps were inspired by Edwards Anker's ethos of incorporating local and organic materials in her designs to give them a sense of place
Lauren Heath-Jones
Nina Edwards Anker, a Brooklyn-based designer and founder of architecture and design practice nea studio, has created a new collection ...
ZHD'S MEW Coffee Table explores relationship between surface and structure
The MEW Coffee Table is described as an investigation into the relationship between surface and structure
Lauren Heath-Jones
Zaha Hadid Design has partnered with Italian furniture design firm Sawaya & Moroni to create the Mew Coffee Table. The ...
cladkit product news
Crown overhaul changing rooms at Saunton Sands spa
Crown Sports Lockers installed rain of Nebraska Oak clothes lockers with RFID Digilocks in the changing rooms
Lauren Heath-Jones
Saunton Sands Hotel in Devon, UK, has completed a £2m expansion of its spa and wellness facilities. The upgrade included ...
Tom Dixon Studio to relaunch iconic Pylon chair
Pylon was first designed more than 20 years ago
Lauren Heath-Jones
Originally conceived in his metal workshop in the early 90's, the Pylon chair was Dixon's attempt to create the world's ...
BD Barcelona Design reveals Cristallo by the late Alessandro Mendini
Cristallo was the last design from acclaimed designer and architect Alessandro Mendini
Lauren Heath-Jones
Design Studio BD Barcelona Design has released Cristallo, a limited-edition cabinet designed by the late architect and designer Alessandro Mendini, ...