Mikyoung Kim: Designing Environments for a Changing World

Mikyoung Kim is an ethnic Korean, brought and raised in the US. She has an unusual background for a landscape artist, including studying music and sculpture. But she says these experiences have broadened her ability to design for the real world – what she calls Hybridised Living. By Jeremy Torr & Jared Green.

Boston, US. December 2 2017. “We all spend too much time on our digital toys,” says landscape artist and designer Mikyoung Kim. “When I see a group of teens walking down the street together and texting other friends, I have to admit I feel confused.” Kim says it’s clear that technology has some benefits for kids—they have access to information quickly and they can connect easily to a wider group of friends. But she says she tries to avoid too much nostalgia. “I think we have to accept that the world has changed. We live a hybridized life,” she says.

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Kim has already proven her ability to step across cultural and time boundaries with part of the design for the ground breaking ChonGae Canal Source Point Park in Seoul, Korea. Her commission was to help design a garden as part of the revitalising of the original 12km section of the ChonGae river that had nourished the founding of Seoul as capital of what is now Korea, way back in the late 1300s.

For 40 years, the river was little more than a sewer, covered and kept out of sight until the early 2000s. Then, with a budget of US$281 million, the waterway was opened up and restored to its previous health – partly thanks to Kim’s design.

Engaging landscapes

Today, Kim says part of her drive to help provide engaging landscapes, even in cities, is prompted by lifestyle changes impinging on young people. For example, recent research found that one-third of all children worldwide spend less than 30 minutes a day outside and half spend less than an hour a day outside. Anything she can do to help offset that, she will. 

“Young people these days are able to toggle between two worlds and use technology to help them better understand the world that they inhabit,” she says. “As landscape architects, we must embrace the fact that people live in both digital and analogue worlds.” She admits that there are also clear connections between childhood obesity and the use – or overuse – of technology, but says that landscape architects should step up and help councils and cities plan their neighbourhoods better to help ease the problem.

“It’s the daily rituals that really matter,” she says. “Instead of focusing on large centralised parks, it’s important for us to advocate for more atomized green neighbourhood plans.” The kind of plans that encourages children to walk through a pocket park, a neighbourhood park, every day, or even twice a day – even if they use their phone as they do so.

Kim comes to her work from the perspective as artist as much as landscaper. She is an alumna of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design where she was awarded several merit prizes, but also studied at the Oberlin College Conservatory where she trained as a pianist and sculptor. This artistic side to her personality has undoubtedly influenced her output.

 Innovative material and design are key Kim hallmarks, as here at the Alexander Art Plaza. Courtesy Mikyoung Kim Design

Innovative material and design are key Kim hallmarks, as here at the Alexander Art Plaza. Courtesy Mikyoung Kim Design

“Like kids [live] these days, we approach the [design] process in a hybrid fashion. We use both analog and digital tools. Personally, I love technology; it’s really transformed the kind of landscapes we can make,” she says. But she says she can also “be a little suspicious” of the beautiful but singular perspectives that can be produced by digital design and rendering technologies; “that’s not how our perception works,” she says. “In one minute, our eye can see 3,000 different perspectives. In singular [digital] perspectives, we tend to pick the hero shot and neglect the shots that don’t look as great.”

Multisensory experiences

Another of her projects, the Chicago Botanic Gardens, showcased her commitment not just to create visual beauty but to go further and encourage multi-sensory engagement: more hybridisation. “We wanted to create gardens that encourage kids to touch things; places where the leaves rustle in a way that really encourages listening. Through this process of engagement in a multi-sensory garden, children learn something about natural processes,” she says.

 The Chicago Botanic Garden draws heavily on Kim's philosophy of multisensory experiences. Courtesy Mikyoung Kim Design

The Chicago Botanic Garden draws heavily on Kim's philosophy of multisensory experiences. Courtesy Mikyoung Kim Design

Nonetheless, she is aware that designing a “natural” environment is something of an oxymoron. “As I’ve said, I think ‘nature’ is a pretty loaded word. I’m not sure that anything near [the Botanic Gardens] is really ‘natural’ anymore. Instead, what we did was to try to capture and abstract natural systems; we engaged the community to create complex and layered programming for visitors of all ages.

One issue Kim is keen to address is the lack of variety in the majority of children’s playground layout and facilities. “We’re interested in etching deep memories. But the homogeneity of playgrounds is a real issue. You can go to [almost any city] and see the same play equipment. The games [the children] play have answers already defined by some adult somewhere,” she laments. As a result, Kim is keen to create environments and landscapes that are more open-ended, that allow for the imagination to thrive.

 Many of Kim's designs feature water as part of their activity zones. Courtesy Mikyoung Kim Design

Many of Kim's designs feature water as part of their activity zones. Courtesy Mikyoung Kim Design

The other stumbling block she tries to address in her projects is, she says, fear. “Too much of our built environment is designed from a place of fear. We had to make a decision while we were working on one project … each time we said — “Well, we want water. We want to hear the sound of trickling water” — the client would present evidence that if we did that, a certain population … could contract Legionnaires’ disease.”

Compelling challenges

Challenges like this, and issues with that evolving hybrid lifestyle are constantly driving Kim and her team to create something compelling, a unique element that will draw young people to it. But she says it takes more than simply upping the ante in terms of technology, or merging technology into the landscape itself, so that landscapes morph into a kind of hybrid video game.  “Kids are incredibly smart,” she says. “They’ll look at it and say, “Well, that’s lame,” she adds.

 Kim's Crown Skygarden appeals to children - and adults. Courtesy Mikyoung Kim Design

Kim's Crown Skygarden appeals to children - and adults. Courtesy Mikyoung Kim Design

So whenever she can, Kim opts instead to use a design that had innovative materials — materials people haven’t seen before, and contemporary materials used in innovative ways. The children love it, says Kim. “Innovative materials draw kids. They ask a lot of questions: “What is this? How is it made?” and so on.”

Kim and her team are currently working on projects at the Tanja Waterfront in Tangiers, Morocco, and a West 18th Street Complex in New York. But the same themes crop up wherever she works; a mix of natural and new materials, used in innovative and challenging ways. “People want something that is beautiful, interesting, strange, and vibrant, and accessible to everybody.”

Many thanks to The Dirt for the original interview with Mikyoung Kim, and permission to republish parts of their story.