How I Learned to Really Study a City
Feb. 28, 2020
By: Lily Kwong
Growing up, travel was something that I fantasized about rather than did. My family didn’t have the resources to always travel abroad, so we spent a lot of time in the car taking long road trips through California, everywhere from Joshua Tree to Lake Tahoe to Big Sur. It was during those trips that I really fell in love with landscape, and I began to read books about travel and adventure. I was obsessed with Melville’s Moby Dick. That book transformed my life. There are certain lines from it that have sunk into my skin and my soul such as, “An everlasting itch for things remote.” That’s me. I’ve always wanted to find out what my whaleship would be.
I’ve spent my twenties traveling non-stop to make up for lost time. Shortly after turning 18, I left college for a couple years and traveled around Europe as a model. I’d bounce around from Paris to Milan to London, often on my own. To be among all those iconic buildings and beautiful artworks—and to feel the vibration and density of Europe—was so radical for me as a California girl. But I was also lonely during that time; I was craving the experience of being in a university. So I gave myself a curriculum, and would go to a museum or park almost every day and write about it—I’d even make flashcards to help me learn. I didn’t think of myself as an artist or creative in any way back then, but there’s so much great sculpture and great architecture in European cities that, looking back, it got into me through osmosis.
Now, as a landscape designer, I get to travel for work on my own terms. I’ve designed spaces all over the world—in Taiwan, Qatar, Lisbon—and I try to spend at least a week each year educating myself in another country. I always want to expose myself to how other people are doing things, and then bring back what I’ve learned and integrate it into my own work. Spending time in a city’s parks is a big part of that. I love to see how people interact in places like Central Park, Hyde Park, and the Jardin du Luxembourg. After all, we emerged from nature—we want to be connected to the natural world—yet so few major cities give us what we need.
It’s the little details that make a place feel remarkable. Like in Bologna, courtyards and car-free areas totally change the vibration of the city. And in Lisbon, it’s the tiles on the fronts of the houses and apartments that give the city such a sense of art, poetry, and creativity. It’s the same in Oaxaca, where the imperfections of the walls allow you to feel the touch of the person who built them. I’m always looking for those Wabi Sabi moments when I travel—those moments of imperfection.
If we let it, design has the power to help us create more compassionate, equitable, and balanced places for us to live in. But I don’t see that happening in a lot of cities. When I look around, say, New York, I see a lot of right angles that were designed by men, all of whom I guarantee look very much the same. I’m a young Chinese-American woman. It feels essential that I bring a new sense of space into the world. And hopefully, as more women and more people of color start designing, we can start to live in a different one. If we change the way our cities are built, we can change who we are.
—As told to Lale Arikoglu
Lily Kwong is a landscape designer and founder of Studio Lily Kwong. You can follow her work and travels on Instagram at @lily_kwong.
Source: Conde Nast Traveler