For Kotchakorn Voraakhom, water and landscape mingle

This interview is part of our latest Special file Women and Leadership , which spotlights the women who are making significant contribut...


This interview is part of our latest Special file Women and Leadership, which spotlights the women who are making significant contributions to the great stories unfolding in the world today. The conversation has been edited and condensed.


Kotchakorn Voraakhom, 43, is a Thai landscape architect whose firm, land processfocuses on social and environmental transformation through projects such as canal gardens, water storage parks and rooftop farms.

You grew up in Bangkok, got your master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and worked for landscape architecture firms in the United States before returning to Bangkok and starting your own practice. Your work combines both international and local perspectives. What is the advantage of this approach?

Responding to climate change is not something generic. We have to adapt each solution to a culture and an environment. Here in Thailand, it’s about drought and floods. It’s not about melting the ice. There are flash floods and floods that remain. There are different patterns of nature. And they are different from what they were. We have to adapt.

Your creations explore both landscape and water. Can you talk about your connection to the two?

I still remember sneaking through the canals as a kid and seeing the greenery along them. There was already less and less nature around them, but it was a moment of healing for me. My house was a townhouse along the main road. We didn’t have a backyard, just the street. The only walks you could do were very hot, very dangerous and very polluted.

Bangkok is built on humid areas and subject to heavy rains. What to do with the frequent floods?

When my company builds parks, we accept that they are flooded. Right now, when we are building for the floods in Thailand, we see it with fear. We build dams higher and higher. This is how you often deal with uncertainty – with fear. You must face uncertainty with flexibility, with understanding. It’s OK to flood, and it’s OK to be “weak”. It means resilience. With this mindset, you create designs that speak with nature. Who dances with nature. It’s very Buddhist — accepting the world as it is.

Your company’s first major project was Chulalongkorn University Centenary Parkin central Bangkok, which you completed in 2017. Can you talk about this design and how it helps address flooding, overdevelopment and lack of public space?

It was the city’s first major park in 30 years, and the university built it to celebrate its 100th anniversary. We said it was not just about celebrating what has been, but about helping the city and its citizens survive and thrive for the next 100 years. So let’s try to define a new way of working with water and living in the city.

The entire park is tilted to collect water. At one end you have a series of sloping buildings containing museums, cafes, car parks and other functions, which we have fitted with a green roof. Three underground tanks store rainwater absorbed by the roof. From here the land slopes down to a main lawn and a series of wetlands, then continues to a retention pond. When it rains, the excess water from the green roof is filtered by the wetland, then flows into the retention basin which can double in volume.

The concept partly comes from the idea of ​​monkey cheeks. our former king [Bhumibol Adulyadej] seen that a monkey stores its food in its cheeks and then eats it when hungry. It’s a kind of monkey’s cheek for water in the city.

Seems like a good example of how you work. You tend to push the boundaries of ideas that are already pushing the boundaries themselves.

There are so many things to discuss when talking about public space. So if you have a chance, you want to solve several problems. I don’t think a design can serve a single client. It must serve the entire city, the entire population and the entire ecosystem. Design is having unexpected customers: birds and bees. You serve customers far beyond those who pay you.

What are the biggest challenges you face in achieving this?

Change has happened so quickly here that it has been difficult to adapt. Not so long ago, there were ancient cities and rice fields. Then, boom, concrete, big buildings. All of this density has happened in the last 50 years. The speed of change has been too fast and much of the response has come without direction. That’s why we need trades like urban planning and landscape architecture.

You co-founded the Porous urban network, which discusses ways to naturally reduce the impacts of flooding in Southeast Asia. Explain this effort and its challenges.

Many people don’t understand what we offer if they don’t have an architectural or engineering background. They think if you build walls and dams, that’s the best solution. As designers, we have powerful tools to create images and animations, to show them what reality will be like – the impacts of the big walls they will have to live with forever. Do you really want this when there are only five flood days a year? We try to convince them that there is another way.

What are some of the challenges of being a female designer in Thailand?

My identity is confused. In Thai culture, I’m a little American, and in American culture, I’m very Thai. I don’t want gender to be another burden.

There are many advantages to being a woman; especially the connection with nature. I think with motherhood, body cycles, we are more in touch with nature in our bodies and our hearts.

Another advantage of being a woman is that I’m not afraid of losing face, and I feel more flexible because of it. Masculine stereotypes are so strong. For women, there are fewer expectations; you can do what you want. You can be yourself.

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