Alumni Q&A / Kotchakorn Voraakhom MLA ’06

GSD_self-image1To help save her hometown of Bangkok, Thailand from rising sea levels and climate change, Kotchakorn Voraakhom MLA ’06 founded the landscape architecture design firm Landprocess and a social enterprise called Porous City Network, a landscape architecture social enterprise working to increase urban resilience. Through Porous City Network, Voraakhom works with communities throughout Southeast Asia to help find other ways to bring back green space and live with water. In response to the threat of flooding, Voraakhom has created an 11-acre Centenary Park at Chulalongkorn University that contains artificial wetlands and underground containers that can hold one million gallons of water. While at the GSD, she co-founded the Konkuey Design Initiative, an international partnership that works with communities in difficult landscapes to design and rebuild public space through a participatory process.

Voraakhom is a TED Fellow (watch her TED Talk here), Echoing Green Fellow, Atlantic Fellow, and Asia Foundation Development Fellow and was named one of Fast Company’s “Most Creative People for 2019.” Also, she is also a highly active campaigner for public green space and is a design consultant for the Redevelopment Bangkok 250 project celebrating the city’s 250th anniversary. This November 2019, she will be a featured speaker at the ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture’s session “No Time to Waste: Landscape Architecture and the Global Challenge of Climate Change,” along with fellow alumnus Kongjian Yu DDes ’95. Find more information here.

1. Tell us about your background.

Bangkok is where home is to me—it rooted in me are its tropical landscape, monsoon rain, humid air, canals, and rivers. I was born here, back when the city was nothing more than low density with rice fields. My parents were the first Chinese generation in Thailand, after migrating from the mainland during the country’s cultural revolution. Hardworking and business-oriented, they were also invested in my and my siblings’ education.

During my undergrad at Chulalongkorn University—the country’s oldest university or as many call it, the “Harvard of Thailand”—I first learned about landscape architecture. The profession was new and still not well-recognized in Thailand then. And at the age of 18, I didn’t know what it was exactly either. But years past and the more I realized what I was getting myself into. Today, I feel very grateful for having chosen this path to pursue in landscape architecture.

2. Why did you decide to come to Harvard for your MLA?

During my senior undergrad year in Thailand, I applied for internships in some of the top design firms in the US. Luckily, I became the first student from my department to intern in the US at Sasaki’s SWA Summer Internship program and then Design Workshop in the following year.

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Voraakhom working in the trays as a GSD student.

From Stuart O. Dawson MLA ’58 and Alistair MacIntosh (Sasaki) to William Byrd Callaway MLA ’71 (SWA) and Todd Johnson MLA ’82 (Design Workshop), I was fortunate enough to learn and work with several legacy makers in the field. During my internships in the US, I got the chance to collaborate with several GSD teachers and alumni, all who were people to whom I looked up and aspired to emulate.

3. Looking back, what experiences at the GSD were the most helpful in shaping your career?

There are those classes that would blow my mind about landscapes, especially from the classical lecture classes with Carl Steinitz (Landscape Planning), Richard Forman (Landscape Ecology), Niall Kirkwood (Brownfield), and John Stilgoe PhD ’77. Those classes shifted my entire worldview and remain relevant to this day.

I was a recipient of the Penny White Project Fund, which I used to study the aftermath of the Tsunami disaster in Thailand in 2004, those lectures began to make sense. During this research trip, I remember the voices of my professors sounding like a small symphony in my head! Their courses really helped me set up a foundation of understanding in the essence of landscape architecture and the potential it holds.

4. What about the GSD currently excites you?

As my work primarily concerns changing landscapes amidst our current climate crisis, I am always excited to see GSD’s option studios discuss the issue, especially with a focus across a variety of geographical regions around the world. I think by doing so, the GSD is taking the academic lead in the built environment and pushing new generations of designers to set the mission as their top design priority.

Award-winning students, professors, and alumni—like Assistant Professor of Architecture Holly Samuelson MDes ’09, DDes ’13 who has been awarded the Climate Change Solutions Fund grant by now Harvard President Emerita Drew Faust and many option studios focusing in this topic—put a big smile on my face and give me hope by creating a new standard of climate resilience design in academic and profession.

5. You have worked with Design Workshop and GSD Alumni Council Chair Emerita Allyson Mendenhall AB ’90, MLA ’99. How did this relationship come about?

I feel extremely honored to have had Allyson has my mentor, colleague, and friend, during my time at Design Workshop. She’s very organized as a project manager, and I learned a lot being part of her team. Moreover, I learned from her devotion to ambition, especially about the demanding nature of being a woman in the profession. Back then, she had just had her second baby, and she handled it beautifully.

With her expertise in writing from her English major at Harvard, she helped edit my GSD application essay and portfolio text, all with red lines and clear explanations for my Thai-sounding English. To this day, I still feel extremely grateful for her kindness.

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Dean Emeritus Mohsen Mostafavi with Kotchakorn Voraakhom MLA ’06 at the March 2019 GSD Alumni Reception in Bangkok.

6. You attended the GSD Bangkok Alumni Reception in March. What was this experience like? What value do you see in engaging with the GSD alumni community and connecting with the School?

The Reception was a great bonding time for me and my GSD friends! It was lovely for us Thai GSD alumni to physically reconnect—the most Thai alumni gathering I’ve ever experienced in Bangkok. Seeing Dean Emeritus Mohsen Mostafavi and GSD’s commitment to enriching the relationship with alumni in Thailand, I’m excited to see the future collaborations that will come out from our get-together. The reception reminded me of that need for belonging, and GSD and its people will always have a place for me.

7. When Thailand flooded in 2011, you were displaced from your home along with millions of other people. How did this influence your work?

I would have never thought my childhood pastime, boat paddling with friends in the floodwaters in front of my house as a little girl, would later become a catastrophic disaster. It was an awakening period for me to be displaced in my own homeland, along with millions of my people.

Bangkok is one of the most threatened cities by climate change, and the concrete urban infrastructure we have has made us very vulnerable to future uncertainties. With no excuse, as practitioners of the physical built environment, we, too, are part of the problem in our work and impact in urban development. But as a landscape architect, I know I can be part of the answer for urban flooding and other environmental issues, and so I work every day to execute those solutions and enable people in professions different and alike to do the same.

8. Tell us about your professional career. You founded the landscape design studio Landprocess and the social enterprise Porous City Network. What drives your work?

Practicing with public space takes a particular intersection of designer instincts and entrepreneurship to work creatively and push through projects that truly benefit society. Most design firms in Thailand survive by working with commercial projects like condominiums or malls, but I want to create an innovative player in today’s challenging business climate. Landprocess commits to provide service in public projects and difficult urban landscape contexts, and while it hasn’t been easy, this is my passion and ‘easy’ isn’t what I’m looking for!

Landprocess has been operating for seven years, while Porous City Network (PCN) is entering its third. With the experience of founding and co-founding several organizations, I’ve learned how to establish and grow socially-impactful ventures, as well as attracting funding sources to not only sustain but elevate them. Both organizations are currently active with their original missions intact at the core of every project.

PCN addresses one broad but critical question: how can we make a city porous? Decades of rapid urbanization worldwide has created vulnerabilities and increased water stresses in our urban landscapes. Urban sprawls destroy cities’ natural eco-services, their resilience, and their ability to adapt. In Thailand, agricultural land and ecological green patches that once absorbed seasonal flood and cycles of monsoon rain have been paved over by urban development, degrading urban ecology and increasing flooding and stormwater pollution. PCN works to revive traditional knowledge about our ecology and reintegrate that back into our approach in sustainable urban development.

In addition to producing landscape solutions to mitigate urban flooding, PCN’s mission also revolves around education advocacy and participatory processes in co-creating those innovations. As a landscape architect, I believe we are obligated not only to contribute but also spread these solutions across a diverse range of regions and professions.

9. You’ve spoken about your work at many conferences including TED Conference in Vancouver (2018), and a United Nations Panel on social enterprises (2018). and keynote opening for United Climate Change, NAP Expo 2019. On Monday, November 18, you will be speaking at the American Society of Landscape Architects Conference on Landscape Architecture on the panel “No Time to Waste: Landscape Architecture and the Global Challenge of Climate Change.” The panel also includes fellow GSD alumnus Kongjian Yu DDes ’95. How did this panel come about? What are you looking forward to most about ASLA?

Firstly, I would like to thank ASLA for inviting me to the special occasion. I’d like to believe my role at the conference is in providing context about the difficult landscape I come from, about the challenges I face as a landscape architect in solving environmental issues in my city and region. While climate change is a global problem, its impacts are very site-specific—so are its solutions, which need to be implemented under cautious consideration to the location’s ecology, topography, culture, and budget. First-world solutions shouldn’t be copy-pasted to developing countries without a deep understanding of the places’ social and environmental complexity. And because of that, I am honored to be able to share my insights from the landscape architecture profession which has plenty to offer to solve the crisis.

This year’s ASLA will be my first, and I am looking to reconnect with my colleagues and friends and share what we have developed in our careers. Kongjian Yu DDes ’95 and Hitesh Mehta are both big-name landscape architects who I respect as my role model coming from a generation of practitioners before me. For this climate change discussion, I’d like to share my situation with them and discuss how we can work in our field to confront climate emergency together.

10. What advice do you have for GSD students and/or alumni?

My time at GSD was a period of my life when I explored and searched for new territory in who I was as a landscape architect. Even more so, it was the time I found my people. Some might say it’s a competitive place, cold and grey, but for me, it was a warm and welcoming place where I made friends for life.

These weren’t just the friends for Beer ‘n Dogs—they were the ones you find along your journey when you needed someone to reflect upon yourself with or see a different perspective whether in work or life. So I’d suggest you look all around—they may not look like one, but everyone around you is critical, funny, passionate, and hardworking in their own ways—just like you! Learn not only from the class and professors, but also your friends and classmates.

11. Where do you go to feel inspired and fulfilled?

I go to landscapes and its people and let their interconnected relationships fascinate me. I love to see beautiful humanmade landscape architecture, but what stuns me more is seeing the meaningful interplay they have with their surrounding landscapes and lifeforms.

While this line of work can be challenging and bittersweet, to see my projects interwoven with my passion and purpose is exciting, fulfilling, and all worth it. Although it’s important to work to address the needs of your clients, I think what’s more necessary is working for the place and its people.

12. What is the difference in practice between the US and Thailand?

I learned a lot being a practitioner in the US, with that experience permanently firmly embedded in the foundation of my life-long career.

One time, I was tasked with designing a casino in Las Vegas, and while that may sound like a dream project to many, it made me question my role as a landscape architect. What and who was the landscape for? Working on a project that provided no positive deep impact or purpose, it is meaningless. I realized I valued public use projects much more, contributing with purpose to a place in need and people at risk. I felt the need to create a landscape that made sense not only to me but the landscape and people that lived upon it.

With that realization, I decided to return home to continue another chapter of my life. It definitely has not been the easier path, but regardless, I feel more alive and fulfilled to now serve the land I come from and its people in need.

13. What would surprise us about you?

Surprise #1: We—my Thai GSD alumni friends, Professor Niall Kirkwood, and I—are planning on launching the first option studio in Bangkok, where I will teach and organize courses in collaboration with GSD and universities in Thailand. If it’s possible and when it’s official, I’d love to invite GSD students to sign up for it. Bangkok is a rapidly growing city on a delta landscape, and we are one of the most at-risk cities of climate change with good food, so we need all your help!

Surprise #2: I’m excited for my green roof at Thammasat University to be completed very soon! It will be the biggest one yet in any single building in Southeast Asia, equipped with landscape solutions to tackle climate change using urban farming and rain and runoff utilization as the architecture’s skin. I look forward to sharing more about this project with you by the end of this year.

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The green roof at Thammasat University.

14. Please let us know about anything not addressed here that you’d like to share with readers.

You know those exhausting days and nights when you put more than 100% into your project, just to present it to a big-name guest lecturer in one of your courses? They were extremely tiring, but you know that big smile you get hearing the “great work!” coming from those lecturers? It definitely paid off at your desk crit and pin-up, and I’m sure it will, too, later in your future work. Weren’t they more than 100% worth it?

I hope the profession we share flourishes in helping the world deal with the pressing issue of climate change, and we can all contribute by putting it as our top priority in design and its implementation. Here are some links to my work that I’d love to share with you all. We journey together to a goal to make our planet Earth better each day, and I hope we can get there as soon as possible with our conjoined efforts.