Ernest Wong: Brightening the Windy City
For last 25 years, the award-winning landscape architect has created open space, beauty for Chicago
“My father didn’t speak to me for almost a year when I decided to major in landscape architecture,” he said, chuckling.
He went ahead with his studies nevertheless at Michigan State University and decided to work for his father to “get a better training” upon graduation.
“I knew he would be very strict and tough,” Wong continued. He credits his father for the discipline and drive that have been instilled in him.
Wong is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his practice this year, with 20 fulltime staff, including LEED (green building rating system) accredited and licensed landscape architects, planners, and architects. He has gained a reputation for innovation and creative design.
In 2013, he became a Council Fellows of the ASLA, the highest honor the organization bestows on its members.
Wong said he waited for two weeks before calling his mother to tell her the news.
“There was a long pause over the phone,” Wong said. “Then my mother asked: “Why has it taken you so long?’”
He burst into laughter. Perhaps it is due to his parents’ high expectations, Wong said, that he has always been very critical of his own designs.
Among others, Wong works closely with the Chicago’s park district and architects.
“Chicago has more than 300 architecture firms,” said Wong. “Half of them are our clients.”
Some of Wong’s best-recognized designs include Henry Palmisano Park, Mary Bartelme Park and Ping Tom Memorial Park.
“Henry Palmisano Park is built on an old limestone quarry that was turned into a landfill with industry debris after it was closed in the late ’60s,” Wong said.
Working with his team he turned the 27 acres of wasteland into a habitat of native prairie, wetlands and a pond stocked with fish, with its water circulating to a sculpture fountain at the entrance. He also used the debris on the site to build a mound, with a winding trail leading to the top, giving visitors an overview of the park and its vegetation.
“You won’t feel you are in the city once you walk into the park,” Wong said.
Visitors and critics have noted the park’s Zen-like calm. Wong received the Chicago Athenaeum American Architecture Award in 2010 for the design.
For Ping Tom Memorial Park, located along the Chicago River near Chinatown, Wong consulted with the Chinese community and incorporated features characteristic of the Chinese culture, including a pagoda, a bamboo garden and nature trails lined with rocks from China, as well as a large playground. The design won him the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Award for Architectural Excellence in 2000.
Wong said growing up in an integrated neighborhood in Chicago, he was not conscious of being Chinese. His search for his identity came much later, and now, deeply associated with the Chinese community and playing a key role in transforming the streetscape in Chinatown, he is proud of his Chinese roots and heritage.
He serves as chairman of the board of the Chinese American Service League and is involved in many other non-profit organizations, including the Museum of Science and Industry, the Student Conservation Association and the YWCA.
“How could I not give back?” Wong said, citing gratitude for a life-changing program organized by the Student Conservation Association that he
Landscape architect Ernie Wong in front of a board showcasing 25 years of his landscape design work.