Ernest Wong: Bright­en­ing the Windy City

For last 25 years, the award-win­ning land­scape ar­chi­tect has cre­ated open space, beauty for Chicago

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

“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.


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