Student Project | Re(de)fining Decomposition | Joyce Fong

Winner of the 2023 WLA Student Awards – Award of Excellence in the Concept – Large Design category

Experienced the opposite settings of fallen trees in Hong Kong (urban city) and deadwood on Observatory Hill (forest) in Charlottesville, acknowledging the misconception of deadwood being perceived as destructive, the project aims to redefine decomposition as a joyful process and refine the general impression people have to deadwood. People are invited to witness the death of trees, to see, to touch, and to engage with this slow, quiet, yet elegant process. The design manipulates landforms, materials, and employs a simple visualization strategy to encourage interaction between humans and deadwood at Observatory Hill, aiming to reconnect people with the value of deadwood and recognize the ecological services contributed by decaying trees.

“Ground material” is not static but a medium of change. Material on the ground decomposes, then turns into material in the ground and for the ground.
Decaying trees in different decomposing levels and positions created various spaces then choreographed different postures in engaging specific space.
A notational system specifying the dimensions in relation to the human body and the level of decay is used to document wood decomposition.
Decomposing typology: Flowing In. Although standing straight, the decomposing type Flowing In is feeding the ground from inside. The trunk is hollowed and breaking down from the core.
Decomposing typology: Dissolving In. Only a small portion of the type Dissolving In is recognizable as a tree trunk. A large part of it was fragmented and mixed with soil particles.

Reveal: Opening to the External World

Observatory Hill, once a material-sourcing forest for the university, now serves as a staging area for composting fallen trees and leaf matter from the campus. It supports research and recreational activities too. Thick layers of fallen leaves accumulated and piled up around. As I shuffled through, the satisfying crackle and soft, fluffy texture of the leaves caught my attention. Fungi and moss thrived among the standing snags and fallen wood. Despite their hollow and fragmented state, they maintained distinctive shapes and sprouted new leaves and twigs. It was an appealing journey. Revealing this connection and engaging with deadwood in a joyful manner is a key aspect of the design approach.

Fallen trees in the city is always being recognized as deconstructive but it could be an interesting adventure in engaging fallen trees in the forest.

Assemble: Channeling Through Space and Time

Through experiential perspective, the scale of attention was manipulated to immerse people in the process of decomposition. Engagement should involve all senses, allowing a deeper understanding of the minute transformations within the microcosm. To enable this, a matrix of gradients representing decay intensity and deadwood density was created. This design enhances the moments of decomposition in both space and time. An in-person journey could rekindle a mutual relationship between humans and deadwood by experiencing the magnified process of decomposition.

An imaginary site design prioritizing human experience with deadwood is generated by assembling different units of deadwood setting.
Elemental spatial configuration units specifying a specific kind of interaction with deadwood are generated as imaginary site design.

Entangle: Motions in the Unseen Microcosm

In an urban setting bounded by concrete slabs and bustling streets, the deadwood is being perceived as a threat. While in the forest, they are the cradles of ecosystem diversity. By adding in the ecological layer to the design and correlating human experience, the multispecies interactions seek to create a platform for people to conceive decomposition as a productive process. This is a process of dissolving, shifting, contributing, donating, returning, and creating. All the tissues disintegrate and become part of the other living systems.

Entangling the experiential and ecological function of wood decomposition, people are expected to be an agency of soil incubation through interaction.

Inscribe: Wayfinding in the Deadwood Wonderland

To refine decomposition and change the perception of deadwood through landscape design, key methods include introducing landforms, rearranging materials, and using a simple visualization strategy. Three landforms in different shapes and sizes are proposed to accommodate various group sizes and serve social and ecological functions. Painting the deadwood and landforms in bright red allows visitors to explore the dynamic nature of decomposition freely, rather than following a fixed path. Over time, the fading paint visualizes the material shift as the wood decomposes. Besides recreation, the site functions as a soil incubation center, producing high-quality soil. The landforms are designed to hold woody debris and control surface runoff, speeding up decomposition. Visitors are encouraged to interact with the deadwood like decomposers, touching, stepping, kicking, and playing to accelerate the process in this decomposition wonderland. It is a circle of life – it grows, decays, and is reborn.

Instead of a prescribed path, this is a continuous and temporal process of setting up deadwood on site, allowing prompted self-explorations.

Re(de)fining Decomposition

Student: Joyce Fong, University of Virginia

Advisor: Leena Cho, Associate Professor, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Virginia

About Damian Holmes 3231 Articles
Damian Holmes is the Founder and Editor of World Landscape Architecture (WLA). He is a registered landscape architect (AILA) working in international design practice in Australia. Damian founded WLA in 2007 to provide a website for landscape architects written by landscape architects. Connect on Linkedin at