Alumni Spotlight: Kotchakorn Voraakhom MLA ’06
“Nature is changing, the climate is changing, and so we, too, need to change. We must understand that fixed definitions of nature from the past no longer apply in this era of uncertainty we are confronting. Climate change is causing cities to sink, and our current infrastructure is making us even more vulnerable to severe flooding. What if we could design cities to work with nature instead of against it?”
— Kotchakorn Voraakhom
Over the next couple of months, we are continuing to share conversations with several of our alumni, each of whom pursued different areas of study at the GSD and are now leading impactful careers in design.
We recently spoke with Kotchakorn (Kotch) Voraakhom MLA ’06. Kotch is the founder and lead designer of the award-winning landscape architecture and urban design firm LANDPROCESS, where she’s working to improve Thailand’s public spaces and solve urban ecological problems through landscape architectural design. During the spring 2023 semester, Kotch is also a design critic in Landscape Architecture at the GSD and is co-teaching the Option Studio BANGKOK REMADE with Niall Kirkwood, Professor of Landscape Architecture and Technology and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs.
Kotch’s recent work spans a major urban ecological park at the heart of Bangkok and numerous innovative public landscape designs. She’s a Chairwoman of the Climate Change Working Group of the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA World) and a 2018 TED Fellow. The United Nations honored Kotch as a winner of the 2020 UN Global Climate Action Awards: Women for Results.
How did you hear about the GSD and what drew you to apply?
In Thailand, I studied landscape architecture at Chulalongkorn University. After graduating, I got a chance to work in the U.S. for a couple of years—which is quite hard to do as an international student, so I was very lucky. My landscape architecture profession started in the U.S. at Sasaki. My boss at the time, Alistair McIntosh, is on faculty at the GSD, and my professor Pornpun Futrakul MLA ’77 had graduated from the GSD, so I heard great stories about their experiences. The GSD seemed like a commonality among many people I looked up to, which made me think, “If I really want to be a great landscape architect, maybe the GSD is the answer.”
Was there a certain experience that you look back on as being helpful in finding the right practice?
A huge turning point was meeting my peers at the GSD. We were all questioning our place within the profession, and six of us founded an organization called the Kounkuey Design Initiative. It felt like my dream job to work for those in need of our services, rather than those who hired us for services they wanted. So, we wrote a proposal for a grant through the Penny White Project Fund—and we got it.
This was around 15 years ago—it’s remarkable, looking back. It wouldn’t have been possible without the platform the GSD provided; it wouldn’t have been possible without meeting the right people, [who became] my colleagues and friends.
Why is it so important to learn about the various cultures you’re serving when trying to come up with new design solutions?
We’re designing for humans, right? If we want to understand the needs of the people we’re designing for, we have to go and listen to them. We have to experience their culture, their food, their language—even if it’s just for a short period of time. Each unique site is so specific, and every project can vary dramatically depending on the location.
That’s why the option studios were such a great learning opportunity [at the GSD]. They gave us the chance to learn about another culture through real hands-on experience. Culture, climate, and people can vary drastically, and something that works in one country might not work in another. I feel that is what’s lacking in much of our practice. We talk to our clients, or whoever is paying us, but we don’t talk to the real stakeholders, who are the people being impacted by our work.
What goals and objectives did you have in mind when starting your current practice, LANDPROCESS?
There’s no “land process” without “people process.” I am very excited about the possible solutions for climate-vulnerable communities. I’m excited for the challenges that my team and I will face, even though they are very serious. For example, I’m from Bangkok; Thailand is [one of the 10 most] flood-affected countries in the world. Every year, our land sinks and goes missing because of rising sea levels. New buildings mean nothing if entire cities flood and sink in the near future.
The point that we are at now is “adapt or die.” The work that we are doing is helping to shift cities to a carbon-neutral future by prioritizing livelihood and utilizing neglected spaces.
Utilizing neglected spaces—can you expand on that?
Forgotten and unused spaces, like rooftops, can present opportunities to make a city more useful for everyone. My team at Thammasat University, working alongside the surrounding communities, has achieved this. We created the largest urban rooftop farm in Asia. The idea for this project was derived from the wisdom of landscapes of the past, when people used rice terraces to harvest the rain from the mountainous area.
Our goals for the project were to relieve flash floods and turn the urban heat island effect into clean energy. One solution [for flooding] was implementing a flood roof, equipped with rainwater tanks that are designed to flood, allowing water to flow up and down. Solar panels on the roof create clean energy, pumping out water from the retention pond, and gravity slows down the runoff to prevent flooding.
What would you say is the biggest worry or concern you have in your field right now?
The biggest global concern is climate change, by far. Thailand has tried to tackle its flooding problems by building higher and higher dams, but this is not the right solution because dams will eventually cause more problems.
There are 7,000 fishermen in villages along the coast of Thailand. These Thai people are not allowed to stay in their country, because their homes have been built into what’s now the ocean. These villages are in the most dangerous part of Thailand, next to Cambodia, so the people who live there have nowhere to go. The government has forced everyone in the villages to be displaced.
My work now is addressing these problems by helping villages design viable solutions and negotiate with the government. We were able to get the government to commit to a housing credit with UN-Habitat [United Nations Human Settlements Programme]. Eventually, we helped the first village secure a permit to let us enter and address the [housing crisis]. This all happened right before COVID, and unfortunately, they only granted a permit for one local community. This problem is ongoing and is some of our most important work.
With these climate concerns, what do you see as the biggest opportunity for global designers today?
There should be more concern around how we manage resources. I feel that only thinking about structure in the traditional way of “fixing things” won’t get us very far in regard to sustainable design.
Nowadays, the world needs a nature-based solution, or an ecosystem-based adaptation, which is an open opportunity for landscape architects. I think we need to push for climate-focused design in all departments. If urban designers, planners, engineers, architects, and landscape architects all work more collaboratively, we will strengthen our cities in very significant ways.
Why is it important for designers to give back to the younger generations—whether it’s through teaching or being involved in the broader design community?
Education is best transmitted by human-to-human interaction. We need humans to teach and pass on their knowledge to other humans, to the next generation, whether it’s through experience, practice, or academia. The transmission of knowledge between generations is crucial. The next generation is full of energy and potential.
And for us as alumni, we are part of the GSD culture. Even if it was a brief two years, it was such an intense period that shaped who we are as designers. It’s important to be involved in the community as alumni because it’s such a gift that we’ve already received, and we get to share it with a new generation of designers.
How are designers leaders, and why is it important that designers continue to be leaders across industries?
When I graduated, I asked my professor, Niall Kirkwood, “Why did [the GSD] choose me as a student?” And he said, “Because of your potential to be a leader.” I had no clue what he was talking about because I didn’t want to lead anyone; I didn’t want to be the head of any defined organization.
Through my practice and experiences after the GSD, I started to understand the word “leadership” more and more. It’s not about a title or position, it’s about action and impact. It’s about what you care for. I’m a designer who cares for the future of humanity, my homeland, my people, and my community. That’s what “leadership’’ means to me.
You can learn more about Kotch’s work and leadership below: