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Ernest Wong: Brightening the Windy City

By JIAN PING in CHICAGO ( Updated: 2015-07-17 02:55

Ernest Wong: Brightening the Windy City

Landscape architect Ernie Wong in front of a board showcasing 25 years of his landscape design work. JIAN PING / FOR CHINA DAILY

In Chicago, a city known for its outstanding architecture, Ernest Wong stands out as a different type of architect, one who creates green space for crowded urban areas and brings beauty to city living.

"We make life better for people," said Wong, sitting at his desk in the open space of Site Design Group, Ltd, the landscape design firm he founded in 1990.

In the hallway of his firm, a large display board features some of the projects he and his team have done over the years, along with some of the awards the firm has received for parks, campuses, highways and playgrounds.

The Chicago Tribune named him "Chicagoan of the Year" in 2010, saying that his designs "brighten the cityscape." He was selected honoree of the Chicago Friends of the Parks for outstanding design for Chicago’s newest parks in 2012, named one of the 50 top designers of 2014 by NewCity Design and has been presented with several Merit Awards by the Illinois Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) in 2015.

Wong was born and raised in Chicago. His parents, both Chinese from mainland China, came to the US in the late 1940s. His father, Y. C. Wong, studied architecture under Mies van der Rohe and became a well-known architect and his mother is a medical doctor. Ernest Wong is the 3rd child of four in the family. Now in his mid-50s, Wong, stoic and with a booming voice, softens his tone when he speaks of his parents and his upbringing.

"My father didn't speak to me for almost a year when I decided to major in landscape architecture," he says, 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 continues. 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 says. "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," says 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 says.

Working with his team he turned the 27 acres of wasteland into a natural 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 says.

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 says growing up in a very 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 and beyond, he says he is very 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 attended as a teenager and the support he has received from the Chinese and other local communities in Chicago.

Wong says his firm often works on 30 to 40 projects simultaneously. A current one involves transforming the look of Chicago’s Chinatown.

The landscaping on the new modern library in Chinatown is well under way. The new library was scheduled to open in the spring of 2015, replacing the old, over-crowed one. They will then move on to the demolition of three old buildings next to the new library and the realignment of a major intersection.

“Chinatown won’t be the same in two or three years,” Wong said.

“The change will make Chinatown much more accessible,” Wong continued. “Chicago is the only major metropolis in the US whose Chinatown is expanding.”

Wong says his greatest satisfaction comes from seeing people use the facilities he and his team have created. Because he is now in such demand, he is considering opening additional offices in the US and possibly even in China, where he recently completed a project in Shanghai.


Ernest Wong


• Founding Principal and President, site design group, ltd.

• President’s Council, Museum of Science and Industry

Board of Directors, YWCA Metropolitan Chicago

Board of Directors, Student Conservation Association

• Member of Mayor Rahm Emanuel Ad-Hoc Committee on Design and Planning

• Public Programs Committee, Chicago Architecture Foundation

Commissioner, City of Chicago Commission on Cultural Affairs

• Commissioner, 
City of Chicago Commission on Landmarks

• Chairman of the Board, 
Chinese American Service League,

• Council of Fellows, American Society of Landscape Architects

Honors & Awards: 

• “Design 50: Who Shapes Chicago 2014,” NewCity Design (2014)

• Honoree, 2012 Parks Ball. Friends of the Park, Chicago, IL (2012)

• George School Alumni Award, George School, Newtown, PA (2012)

• “Urban Catalyst” Suite 16 Class of 2011, i4design Magazine (2011)

• Community Service Award, The Asian American Coalition of Chicago (2011)

• Chicagoans of the Year, Chicago Tribune (2010)

• Chicago United Business Leaders of Color Award, Chicago United (2007)

• Business Person of the Year, Asian American Alliance (2004)


• Bachelor of Landscape Architecture, Michigan State University, (1985)

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