Taiqian: The Countryside as a City
Harvard Graduate School of Design Option Studio Fall 2014
For the final year of our three-year sponsored research and design studio on China, the research focused on the transformation of China’s rural villages into towns, with the villages of Zhongmou County, at the outskirts of Zhengzhou, as the site of investigation and proposition. With China’s rate of urbanization reaching the 51% mark in 2011, the next phase of economic and social development will now be focused on the urbanization of its rural areas. In Premier Le Keqiang’s recent announcement, the state’s urbanization target of 70%, affecting 900 million people by 2025, will not come from the further expansion of large cities but will instead be focused on the growth of rural towns and small cities. As a continuation of the ‘Building a New Socialist Countryside’ program of 2006, developed against the backdrop of rural unrest and the urgent need to secure food production, this drive attempts to reverse the migration of the rural populace to the city, uplift the living standards in the rural areas, and to safeguard farmland from further speculative developments.
At present this form of urbanization can be divided to three categories, the redevelopment of villages stranded in the city into higher density developments; the demolition of villages to make way for urban developments at the edges of the city; and the wholesale demolition, amalgamation and rebuilding of villages into new towns.
China’s rural urbanization should not be mistaken with the process of suburbanization of the United States or the creation of low-density picturesque garden cities in Britain. It should neither be the transformation of rural areas into dense urbanized cores, with the glut of speculative housing as the primary economic driver. Beyond the upgrading of basic infrastructure and sanitation, the challenge here is to imagine a self-sufficient place that can support a dynamic economy in the countryside, provide cultural and intellectual stimulation, and offer a respite to the inequalities and divisions that plagues the developmental city; in other words, the city as a space of equal and plural coexistence.
Read the studio report here.
Macau: Cross-Border City
Harvard Graduate School of Design Option Studio Fall 2013
The studio is premised upon two fundamental ambitions, the recuperation of an idea of the city as a project and the pursuit of alternative forms of urbanization in response to the challenges posed by the developmental city in China. The former treats the project of the city as a cultural, political and aesthetic act; the latter as a strategic project for urbanization, articulated through its architecture, landscape and infrastructure.
Macau will be the second city for our three-year sponsored research and design studio on China. Looking beyond the brash neon lit, awe inducing spectacles of casino developments, the challenges that face the former Portuguese colony is stark. The city needs to wean itself off the uneven development that the casinos offer. It is increasingly evident that the future of Macau is tied to its position in the Pearl River Delta, the most populous and economically vibrant city-region in the world. One of the defining characteristics of a city within city-region is the way in which it defines its identity and competitiveness by exacerbating its difference in relation to other cities. This tendency causes neighboring cities to develop different yet complimentary programs at their borders that trigger large daily surges of people across its administrative boundaries – for work, education and leisure. The recent relocation of Macau University to China’s Hengqin, exemplifies the propensity for cities to compete and cooperate in equal measures. In this cross border development, the new campus, at 20 times the size of its former Taipa campus, remains under the administration of Macau on a 50-year land lease deal. In this way, Macau overcomes its land shortage predicaments by relocating entire urban quarters or programmatic elements that are too big, across its borders into the expansive mainland. Hengqin on the other hand will capitalize on Macau’s drive to diversify its economic development by hosting its urbanization on its virgin land. This act amounts to the relocation and incursion of a fragment of the city into another territory, with large infrastructural links as the umbilical cord to its mother city.
This Cross-border City in essence is an idea and a model of the city that can be transplanted to another territory. In these circumstances, the city becomes crystallized and its uniqueness exacerbated when it is juxtaposed next to its other. Precisely through its urban history, it can be argued that Macau stands as the paradigmatic Cross-border City – Lisbon in South China, Hong Kong in Taipa and more recently, LasVegas in Cotai.
The concept of the Cross-border City also offers an alternative strategy to sustain Macau’s unique heritage beyond the tropes of preservation and cultural tourism. The crystallization of the idea of the city of Macau, when it is propagated elsewhere, allows its heritage to be involved in the growth of the larger city-region and in the living collective imagination of its citizens. Thus the design task for the studio is to conceive of a border-crossing facility that acts as a common framework, accommodating housing, work spaces and another provisions that Macau presently lacks. The studio defines the common framework as an architecture that reifies the idea of the city as a space of coexistence. It acts as a background that accommodates the plurality of city life and is in constant alternation with its natural environment. Conceived as a singular discursive idea, it is realized through addition and accumulation. It is most poignant when it is shared, lived, experienced and viewed as a whole, as a city – as a collective work of art.
Read the studio report here.
Xiamen: The Megaplot
Common Frameworks: Rethinking the Developmental City
Harvard Graduate School of Design, Option Studio Fall 2012
This studio works typologically. It approaches the problem of the city through the investigation and redefinition of its persistent architectures – its dominant types. Any attempt to define type is an attempt to define what is typical; and what is most typical is common to all. As such, type lends itself as an effective heuristic device to locate commonalities. This search for what is common in architecture is not to locate formal or tectonic similitude, but a search for what is the idea that can be commonly held so as to invest architecture with a social and political role.
As the first of a three-year long sponsored research on China, the studio will begin with the city of Xiamen, followed by Macao and Shenyang. The premise of this investigation rests on the rethinking of the developmental city, defined as the city conceived and constructed through mega-plots, and used primarily as a developmental tool, instigated primarily by speculative capital. The urbanization of these mega-plots result in the dissolution of the city as a legible artifact, bereft of a civic dimension and public sphere. This dissolution into a sea of enclave urbanism does not constitute the idea of the city; either in the European tradition as a space of partnership or coexistence, or in the Chinese sense, where the city is a seen as an accommodative framework with a clear and legible deep structure that regulates its spaces and social structure. Therefore, the task for the studio is to conceive of and design a common framework for the city, accommodating housing, nature and another associative civic functions.
Besides their present developmental nature, these cities are chosen precisely for their propensity towards an accommodative urbanism due to their position on the frontier of Chinese territory. The history of these cities demonstrates a high degree of pliability that engendered an inclusive plurality prior to the rapid urbanization of recent years. Xiamen, as an island city, grew through the infusion of colonial settlements, overseas Chinese investment and its strategic proximity to Taiwan. The conjecture of this studio is that the ability of these cities to be accommodative can be found in the very nature of the city as a common framework. Thus these cities offer the possibility to re-conceive the developmental city as a space of cooperation and partnership – the idea of the city as a common space par excellence.
Read the studio report here.
Housing Beijing: Dominant Types and the Idea of the City
Harvard Graduate School of Design, Option Studio Fall 2011
The city of Beijing can be regarded as the paradigmatic example of the city conceived as an ideogram. Unlike the Greek polis, the city is planned and built as a model for replication and administration that emphasizes a central authority. The ideogram of the city is also analogous to the character 中, which stands as the root word for ‘China’ and ‘Chinese’. The word also means ‘central, balance and harmony’. As such, this ideogram brings together the symbolic meaning of a people, nation as well as the organizational principles that are valued in Chinese culture. The structure of the city of Beijing can be understood through one dominant type: the walled courtyard. This courtyard as a symbolic and organizational deep structure is one that is pliable across scales. It manifest itself as the central, ubiquitous and eternal artifact that is the Forbidden City in the very heart of the city as well as the Si-He-Yuan, the Beijing courtyard house that agglomerates to form the Hutongs – Beijing’s courtyard neighbourhoods. Like the ideogram, a north-south axis cuts across the walled courtyard of the Forbidden City and extends across the entire city. This dominant type embodies the symbolic meaning, structuring principles and organizational logic of the city. It transcends scale, is transparent to use and has persisted in time and therefore constitutes what I term as the very idea of the city of Beijing.
It is through the above ideological and pedagogical premise that we will approach the design topic for the year. The task is to rethink and design a communal housing project for 1,000 inhabitants in the city of Beijing. After more than two decades of surrendering the provision of housing to the market, the urgency to rethink and provide for affordable housing has resurfaced in China. Our task will be framed by three preconditions. The first considers the typical dwelling unit as an irreducible space of coexistence in the city. The second considers the overall structure of this housing type as an artifact that embodies the idea of the city. And finally, the influence of the type must act beyond its site boundaries as a dominant type for the city. Therefore, to design a communal housing project is to also design a project of the city and for the city.