Imagine working on the revitalization of a 500 acre historic district in China—in a city that just demolished all of its courtyard compounds within its original walled city. Last year, this was the task for fourteen M.Arch students in their final year of study.
The City of Tianjin is China’s third economic development zone (with Shenzhen and Pudong being the first two) providing the nation’s economic and political power to both build and eradicate large swaths of the city. Throughout Tianjin, evidence of splintering urban design and architectural practices are evident—widening of roads and deep building setbacks, retail malls with their own interiorized marketing logic, iconic skyscrapers that add little back to their local context, and rows upon rows of rubberstamped housing blocks. While progress measured by standards of living and the ever changing skyline are palpable, the unique conditions that form the identity of Tianjin are being lost. There is a homogenizing of urban experiences within and between Chinese cities.
Our project site was Wudadao, or Five Main Streets, located within the inner city and as yet undeveloped due to its isolation from the major networks of the city. This separation is rooted in the original settlement of this district by the British during the concession era of the city. The long streets and gridded blocks occupied by an eclectic mix of small scale buildings are rapidly being surrounded by large scale, coarse grained, object oriented developments. At the invitation of the Tianjin Urban Planning and Design Institute (TUPDI), the research seminar and studio explored urban paradigms that recognize that we live horizontally, rethinking habits twentieth century habits of considering buildings as vertical containers.
As in all urban and architectural design, there were multiple and parallel research goals. One overarching objective was to develop tools of analysis and design that describe the relational, connective conditions of urban form. A corollary was a proposal for how to design “big” since many projects in China have large project sites. The group developed systemic design parameters that define urban continuities both internal and external to any site without pre-figuring architecture as building envelopes (objects). These parameters were tested for their ability to integrate the work of a group of architects—to develop density, identity with variety and the larger legibility of Wudadao within Tianjin. The analyses, systems, and designs were exhibited and reviewed in Wurster Hall in April of 2011.
Another objective was to define the architectural tactics that aid in revitalizing Wudadao. Toward this end, an urban network study identified differences between local blocks and streets that presented opportunities to connect the district to the rest of the city and guided a local architectural code. In addition, the need for residential density along the edge of the historic district to animate the district was illustrated by the design proposal. The findings and projects of the research group were presented by five students to TUPDI in June of 2011.
Individual research programs were also woven into the framework, in particular the collective potentials to capitalize on natural ventilation, storm water collection, and daylighting. In our proposal to the 2011 Chengdu Biennale whose theme was “Holistic Realms: Garden Cities,” we highlighted the project’s storm water system, treatment, collection, and urban parks. In a city where current and future water shortages are and will be extreme, water management is one key to a green city. The studio’s work has been on exhibition since late September and recently closed.
Our thanks to TUPDI for funding the research, in particular Mr. SHI Wujun, Dean; Ms ZHU Xuemei, Vice Chief Planner; and Ms JIANG Bei, urban designer and graduate of our Urban Design program. Our thanks also to the Department of Architecture Charles W. Moore Endowment for the Study of Place and to the Department of Architecture for the publication of our forthcoming research pamphlet.
Researchers included: YaOu Zhang, Hechang Chen, Won Shim, David Dahl, John Faichney, Benjamin Lueck, Nancy Nam, Nicole Lew, Justin Short, Daniel Gasser, Kirsten Heming, Katherine Cong, Hao Zhou, Steven Brummond.
The design propositions and tools are guided by on-going research on field relations by Renee Chow. Renee is Associate Professor of architecture and urban design and Principal at Studio URBIS, currently completing a book on the evolving forms of Chinese urbanism.