I am back in China with the graduate students studying urban design. On our visit to the Great Wall we found a side of the road little restaurant in. Initially unremarkable, the place slowly revealed its treasures. Yes, the ponds had fish and yes that is what we ordered. The vegetables came out of the garden, the chicken came form the pen and the rabbit came from the hills. All eaten under a lovely little trellis overlooking the built and natural ponds, a stream and the hills. Food can not get fresher or more local - likely organic bu un-advertised. The students ate with a smile on their face about the unexpected pleasures of China. Sometimes very special gifts come in very plain wrapping!
I got the opportunity to visit one of Pritzker Prize winner Wang Shu’s buildings in Hangzhou. Really more than a building, this large complex houses the College of Art and Architecture of which he is the dean. What an opportunity to both design a massive new multi-building campus including housing from scratch and then lead the school!
The audacity and scale seemed emblematic of contemporary China. Wang Shu embraced this challenge and used it to explore a new fusion of architectural ideas from western and Chinese traditions. After traveling through a number of cities, towns, and villages in China and seeing the difficulty of this fusion, it was inspiring to see this approach so directly addressed. In earlier posts about authenticity, it often seems like an either/or proposition: the new glass mall or the fake pagoda or the concrete housing block perched uncomfortably in the center of this dialectic.
Western architects practicing in China seem to primarily provide approaches that are overtly expressive or flamboyant or direct translations of buildings we know in the West. There is often very little direct engagement with the cultural context - the buildings could be in Dubai, New York, or Barcelona. Except maybe it looks like a dragon.
The Hangzhou Art and Architecture Building is so intensely Chinese - it would be out of place anywhere else. It is also directly engaged with the site, framing views and embracing the unique topographic and climatic conditions. But finally, it is also a profoundly contemporary building that is both inventive and reflective of recent Western innovations.
In an earlier post, I wrote of visiting the Carpenter Center of Visual Arts at Harvard by Le Corbusier, his only American building. In that building (and so many others) he explores the ideas of movement in space - the architectural promenade. This building expands on that idea to create architecture as movement and unfolding experience. And material. And culture. And landscape.
The most distinctive feature is the walkways that wrap the outside of each of the buildings. They allow movement independent of the buildings, a walk-by that creates selective engagement with the spaces within. They provide a baseline from which all experience emerges. One can then move into and through the buildings and get lost a bit or continue to go around them. Everything is connected through bridges to ensure the continuity of this experience. Numerous surprises are encountered: courtyards intriguing elements, waterways, amphitheater nooks, a textural brick wall made of reu-used materials ... These make this experience an endless process of discovery.
I have not seen as inventive a building in a while. It provides a new perspective on culture, but also about modernity, craft, and experience. This is about all you can ask of a new building!
Existing in an Chinese painting is an interesting experience especially when joined by thousands of others. The mountains in Anhui Province are legendary: Huangshan or Yellow Mountain is an iconic place... they say there are five mountains in China you must see before you die, but if you visit only one -it should be Huangshan. When you see Chinese Landscape paintings - particularly on a vertical scroll - again and again you see stylized representations of Huangshan. Vertical granite walls, organic sculpted pine trees framing the views, accented by variable cloudscapes, these define this archetypal mountain landscape. After seeing so much Chinese art, it is especially interesting to feel like you were IN a painting.
The place exists on its own but more intensely, it exists as part of a cultural landscape, one that has intense meaning for a few thousand years. Many trees and places are named and there are the 5 places that must be seen. We got lucky, the weather was clear, it is usually rainy but that prevented our seeing "the sea of clouds", one of the 5. The paved stone walkways were PACKED with people, it felt like a city park - maybe more like National PARK but with its urban park meaning. People were so excited to be there- it felt more like a pilgrimage - place as deity - than a typical mountain experience.
There are no roads, just stone paths and a few cable car routes. There are hotels and restaurants where EVERYTHING is carried up by hand - by these very tough guys (young and old) who carry 50 kg loads on a bamboo pole. A major hotel is being built with ALL materials carried up by hand. That alone, made every bite of dinner especially tasty and poignant.
The translation of iconic and traditional chinese places into modern tourism was interesting and telling of the transformations underway in Contemporary China. An efficient system of buses, trains, cable cars, hotels, and souvenir shops are in place to allow the maximum number of people to enjoy the place. Of course, with a 2-1/2 hour wait for the cable car on a Saturday morning in the summer (the worst possible timing) us masses may have to wait a while for the experience. With patience, we will have it and the pictures to memorialize our time with the mountain.
I borrowed a bike in Nanjing to more easily get around and better understand the culture of bicycling that is so pervasive in China. The bike was the extremely typical and functional variety that is omnipresent here: single gear, basket in the front, chain protector, fenders for each wheel, heavy duty steel. It does everything you need: aasy to get on and off, pants don’t bind, fenders keep rain away, bakset to carry your stuff, and rugged. It instantly gave me freedom and access. Within fifteen or twenty minutes I could get to so much of the city. With the gnarled traffic often at a standstill, the bike provided a means to keep moving with the masses. With dedicated bike/scooter ways on many of the main roads (that start and end at will but keep moving!) a sort of safe path was created for my careening. The smaller streets (sort of active alleys) become secondary routes that avoid the busy roads and tempt me with dumpling stands, fruit and vegetable markets, and every other store you can dream of.
As I got going on the bike I realized it needed some work. Ugly creaking noises came from the center crank. Not to worry,, small bike repair carts proliferate. For 25 rmb (divide by 6.2= about $4 USD) the guy took off my pedals replaced the center pin, repacked it in ball bearings, etc and I was on my way. Then the pedal fell off. 5 rmb to replace. Then the tire went flat. 45 rmb for a new tube AND tire. And the basket was wobbly. Tightened for free. So for about $15 it got fixed and and was humming right along.
I went on multiple adventures including exploring the city wall and to my acupuncture and blind guy massage appointments, to my commute to the university every day. Shopping, and rolling, the city is pretty flat so when it was hot, the gently breeze form my ride felt great.
And when it rains ... break out the umbrella. Some bikes I saw had a built in umbrella. Every minute is an on-going negotiation of cars, bikes, scooters, busses, pedestrians and the general chaos of the street. But I saw no accidents, everyone ultimately yields and knows how to watch out for each other. In Hangzhou, the bike share program is well developed so I was able to adventure around West Lake for the day, visit gardens, villas, and temples. There are many stations to drop off the bike as needed so it enhanced an already great city and allowed for exploration at just the right speed.
So rumors that bicycle riding is being reduced or de-emphasized in China is just not true. I hear they are adding bikes back to Beijing. Yes, people are buying cars like mad, but it is not an either/or world. In the city, the bike is the fastest easiest way to get around and park. I have seen business people, old and young, shoppers (baskets full), students, and everyone else you can imagine. Bike lanes are everywhere, there are vast accommodations for bike parking and it is part of a strategy for getting millions in the city to get around: you need it all: cars, bikes, subways, busses, scooters, walking.
In Hangzhou, there are tent structures area at each intersection to provide shade for the bike/scooter crowd, I saw bike-share programs in Hangzhou, Chengdu, and the Taoist mountain of Qincheng Shan.
You hear about places like Copenhagen and Boulder as bike paradises, but China is where biking is moving millions through its’s cities everyday.
The density of experience in my 5 minute commute from the apartment to campus is astonishing. The intense use of space, the selling of everything from great fruit to food to bicycle repair to food to Chinese welfare office to herbal healing to food to hair salon to clothes store to market to seamstress ... is dense and varied.
I have walked or ridden my bike down this alley maybe 10 or 15 times and each time it is new and nearly impossible to take it all in. People playing cards, eating, and just moving through. Bikes, scooters, an audi or new chinese car or Land Rover and lots of walkers all merge seamlessly making way for everyone else.
3 or 4 story apartments, next to 35 story (like mine) , new old and in-between. Not one thing but many, not one type of anything, both and all co-exist. The scale is low, intimate, humane. Tall buildings are accents at edges, not continuous at all. Interestingly, given the dense tree cover, many of the taller buildings disappear in the canopy. And given the heat, any shade they provide is most welcome. One of my students said they just discovered a 30 story building on his walk after 2 weeks that he never even knew was there! It is in fact a very livable and social space. And extremely walkable. A car is too big, too fast, too disconnected form the life of the street. It is the dance of life writ full.
An exhausting and exciting week of tromping through the city with my 13 urban design, architecture, and landscape students. The theme was to explore and discover the meaning of authentiCITY (the caps borrowed from one of the students!) in this crazy mixed-up place where the the past, present, and future all collide in seeming random but compelling ways. They presented some ideas on this last night at 10design - an innovative architecture firm here.
Some random quotes of the students - paraphrased - include:
-authenticity of the past, present, and future: all are inter-related and can exist in different ways in different places.
- creating settings that support the life of the place - people adapt their unique ways of living to new forms of space
- is anything inauthentic (or is everything authentic?)
- does authenticity come from cultural and spiritual continuity: create places that work as an expression of those values
- linking authenticity to our experience of an individual: extending the qualities of an authentic person to the scale of a building, place, or city!
- linking authenticity to sustainability ... environmental, social, and economic success and resonance in all these realms are essential ingredients for a place to be considered authentic.
These initial thoughts have some interesting insights about this complex and difficult subject. In this new land and time - where the local and the global, the future and the past all collide in the experience of the present, we seek to derive meaning from our physical worlds. Our job as designers is to create places that reconcile these contradictions and build meaning through form and experience. No simple task.
As always, advances in science and technology give us new tools to aid us in this - yet we have to figure out how to integrate these new understandings:
Last week we saw Patrik Schumacher (Zaha Hadid, partner) speak at Tongji University. He spoke of parametricism, a new style of the epoch. New design tools can create legibility through recognizing difference in form. We no longer have to create repetitive, undifferentiated environments. Yet, interestingly, though the monochromatic (white) and always curving forms of their work, while difference is expressed it is also repressed where it all starts to look the same. Legibility is ultimately not advanced.
AuthentiCITY can be a tool to create legibility and meaning in the built environment. These two ideas are related. Places that are rich with meaning also tend to have a legibility that comes from their specificity. They are memorable and unique. They support us, welcome us, excite us, and inspire us.
An amazing few days. Starting in Cambridge, seeing my son off to the Moral Cognition lab at Harvard and seeing one of my favorite buildings - the Carpenter Center of Visual Arts by Le Corbusier, where the sidewalks becomes a promenade experiencing the building from galleries and studios.
Then off to China: From the airport train at 300 km/hr to bikes with flowers to Patrik Shumacher (Zaha Hadid's partner) lecturing at Tongji a great few days in Shanghai. On to the next week in Shanghai and month in Nanjing exploring urban design and architecture with my students in China and coming up with a designed response to this interesting, wild, mixed-up place!
There are limits to density. But a compelling image of the human capacity to live and adapt (to) their environment. Amazing pictures by Greg Girard.
It is also strikingly similar to Shibam: the Manhattan of the desert, an incredible vernacular city in Yemen. Very old city of 8-10 stories, all in mud brick. It also did not meet Hong Kong building codes! But it is very beautiful and socially and climatically highly adapted to its place.
After 2-1/2 weeks in China, it is interesting and striking to return back to Colorado and see in fact how much heavier and more impactful the American lifestyle really is. In the "Sustainable Urbanism"Seminar I am teaching at UC Denver this spring, we are exploring whether Denver can equal Manhattan's per capita footprint: that is reduce it from an average of about 15 per capita to 5. China, although one of the largest TOTAL national emitters, has a per capita footprint under 4 that is 20% lower than that of Manhattan.
Although much ink has been spilled about the changes in China: increase in roads, car ownership, suburban style develop traffic congestion, and the importation of disruptive Western models of development - which are all indeed true - after over 2 weeks there, it is also easy to see why the per capita carbon footprint levels are still 20% of those in the United States, the world leader in consumptive lifestyles. The translation from this metric to the experience of city dwellers is striking.
Many little and big things contribute to a less impactful lifestyle. I was in two heavily urbanized environments where in many ways the "Manhattan Phenomenon" rules: that is reliance on transit, smaller apartments, more mixed use, more density, more walkable. But many other aspects also struck me:
- All the buildings are required by code to face south so that ALL units get at least 2 hours of sunlight on December 21. This can lead to relentless and monotonous rows of parallel housing blocks but it also means that buildings are typically single loaded ( or have multiple stairways) such that all units have access to the south and north for sun and cross ventilation. There are few clothes dryers so that these south walls are also used to dry clothes in the sun. The north is often used for cooking and utility.
The challenge is to create communities and neighborhoods that do not fall into a relentless pattern but instead have the complexity and diversity and connectedness of real places. The older Shikumen (see earlier post) of Shanghai are one pattern but these are low rise. I saw a very interesting example in Zhujaiojao:
-many lobbies, public spaces, stores, and even private spaces (like the design studios at Southeast University in Nanjing) are not heated. People wear coats and use less energy!
-local food and markets abound. It is easy to walk to a market that sells good, cheap food. And services, and clothes and household items and noodles or dumplings
- Despite the increase in car traffic , bikes and electric scooters are ubiquitous. In many areas they are given a separate lane to ensure their safe and efficient movement -just liek Copenhagen. 2 cycle scooters are outlawed so it can be a very quiet scene indeed.
- In Shanghai, car license plates are auctioned with a $10k-30k cost as well as substantial taxes. After you have bought the car! This can discourage driving! Maybe Aurora or Boulder should try this.
So the challenge is for China to continue to modernize as they would like but perhaps they can "leapfrog" the US and not repeat our mistakes but create a more sustainable, livable, healthy, and high density environment with a much lower footprint that we are able to in the US. Many of these elements make the city much more livable: from the bikes, to the markets, to the south facing apartments. They are essential ingredients to bringing quality of life and place into a high density city.
It gave me hope for their cities and even gave me a few things we can emulate and learn from. Start with the bikes lanes! And the markets! and the ...
It is easy to get seduced by the triumphant towers of Shanghai - shouting their message of hyper-relevance in the global economy. The problem is then how do these epic beasts create a public place to match their ambition. The sad - and all to common answer - is the place is dominated by cars, large malls, and too large parks that serve to separate and
discourage a public life on the street. Tall Buildings do not need to be alienating environments - Manhattan is a both/and ... world class streets create a dynamic setting for world class buildings. But somehow, newly planned high-rise buildings and their districts ignore the public realm and creating an alienating environment that makes for a dismal experience - one focused on creating a foreground for viewing the object of the skyscraper - as it meets the sky but please ... look away from where it meets the ground. Ideally seen from a half mile away. That is the essence of Pudong. The emphasis is on the car drop-off, the pedestrian experience seems a mere afterthought. I'll bet the plan looks great on paper!!
Contrasting this in the most unfair way possible!! are the lilong (alleys) and shikumen (courtyard houses) that make up the traditional fabric of Shanghai. What is most interesting is that this was a developer driven product borne from a marriage of the English row
house and the traditional Chinese courtyard neighborhoods. This hybrid model was built from the late 1800's to the 1930's in Shanghai only and was developed by both Western and Chinese developers to meet a crushing need for housing created by a massive influx to the city. Unlike Pudong and many new high density housing blocks, a real neighborhood fabric was created that accommodated the complexity of living: retail around the perimeter of the blocks, places for community functions, a diversity of different incomes - some grand houses, some more minimal. This fabric was adjacent to and interwoven with the commercial areas to ensure easy access.
I have seem some examples in Shanghai of modern reinterpretations. Can an interweaving of these sensibilities be created (the post-modern international city and the livable fabric) that brings the best features of both? There are a few out there and worth striving for and seeking out. Both/and not either/or. Or you can settle into the quaint alleys of Tianzifang and sip a glass of wine amidst the galleries and knick nack shops that have taken over a few lilong.
There is so much to see and say about this amazing city; hopefully in future posts!
As spring beckons and the plum blossoms blossom we wander Nanjing visiting places of history and of change. Amidst the chilly rains we see a city steeped in the ancient history of the Ming Dynasty and the incredible changes of the future unfolding before our eyes. Amidst the Ming dynasty city walls, we see the results of rapid change, the old houses and neighborhood, making way for what?? As is the case worldwide, Nanjing (and the rest of the country I presume) grapple with the intense urbanization amidst a historic low density fabric. The land prices soar and displacement is the natural course. How to reconcile real estate values, history, local culture, and intense needs for housing, services and more.
Of course historic theme parks emerge as one solution: boutique shopping amidst the restored old buildings - think Nanjing's Confucian Temple Distict (pictured), Shanghai's Xin Tian Di area, Boulder's Pearl St. Mall, Denver's Larimer Square, Most of Venice (sadly) ... the list goes on. Is there a chance at revival without high end sales? Does authenticity have a chance in this rapidly evolving world?
Maybe we can address that problem this summer in the Urban Design studio. Can sustainability be a proxy for a vital, and authentic urbanism? Can design provide provide clues (or even solutions) to the resolution of this complex quagmire? Or maybe we all just need to go shopping more.
I am not sure of the music that this airport invokes (see previous post), but Beijing's new airport certain has a quality of ambition (power), vastness, impersonal beauty, and remoteness. The sheer size and and its well designed elements provokes respect - Foster and Partners is very good at this
- yet the homogeneity of experience especially in the delirium of jet lag have one feeling a bit overwhelmed as the curve disappears into the haze. Airports have this strange anywhereness ... this one has a bit of THIS IS CHINA - and the sense of epic arrival of the old trains stations - yet
perhaps more of continuity with the global modernism experience. And it was a long journey to go from arrival to transfer to Nanjing but at least I got the full experience. And it was interesting to see the shell building over the parking garage that looked
very similar to the auditorium at Masdar! But it does have a green roof faintly discernible through the haze. Is that progress or paradox?