Two days ago while I was on a cab ride through Beijing Haidian district, I noticed a glittery gate of a newly constructed compound with geometric decorations on its surface. It is common in Beijing, as in most of Chinese cities, to enclose residential 大院 compounds in walls. Usually the higher is the value of the compound, the stricter is the security at the compound’s gates. This reminds me of how castles in medieval Europe were built. The opposition between the rationality of the human-built environment and the chaos of the outside world, with the uncontrolled mess of a still frightening nature. These are the origins of Giardino all’italiana, or Italian garden, stylistically based on symmetry, geometry and on the principle of imposing order over nature. This is pretty much what leads the projects of residential communities [and sometimes commercial ones too] in China: the city is somehow felt like a dirty receptacle of uncontrolled powers. First and second tier cities have indeed been attracting masses of migrant workers from the countryside and from less developed areas, leading the more affluent communities to feel the need to protect their social status through status symbols and physically through enclosed compounds. The urban fabric of Beijing perfectly expresses the social organization of its 20 million residents. This being the context, I’ve once heard that the golden rule rule in digital marketing says “if content is king, context is god”, or something like this. I think this is also the golden rule every architect should keep in mind from the first concept sketch to the last detail blueprint. And if content in architecture means materials, circulation, programs, etcetera; context is a less tangible mixture of conditions involving the surroundings of the project. First of all, the social context.
All of this sounds very academic and I’m sure it’s something that anyone who went to an architecture or design school have been hearing since the first days. Yet architects seldom apply this rule. Starchitects, in particular, hate it. I do want to mention names: Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, both behind many projects in China. Zaha Hadid is the architect behind Wangjing SOHO and Galaxy SOHO, two mixed-use complexes in Beijing. The first one is not yet completed, but the second one, which opened in 2012, have already sparkled controversies. In particular the 370,000 square meters complex of shops, offices and restaurants, bestowed with a top award by the Royal Institute of British Architects [RIBA], has incensed Chinese preservation groups that accused the mall of ‘destroying’ Beijing’s heritage. In an open letter to the RIBA from the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre, published by Building Design, the grass roots NGO states that the project has “caused great damage to the preservation of the old Beijing streetscape, the original urban plan, the traditional hutong and courtyard houses, the landscape formation, and the style and color scheme of Beijing’s unique vernacular architecture”, to which the architects have been quick to distance, alleging that the site had been cleared before they got involved [more here]. Galaxy SOHO has been addressed in an article by Beijing based architect Michał Jurgielewicz on Failed Architecture, which I strongly encourage you to go read. I’m sure is not a matter of personal implication of the architects, and it rather is a problem of having a whole city planned under the mere rule of brutal market forces.
The project by Steven Holl, called Linked Hybrid, is not as blatant. Instead it demonstrate how good intentions are not enough, as even the best thoughts need nevertheless to be immerse in the cultural context where they are going to take action. From many perspectives a good project like Linked Hybrid, has demonstrated a lack of understanding of the social fabric where it was going to be built. The bridges between the eight high rise towers [together with the rooftop gardens] were supposed to consist of public spaces and circulation facilities capable of engaging the community within the compound and from its neighborhood into the new real estate development. The term ‘utopia’ was brought in by the architect himself, when he described the walkways between the towers. This project has much in common other large scale social housing utopian projects like Unite d’Habitation in Marseille — designed by Le Corbusier, and The Robin Hood Gardens in London, by Alison and Peter Smithson. Both projects, similarly, supposed to provide entertainment and quality of life for the inhabitants, allowing people to share life and interact. History, however, proved them to be miserable failures. In Beijing too, as much as in those projects, the utopia of semi-public space, so attractive to acclaimed great architects, felt under the weight of unwritten social rules. Far from the architect’s romanticized idea of Chinese culture and society, modern upper class in China proved unwilling to interact with neighbors, and hostile to the idea of having citizens from the surrounding areas coming into their compounds. And so, the developer decided to build boundary walls around the whole area, and lock all the bridges. In the face of the international architect, the walls surrounding Linked Hybrid [today called 当代 MOMA] were ironically built in an heavy Chinese style: just to make it clear where the problem came from… This blog post, dating back to 2009, already wisely reminded that “the peace is maintained by a constant process of defining the distance between the neighbors. This process takes time and effort. No shortcuts from this fact can be taken through elaborate, ‘utopic’ design.” As the author cleverly points out, Linked Hybrid lacks in community involvement, similarly to the other projects by Le Corbusier and Alison and Peter Smithson. If the people were invited to the take part in the conceptual design phase, they may have had a chance to define the distance to each other before the concrete was being laid. Back in 2007, when I first arrived in Beijing, riding a taxi from the newly inaugurated Terminal 3 of Beijing International Airport through the Second Ring Road, witnessing the construction of the Linked Hybrid bridges from the opaque cab window… it just felt huge. And it was perfectly giving the idea of what kind of process Beijing was king through before the Olympic games in 2008: a process was characterized by autocracy instead of democracy. The Linked Hybrid project has also attracted criticisms from other Western media. The project has been called “green luxury”, for being for selling for 44,000 Yuan, or $6,000, per square meter, further creating social division in what is already a deprived area of the city. Washington-based architect and urbanist, Howard Decker, told CNN buildings like Linked Hybrid form part of the problem and not the solution, egocentrically disconnected with the surrounding urban fabric, with the towers seemingly in a conversation with one another, but not necessarily with the surrounding city.
Perhaps, utopists worldwide may be wise tuning down their desires to produce monuments and dreams of becoming great social reformers. Start to understand the subtle nuances of local cultures and engage in a more humble dialogue with future dwellers. But as China hurtles headlong into rampant modernization and urbanization, producing millions of new homeowners, its social fabric and thousands of years of its history will no doubt become fundamentally, and irrevocably, altered. At the same time, the traditional Chinese landscaping featured a totally different approach to nature. Landscape artists used to artificially recreate the variety of many different natural landscapes into a restricted area, where organic shapes rarely left empty room for geometry and where many spaces laid in gray areas in between indoor and outdoor. In interior and furniture design we are witnessing a will that many urban Chinese share to rediscover the forgotten links with nature. Hopefully in the next few years social disparity in China will reduce, and Chinese will be able to embrace a more relaxed urban planning. Peace.