Saturday, January 24, 2009

A slice of China

The abstraction of space in drawing urban developments is alarming. At a scale of 1:10,000 a 100 home block of flats is the size of a Monopoly hotel piece. The panoptic view, or bird's-eye view seems to erase the on-ground experience of city life.

I have this on-going issue with my job as an architect and urban designer: as soon as I attempt to draw a building, or urban plan either on paper, or an a computer screen, the level of disengagement with the 'lived quality' of the architecture is increased. The drawing becomes an object itself to be manipulated in its rarefied state: it becomes an object of beauty. The subject, the space of city itself, is largely forgotten in the mind of the designer. Or at least this is what I try NOT to forget when i design myself. And when teaching my students, I remind them to hold the human implications of their form making in their minds as they design.

Steve and I were asked by a Chinese University to team up with them to come up with ideas for a large slab of farmland, reserved for the ever expanding city of Anyang. We designed a scheme with a giant Chinese character which we intend to be read from space, Google earth, or even an aeroplane window. The character means "trace" or more specifically 'historical trace', and I wanted it as to become a parkland, filled with cherry blossom trees. I imagined that this would be a fantastic experience for the city dweller-to have a fragrant refuge in a cheek-by-jowl urban environment. I know the scheme has been shortlisted, but the design has been taken on board by an army of Chinese design students, and office drafters to turn this whimsical design idea into a concrete proposal. I just know the parkland is being eroded, as the scheme is turned into a more economical and dollar driven enterprise.
Will give updates as we know more of the fate of our ideas!


  1. Oh dear, our world's productive farming land is already so minute, and decreasing daily as our population of people needing to be fed increases - the idea of putting concrete, or anything inedible I'd have to say, on to agricultural land, alarms me greatly...(see the DVD "How to Save the World One Cow At A Time" - by Biodynamic guru Peter Proctor for a graphic illustration of the world's arable land using an apple...)...Maybe the symbol will come to mean the "trace" or "ghost" of the time when small farmers' supplied the food needs of the immediate community.,..

  2. Here's the link to the DVD: It'a actually called "How To Save The World, One Man, One Cow, One Planet"

  3. No easy answer here Cat, and here is a conundrum for a PhD student out there... Development in China is a beast with its own calculus; if you blink, you'll miss the erasure of another 600 acres under a forest of concrete apartments. OK, thats daramatising it a little! Im no expert on the Chinese economy, but the urban poor dont want to live in a hut. My work in India taught me the futility of telling a poor person in a developing county, all you need is your traditional lifestyle and dwelling to live well. They laugh at you and say, but i want an airconditioner and a TV to watch CNN. Its quite demoralising.
    So what do we do?
    There is money in China to build, and its unfortunately not a sustainable activity - same as we have been doing in our part of the world for the last 150 years. Its not easy to tell a developing country: 'nope, Im sorry we got it wrong here in the West, you need to go back to your agrarian lifestyle. Forget what we are doing here in the developed world, dont aspire to this!'

    We have proposed for this scheme some sustainability measures which maybe i should have mentioned: water catchment, grey water recycling, transit oriented devlopment (TOD)which mimises car use, mixed use buildings which mean that you dont have to own a car to get to work: you work in your own neighbourhood, 'green steets' and a number of other sustainability ideas which ameliorate the ill effects of traditional 'Western style development'. The forest is a hopeful gesture, a carbon sink. Not as big as it could be, but alot more than would ordinarily be done. When you know its best not to build, but it will be built anyway, then you do the best that you can do with the opportunity you have.

    Big issues, thank you for raising them!

  4. I wrote that quickly late last night - reacting a bit too fast I think - sorry if I didn't acknowlege your understandings of these issues. It is a good point you make about imposing our revised ideas about development/urban planning on developing countries. What I found inspiring about the Peter Proctor DVD is that he was invited by Indian farmers to go and live in India and continue his teaching of biodynamics (and revitalizing traditional Indian farming practices) which he had been previously doing when visiting from NZ. He has inspired and trained a big network of Indian farmers who are reclaiming small, localized, chemical free farming from the chemical "green revolultion" style farming that they were recruited into in the 50's and reducing the alarming suicide rates of conventional Indian farmers going broke (especially as they are sold GM seeds and the increased pesticides that go with them...). So, I guess what I am saying is that there is hope out there and there are Indian farmers who are choosing a sustainable, simplified, relocalized lifestyle and are reaping the benefits. They are big issues, it's good to discuss them, thanks for inspiring all this!

  5. such a great opportunity to think about these issues in depth. I bet it was fun to do, especially with Steve as a partner- you HAD to spend time together!
    I was wondering if the word was trace, why did you choose cherryblossoms to fill it? It is always interesting to see how far back you go to address a place's history. SHall it be filled with a reminiscence of forest, of the farmland, of both?