BY Joseph Clarke in Features | 05 MAY 09
Featured in
Issue 123

Town & Country

How architects are dealing with the problems of housing the 600 million rural immigrants moving to Chinese cities

BY Joseph Clarke in Features | 05 MAY 09

Intoxicated by an ongoing frenzy of industrial development and the more recent delirium of globalization, China’s burgeoning cities are hastily refashioning themselves to accommodate a deluge of rural immigrants. Already, more than 166 cities have upwards of a million inhabitants, compared to only nine in the United States. By 2050, the ratio of Chinese urbanites to the country’s total population is expected to increase from half to nearly three-quarters as about 600 million people move to cities. China stopped providing housing as welfare about 10 years ago and instituted a mortgage industry through state-owned banks; since then, real estate has become its most profitable industry. For many middle-class families, the housing market seems to offer the freedom to select their own lifestyle, the chance to ‘Live Your Dreams’, as one advertising campaign has it, and this is reflected in a blossoming of gated neighbourhoods in various faux-European styles. While the majority of new housing developments are cookie-cutter designs churned out by architectural firms in two or three days, a small coterie of progressive Chinese architects and Western designers are rethinking how architecture can achieve higher density, accommodate an increasingly diverse market, and tread lightly on existing vernacular architecture. But what sort of place-making can possibly address the needs of citizens uprooted from their rural homes and transformed into anonymous consumers of residential space in the city? 

Some of the solutions draw on imported Western thinking. Steven Holl Architects’ Linked Hybrid, a 720-unit cluster of eight interconnected towers currently under construction in Beijing, seems to realize Le Corbusier’s dream of a utopian vertical city on a scale at which European modernists rarely had the chance to work. Public and private space interweave, with sky bridges containing shops, restaurants, and a gallery. Holl’s design approach is based on sculpting the phenomenal qualities of abstract forms, and he proposes this complex (which features a cinema at its centre) as a study in ‘filmic’ space, with the experience of movement around the upper loop composed as a visual sequence. The building’s sponge-like envelope serves as both enclosure and structure; though its reticulation suggests a translation of the urban grid into the third dimension, it remains to be seen how open the complex will be in practice to surrounding civic space. Holl’s design is most notable for its synthesis, at an abstract level, of the vertically-stacked organization of Soviet-era towers – good for packing in density – with the kind of horizontal spatial network found in traditional Chinese residential neighbourhoods such as Beijing’s hutongs (alleys of courtyard houses laid out according to social hierarchies and Feng Shui precepts). For all this, the project’s formal language owes more to Holl’s previous work, such as his Stevens Hall dormitory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, than to its Chinese context.

MAD, digital impression of Fake Hills, Beihai, 2009. Courtesy: MAD Architectural Design Office

Then again, you can’t blame Holl for not adopting a more Chinese model; it’s difficult to identify an inherently Chinese approach to modern architecture at all. During the period of intense industrial modernization following the 1949 revolution, when the mantra was ‘production first and livelihood second’, housing design hewed closely to Soviet models. The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s saw some of the nation’s most historic architecture destroyed and its most promising designers muzzled. Intellectual recovery from this rupture has been slow, and graduates of Chinese architecture schools still are known more for technical skills and ability to copy existing designs than as creative problem-solvers.

The poster child of Chinese architects who became successful by learning to design in the West is Ma Yansong, who spent time in the offices of Peter Eisenman and Zaha Hadid before returning to China to found his own firm, MAD, in 2003. The fast-growing city of Beihai in southern China will soon be home to MAD’s Fake Hills, a residential complex that blends the typologies of tower and low-rise block in a vertical slab stretched along the waterfront. A swooping profile reminiscent of the region’s hilly landscape, along with holes cut through the building, ensure that the city’s visual connection to the water is not entirely cut off. In front of the building, egg-like volumes containing larger apartments and amenities for residents sit in a landscaped garden. The design’s sanguine biomorphism reveals not only a delight in large-scale gestural expression, in easy shape as opposed to complex form, but also an apparent need to compensate for a lost closeness to the earth, its conception as a surrogate landscape seeming to ratify capitalist urban development as the new ‘natural’ condition of the new city.

Unsurprisingly, this optimism is not universal. The increasing diversity of middle- and upper-income housing options has led to a corresponding increase in demand for service workers, many of whom are migrants unable to obtain official city-dweller status (hukou). Vital to the urban economy yet often omitted from official government statistics and ignored by planners, these workers often live in slums that were once villages but have been swallowed up by tumescent cities.

Steven Holl Architects, Linked Hybrid, Beijing, 2008. Courtesy: Steven Holl Architects

Giving these people a visible presence in the city was one goal of the Tulou project by Urbanus Architecture & Design, founded in 1999 by Miami University alumni Xiaodu Liu, Yan Meng, and Hui Wang. A prototype of this standardized design for low-income housing was completed recently in Guangzhou, China’s third most populous city. The low, cylindrical form is borrowed from ancient circular fortresses in Fujian Province that once offered safety from pillagers; the contemporary urban version is a six-storey complex containing 245 apartments. Each 333-square foot two-bedroom unit is designed to accommodate up to six adults, a tight squeeze by Western standards. With a premium on every square inch, the architects designed the unit like a car or aeroplane interior, arriving at space-saving innovations such as L-shaped corner doors. But the project’s real value is in articulating the collectivist spirit that was part of the Chinese ethos long before Mao and has persisted despite communism’s waning, offering contemporary residents a kind of ‘instant community’ as both an expression of class solidarity and a remedy for urban alienation. Its organization is decidedly introverted: instead of celebrating and promoting urban interconnectedness, it accepts the contemporary Chinese city’s fragmentation into walled-off enclaves and offers symbolic fortification against a hostile urban wilderness. Though literally borrowed from China’s historic vernacular, the circular form serves the socially relevant function of giving to an overlooked population a coherent presence not easily digestible by the urban grid; its insistence on ‘playing dumb’ with a resolutely simple – even primal – geometry is, in this sense, an act of resistance against forces which frequently come cloaked in architectural spectacle.

The issues facing the architects of China’s next wave of housing are manifold. Even the most destructive moments of the Cultural Revolution were no match for capitalism’s drive to demolish historic vernacular neighbourhoods. The country may be in for a mortgage crisis of its own as citizens who previously lived in state-provided urban housing now struggle to make payments on adjustable-rate mortgages granted by state-run banks. Local crises such as the recent earthquake in Sichuan province, which displaced 5 million people, create points of intense need. Perhaps the most unresolved issue – if not the most urgent – is whether the frisson of globalization should be celebrated aesthetically as a promise that everyday life will be elevated in as-yet-undefined ways or questioned as an apparition created by market forces that will inevitably widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. With the Beijing Olympics over and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo around the corner, China’s cities are not lacking in architectural bombast; the greater challenge will be to provide in the years ahead for the functional and symbolic needs of the masses who will dwell in them. The exhibition ‘Solos: Tulou/Affordable Housing in China’ was recently held at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York, USA.

Joseph Clarke is a writer and critic who lives in New York, USA. He has worked at Eisenman Architects and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and taught at the University of Cincinnati.