Xiamen studio re-envisions the megaplot

by Aanya Chugh
Xiamen’s emerging skyline appears to say it all. Although an image of cosmopolitanism, it is obvious that much of this spectacle would not exist without extremely liberal developmental policies. The glimmering lights convey the city’s economic ambitions, but they contradict the state’s neglect of public infrastructure.
As a result of changes in land use regulations in the 1980’s, China has transitioned to a period of what some would describe as market socialism, with a socialist government that leases large plots of land to developers as a means of promoting capital investment. The megaplot is valued for its efficiency as it accommodates the density that urbanism needs and can facilitate rapid construction. Through prioritizing the market over public infrastructure, much of the development in Xiamen is fragmented and exclusive. The result is a sea of homogenous towers, each plot a self-sufficient island. What is the role of the designer in an economy driven by speculative capital, and how does one reconcile this fragmentation?
Common Frameworks: Rethinking the Developmental City, a studio taught by Chris Lee of Serie Architects, is part of a three-year research project to rethink the development of the megaplot through understanding what a city holds common: its housing. According to Lee, the idea of the city lies in what is held as common, and this is best seen in the city’s dominant architectural type. By looking at Xiamen through its typical shop house, its basic organizational structure demonstrates what persists in the city and reflects how inhabitants perceive their city. Embedded in this type lie generations of cultural understanding, from which it is possible to create an inclusive and pliable urban structure or “common framework.”
Employing this approach at a large scale is the studio's conundrum, but also its intrigue. Although traveling studios at the GSD are nothing new, this project is unique in its collaboration with a large multinational architecture firm, AECOM. Typically, theoretical propositions tend to remain in the realm of academia. Despite much of the studio remaining polemical, AECOM’s feedback has provided a realistic and critical cultural dimension that firmly grounds the projects in the particularities of Xiamen’s development. While the description of the studio falls in the departments of urban design and landscape architecture, it mainly comprises architecture students. This is where the interdisciplinary aspects of the GSD become evident. The projects address the site at an urban scale, but they begin with architecture.
Xiamen’s new buildings are stark reminders that standardization of architectural modernism never actually died. Reminiscent of Ludwig Hilberseimer’s High-rise City towersor the cross shaped towers of Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse, the conspicuous repetition of the same few tower types is strange; buildings appear to take the form of their zoning envelopes. With much of the new buildings being products of a speculative economy, the inhabitants are missing. In this prioritization of quantity over quality, so is architecture.
In order to further understand the interplay between the government, developers and designers, AECOM representatives arranged for the studio to have a series of discussions with planning officials. These interactions revealed that the role of design was subordinate to the acquisition of capital. Visiting the chosen sites in Xiamen provided further insight into the challenges that architects in this context faced. One site stands on the border of the new and old city fabric, and therefore must respond to the surrounding architectural scale. The second site makes the problem even more conspicuous. A giant megaplot on the northeastern part of Xiamen Island, the site is disproportionately large and lacks any context. How does one design for such a tabula rasa condition?
Upon getting back to the GSD, students combined their observations with their earlier typological analyses and proposed a range of architectural, urban and landscape interventions. The common thread between the projects clearly lies in adherence to a particular organizational type, endemic to the Chinese cultural context. MArch II students John Tubles and Jong Hyun Yi fragment the megaplot into a series of narrow wall buildings that collectively form a mat framework. Through focusing on the plan’s interstitial spaces, they create heterogeneity at an intimate scale, one that is programmatically defined but inherently flexible. MArch I student Nick Gu’s team redeploys the circular logic of the traditional Tulou house at an urban scale. While their spaces of housing are defensive and inward, they flip outward when transitioning to office space. Through this geometric inversion of convexity and concavity in plan, they play with the idea of what is perceived as individual versus collective space.
Apart from using architecture as a way to rethink the megaplot, the studio brings up the question of what it means to be “critical” as an architect. The autonomous project of architecture in this context seems impossible, since most projects that appear individualistic are intrinsically linked to powerful political forces. However, it may be possible to challenge the process from within by reconfiguring the typical functioning of daily life. Another strategy lies in altering the role of the designer. For instance, some architects have taken on the role of developers giving them considerable opportunity to make design decisions.
Regardless of the outcome, the discipline can learn a lot from utopian schemes. The production of new design intelligence is invaluable as it helps to forge a new and much needed discourse. Seeing how architecture is inherently a political and economic tool, it is important to take a radical stance, not only in regard to the megaplot, but also in regard to the role that designers can play in this process.
Aanya Chugh is a student in the MArch I program at Harvard's Graduate School of Design.