Architect Liu Xiaodu spoke memorably at the 2012 World Architecture Festival about rapid growth in Chinese cities. Afterwards, Narelle Yabuka caught up with the Urbanus principal for a chat.
24 October, 2012
In your presentation, you raised the notion of colonising the city with your affordable housing project Tulou Collective Housing. Would this be easy to achieve?
There’s huge demand for affordable housing in China. We’re talking about a million square metres for just one city. We could build similar tulou structures as standalone social housing units on cheap land. We’re looking at the possibility of industrialised construction methods.
Tulou Collective Housing, Guangdong, Nanhai (exterior)
What are some of the main desires of today’s Chinese city dwellers in terms of how they wish to live?
The general public looks to celebrities, wealthy people, advertisements and TV series to perceive what a good life is supposed to be. Developers are creating gated communities and high-rise apartments that segregate the city into pieces. Then the streets become roads, with no life. Neighbours don’t know each other. Is that the life people wanted? This is the question we will have to evaluate in years to come.
People living in the Tulou Collective Housing have to communicate with each other. They have to care about others. I’m not saying the old way is better; living conditions have greatly improved with technology. But we need a balance. We need to build communities for life; they’re not for commercial interests.
Bird’s eye view of the Tulou project
What are some ways Chinese traditions are embodied in your architecture?
For more than half a century, Chinese architects have been trying to evolve traditional Chinese architecture into the Western architectural system. I think they’ve all failed. My generation still doesn’t know what to do. At Urbanus we try to take Western functional forms (like airports or sports facilities) as purely generic types. Then we see how they could be influenced by the Chinese understanding of them.
Maillen Hotel and Apartments, Shenzhen (facade)
For the Maillen Hotel and Apartments project, we used the way of viewing that’s prevalent in traditional Chinese art. It’s called parallel perspective views. There are multiple vanishing points. We made this continuous roof and various courtyards, allowing people to walk different routes and see different things.
What is Urbanus working on right now?
A soho residential block that we’re building on the top of a shopping mall in Shenzhen – a very interesting project. We’re also doing the urban design for a major piece of land in a new city on the western edge of Shenzhen. It’s called Qianhai New Town Financial District. Supposedly it’s becoming a new territory and a special economic zone.
We’re keeping a slightly slower pace lately. We don’t want to be starchitects. We want to practice in a way that’s more involved with contemporary urban life. We’re trying to look critically at the current situation. That means we need to stand back, observe, and take time to think.
White Cloud Temple Jewelry Garden, Beijing
I believe you have a research department. Please tell me about it.
Yes, we mostly do project-based urban research that forms part of our design strategy. We publish it whenever possible. We also own small gallery spaces and hold architecture-related exhibitions and forums. We’re trying to build a circle of architects, and encourage graduates to keep their ideals. There are quite a few young Chinese architects who aren’t money oriented. They tend to lose hope easily. We try to keep them inspired. It’s worth the effort.
Urban design for Zhangjiang High-Tech Park, Jiading Branch, Shanghai
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