Designing in China
by Dave Hoggard
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Ningbo is described as a second tier city which means it doesn't quite have the status of Shanghai about two hours drive to the north east, but with a population of almost eight million for the municipality and a history dating back to 4800BC it is by standards any other than in China a very large and busy city.
As with all Chinese cities an enormous amount of development is the norm. Driving in from the airport it is easy to see the layers and stages where this has taken place. There are areas built in the 70s and 80s which already are showing their age and look ready to be replaced. There are pockets of the city that pre-date all the recent development but these feel a bit lost and have not been integrated into the new fabric. These will also probably vanish in the near future.
Ningbo is a city of entrepreneurial energy. To the east of the existing city centre what appears to be a whole new city is currently being built on flatland next to the main river. It is difficult to guess how big this area is, but certainly too large to walk from end to end. Iconic buildings by some of the world's top architects are already under construction, the infrastructure is racing ahead and already beautifully landscaped parks and boulevards line out the city blocks. It is hard to say how successful this will be as a piece of urban design, but building on this scale must be considered a whole new branch of urbanism being pioneered by China. The evidence that exists in the already completed buildings is of a quality of design and construction that far exceeds the stereotypical images often shown in newspaper articles. This is exemplified by the excellent Ningbo Museum by local architect and Pritzker prize winner Wang Shu.
We have been developing designs on five different projects in Ningbo over the last two years. Two of these are located in a new High-Tech Zone, a part of the new city area described above. Both are large developments in UK terms, but standard size for Chinese cities.
The first project working under the title of 'G2' is a mixed use scheme of residential, retail, office, and hotel. The scheme covers six different parcels of land on either side of a river with a built area of almost 300,000 square metres.
Other than the existing river there is little context to work with (a fairly typical condition in Chinese cities), all of the adjacent lots are currently farmland. Our design therefore works with and responds to its proximity to the river to generate the landscaping and layout concepts.
With residential developments it is necessary to work at all scales simultaneously. At the same time as we are laying out towers we also have to plan the apartments, everything has a knock on effect on everything else. China is no different to everywhere else with a series of regulations dictating building spacing, emergency vehicle access, and even provision of bomb shelters for the future occupants. There are also a strong set of precedents to be aware of in designing apartments or houses in China. There is such a strong preference for buildings to be oriented north to south that even rotating 15 degrees from the axis might prevent the building from being sold.
As a result of this, residential developments tend to all look very similar. We were keen to explore all of these ingrained 'preferences' and test which were possible to modify. Luckily our client was supportive to our approach and together we were able to make some significant changes to the 'traditional' approach. Similarly, we wanted to produce facade designs that didn't look exactly like the typical city development. At an early stage we developed facade designs to a quite resolved level of detail.
The second project called 'Smart City' is a commercial development of office and retail. This is in the heart of the section of the High Tech Zone that is already complete and so has built context around it.
The client was keen to develop a scheme that could act to enliven the wider area. Currently, once the local offices close for the day everybody leaves and the whole area is deserted. There are few shops and restaurants and hence no reason to stay in the evening. Our scheme aims to create a lively mix of shops, restaurants, galleries, and offices that will be active during the day and into the evening. To achieve this we have experimented with a variety of buildings of different sizes and scales to provide opportunities for different types of tenants to occupy and enliven.
Both schemes are in their early stages and we are excited at the prospect of building them in this fascinating and surprising city.