CHANGING CHINESE CITIES: THE POTENTIALS OF FIELD URBANISM

AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR RENEE CHOW

 

What is field urbanism? 

Field urbanism describes the ways in which relations, built and urban, can bind and form the experiences of a city. The word “field” refers to shared relations — the ways in which parts act upon each other, connect. and propagate. “Urbanism” is of course about the daily life of people in cities.

How do urban fields differ from the more commonly referred to urban fabric?

In a Google search, on the top of the page, a box appears that defines “urban fabric” as “the physical aspects of urbanism, emphasizing building types, thoroughfares, open space, frontages, and streetscapes….”

When “fabric” is used to metaphorically imply woven connectivity as in the warp and weft of shared relations with variations that make a cloth, then field urbanism and urban fabric share meaning. But, today, as exemplified by the Google search, the use of the term “urban fabric” encompasses a broader meaning as in “the physical form of towns and cities” with both fragmented and field urbanisms included in the term. Thus, all fields are fabrics but not all fabrics are fields.

Why did you choose China to explain and exemplify the concept of field urbanism?

The rapid growth of Chinese cities highlights the effects of using mid- to late- 20th century strategies of development and design. While the effects can be seen throughout the world, they are magnified by the rapid transformation of Chinese cities.

When China emerged in the late 1980s from a period of self-imposed international withdrawal, they realized that they had fallen far behind in terms of economics, quality of life, transportation and so on. As a result, the Chinese embarked on one of the most astounding periods of urbanization based on what Thomas Campanella has coined “an urbanism of ambition.” A set of unique economic, political and cultural conditions converged toward a very extreme, object-oriented urbanism, described in the second part of the book.

Why do we need to move beyond a 20th century approach to urbanism?

City design has never been more important and never has it been more problematic.  As our world faces new and complex challenges, our cities will need to be made more dense, more sustainable, more accommodating of diverse populations, more robust without discarding qualities that make them unique and legible. 

Yet, the methods and knowledge we employ in their design is not advancing: we have a poor understanding of what makes good cities, places and neighborhoods. We have more data but less sense, such as how a street supports activities beyond traffic. Computation and big data are emerging as tools to model urban complexity, yet these models are premised on a too simple, bifurcated view of cities — inside or outside.  The interrelations that weave the pieces of a city together are complex and critical to the design and development process. The goal of the book is to develop the language, concepts, generative tools, and systemic metrics of relational conditions that support the design of better cities and extended places.

You talk about a culture of object-building contributing to urban fragmentation. What are the problems associated with growing fragmentation and why is a field urbanism strategy important?

Problems associated with urban fragmentation include a separation between public and private, as well as isolation between private realms. Experiences within cities become homogenous. The differences between districts, between streets, in orientation are lost. Also, the unique differences of identity between cities disappear as more cities look more alike, becoming a loose chain of buildings with swaths of wasted spaces between objects that are neither sustainable nor legible. Lastly, because urban components are dependent upon their exterior “appearance” they are less likely to be designed for change but are intentionally ossified.

Field urbanism acknowledges collectivity — the reciprocities between public and private realms. It provides the ability for systems to operate at different environmental scales. Whether building new infrastructures or reinforcing aging infrastructure, we need to assess the best scales of operation. It reinforces the diversity of urban environments — within and between cities — and clarifies orientation, helping maintain cities’ unique legibility.

Is China unique when it comes to urban fragmentation and the abundance of branded/signature urban figures? Where else is this occurring?

China is definitely not unique, just the most rapidly fragmented. In the book’s introduction, one of the first to criticize urban fragmentation was Camillo Sitte describing the trend in Europe in the late 1800s. N.J. Habraken argues that the 1570 publication of Palladio’s work is seminal – a cultural shift in seeing building as part of a setting to seeing building apart from its context and as part of the practice of the architect.

In the U.S., the same fragmentation can be seen in our cities and suburbs. In the history of the development of the single-family house and the suburbs, we can also trace the same figuring and objectifying of building in the latter half of the 20th century that continues as a pattern today.

Urban fragmentation reoccurs with each culture that wants to rapidly “modernize”. Many cities in the Middle East — for example, Dubai, Bahrain, Kuwait City — are now filled with rows of iconic buildings with little regard for the shared relations of the everyday experience of the city. Many Asian cities are also growing rapidly, either with Chinese help or in competition with China (India comes to mind), all are filled with both the iconic and repetitive fragments.

As you noted, iconic supertall buildings are being erected all over the world. Can this type of architecture still honor urban fields? Are there examples out there that are “doing it right” in your opinion?

Most high-rises fill an entire block or blocks at their base and in this case they have difficulty extending the field locally; they are mostly singular. Rem Koolhaas calls this phenomenon an “auto-monument” where buildings become iconic, “even if the sum or the nature of the individual activities it accommodates does not deserve a monumental expression.” (Of course there are no hard and fast answers, thus is the complexity of urban design.)  At other environmental scales, they can extend a field, for instance by their location in relation to a street pattern.

Examples that work well include tall buildings that are mixed with low- and mid-rise building such as Peabody Terrace in Cambridge, MA, as well as contemporary field developments mostly found throughout Europe such as Borneo Sporenberg in Amsterdam. And China itself is not without positive examples including Shanghai’s Soho Fuxing Lu which is a German reading of Shanghai fabric.

What are some of the ways urban planners and architects can better integrate their designs with existing urban fabrics (in China and elsewhere)?

This is the topic of the third part of the book. First, professionals need competences in describing systems that all cities share but must be uniquely described for each place. Once rendered visible, these need to be extended, intensified or transformed for development sites. These can be used as a collaborative matrix for professionals to collaborate, reinforcing field characteristics with variations provided by designers and project aggregation. This is an alternate to the master plan that prefigures buildings as masses. Last, there is a spectrum of formal tactics that architects and urban designers use to develop fields. The book has several examples such as recognizing the difference between using a form once versus multiple times, directional versus focal orientation, reciprocal versus adjacent conditions, and so on. There are some eight formal tactics that just begin to touch on the ways in which fields can be configured.

Locally in the Bay Area we’re witnessing explosive development. Are we being sensitive to urban fields? Or are we at risk of fracturing our unique urban identity?

Any design plan that ignores the existing continuities and relations that build urban identity and legibility will risk degrading livability. For example, SOMA is one of many highly distinctive districts in San Francisco. The large block structure that is the glue of the city is uniquely subdivided into threes by alleys. These alleys have served as collective havens in the midst of the city. As new projects of higher density replace the townhouses, some have been successful in extending the quality of these alleyways. Others have ignored them, focused on their own internal order rather than the urban field, turning the alleys into service lanes.

Will a slowdown China’s growth perhaps lead to more careful design?

In the slowdown in housing construction in the U.S. during the “great recession”, I had hoped that the silver lining of the downturn would be a more careful production of single-family housing when the economy returned. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Whether it is hope for former boom times or a general difficulty in shifting cultural, economic and political practices, we seem to be returning to the same fragmented ways of building.

Instead, the catalyst for changing how and why we build our cities is and will be the growing recognition of human-caused environmental degradation. This allows us to challenge assumptions about accommodating density in high-rise towers — is this really sustainable? — and to learn from the environmental practices and potentials already inherent in cities. It will allow us to look at what mid-rise field urbanism will support in comparison with the fragmented, tower cities of today.

Is there hope for China and other cities whose rapid growth risks the erasure of their urban heritage and identity?

Paradoxically, the cultural and political practices that promote figures and intensify fragmenting in China could also easily support field urbanism. The size of new developments, unencumbered of the complexity of small lot ownership, provides opportunities to reinforce the horizontal continuities of urbanism. The propensity to organize urban fabrics for sunlight is fundamental to passive energy systems. Without an aging infrastructure, there are opportunities for new scales or resource efficiencies greater than just the building size but at the neighborhood and district scales. And, the Chinese propensity for layers of collective realms could reclaim and reform the spaces of streets and interstices between buildings.