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Planning modern cities – an alternative approach to urban design

The rapid industrialisation of Eastern Asia over recent decades has seen a substantial movement of people from rural areas into cities. The demand on urban infrastructure has seen the need for accelerated construction of new cities; and the buildings to accommodate both their inhabitants and their commerce. China is the obvious example but the story is just the same for our Southeast Asian neighbours: Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.

The rapid and speculative opportunities available have meant little consideration for the local and natural context that was once understood and respected by local people. Recent catastrophic events have seen cities damaged and thousands of people killed by Tsunamis, landslides, floods, droughts and earthquakes. The local inhabitants of Bangkok were recently reminded of their location within a flood plain and their vulnerability to severe rain events in the north of Thailand. The demand for housing remains and the city continues to fill in its flood plains.

The role of agriculture in the countries mentioned is declining as their urban focused economies expand. The skills of agricultural cultivation and stewardship of the land are slowly disappearing. China is estimated to have 1% of its population, ie 13 million people, packing their bags and moving to the city each year. Ecological integrity, cultural identity and historical heritage are all under threat.

Western urban designers, planners and architects are brought in to provide expertise and assistance to build new urban infrastructure. Grand and exotic master planning is proposed. The designs have been described as the beautiful cities movement… four lane highways, tidy streets with well maintained flower beds… a western aesthetic imprint; but are they functional and appropriate? Is the Gold Coast canal experiment the right approach? Was it so successful that we should be selling this knowledge and rebuilding them in the new cities and suburbs of Asia?

Kongjian Yu, a pioneer of the Landscape Architecture profession in China, argues that urban development should be approached by identifying and designing landscape infrastructure that is critical in safeguarding the ecological processes and cultural heritages that give us our cultural identity. Spiritual needs need to be fed before the development plan evolves. Food production and sustainable land use is considered by Yu as two of China’s biggest issues.

Yu’s ideas are by no means unique, however it isthe eloquent execution of his concepts into the built realm that is worth considering further. The design for the Shenyang Architectural University demonstrates with simplicity and precision how alternative approaches to urban design can provide urban environments that are beautiful, sustainable and functional and cut to the heart of a region’s culture.

China’s rising demand and interest in architecture has seen the relocation of the entire campus to the outer ring of the northern Chinese city. The new site for the campus had an existing agricultural use – a rice paddy. Shenyang is famous in China for its “northeast rice”. A high quality food due to the cool climate and longer growing season than Southern China.

Yu’s underlying landscape concept utilises the rice field, native plants and crops to provide both a productive landscape and its new role as an environment for learning. The utilitarian rice paddy becomes a decorative element and literal food for thought… even agriculture can look modern. So the new architecture school is located within a rice paddy, the fields are rotated with other native crops such as buckwheat, and a dialogue of sustainable development and food production is established within a learning environment. Insertions of raised concrete pedestrian pathways, elevated study areas, a formal planning axis (including access for farming vehicles) provide a modern, stimulating urban landscape using traditional rural references.

Concrete insertions - the formal axes and pedestrian pathways within the rice fields

Pedestrian paths of varying widths provide textual experiences (touch and feel) as students make their way to classes

Rice planting day - students and faculty members participate. The celebration has become an integral part of university culture

Rice harvesting - the long tradition of rice culture in China becomes campus culture

Left over rice paddies after harvesting decoratively arranged to maintain warmth of colour during the winter months

Golden rice - the icon of the campus is harvested and distributed by the university

Bibiliography : The Art of Survival: Recovering Landscape Architecture Kongjian Yu and Mary Padua


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