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Public space as Political process: Watch Tower Museum of Urbanization

Part 2 Project 2009
Ho Yin Yannis Chan
University of Hong Kong | China
Public space is not a void. At the Petitioning Bureau in Beijing, public space is a solid engraved by the political process of petitioning.

Petitioning, more commonly known as "Letters and Visits" in China, is a political process which engages the public to voice their individual complaints and grievances at the national level. China’s Petitioning Bureau in Beijing was established to handle individual petitioner's cases, 60% of whom are farmers whose complaints involve injustice and conflicts caused by the current urbanization process of Chinese cities. They must travel to Beijing from their hometowns to voice their cases in person, averaging 1500 per day. Their constant presence reflects a modern pilgrimage of struggle and hope - rendering the area around the Petitioning Bureau as China's recording of this unique political process.

This Thesis explores the process of petitioning in China as an architectural project on the political nature of Public Space. From the point of arrival in Beijing to the meeting halls of the Bureau, petitioners pass through boundaries embedded in the architecture of public spaces. The alleyway outside the Petitioning Bureau, a void that inscribes the very existence of this intense political process, is extracted through casting the negative street space. Existing building facades leaves imprints on the surface of the cast, revealing traces of the daily extreme conditions experienced by the petitioners. The casted volume is in turn vertically erected in 3 stages, according to construction time, reacting to the urban and political landscape of the area and the city of Beijing.

First phase of the project serves as a temporal shelter for the endless wait of petitioners, which gradually transforms into part of a museum in the final stage, the speculated future when the bureau is removed due to gentrification of the area. The volume grows into prominence, and embraces intensifying conflicts between the political process and urbanization of the area. As the project completes in the final phase, the watch tower section, the entire volume will completely transform into a Museum of Urbanization. While the museum tower provides the public with a spectacular view of the new Beijing at a spectacular height on the ancient city-wall boundary, the shadow is cast on the original site of the Petitioning Bureau - memorializing the original urban program and the absent petitioners.

Ho Yin Yannis Chan

This Design Project is nominated for the Award to recognize its distinctive approach to the important idea of public space. Unlike the usual architectural topics often cited in relation to the discussion and design of public space within a city, this project explored the political cause and social effect of contemporary urban spaces and derived an architectural proposal that not only reflected but drew strength from the research.

The project’s intense design process involved critical reflections on the urbanization of a contemporary Asian city, to the physical interaction of a unique floating population within the city, and finally focusing the research and design project at an architectural scale of one street and one tower. The project recognizes the social implications of a problematic political process, critically analyses the social, and more importantly to the field, the urban experience, and drives a strong architectural proposal. The attitude of the project explores and (re)proposes architectural design with the responsibility to notice, reveal, and intervene into our current urban transformation and its associated socio-political repercussions.

This project received special recognition within our school and by outside international jurors due its willingness to take on social issues related to current urban development. The inventiveness of the project is consistent in its original concept, research, design process, and the means of architectural representations. Without computer modeling, green roofs, data diagramming etc, the project is still fresh and contemporary while recalling the elapsed social agenda of the academic and practice of architecture.


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