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Variable Courtyard Urbanism: High Density Fabric Type for New Urban China

Part 2 Project 2009
Chung Wai Wong
Chinese University of Hong Kong Hong Kong China
Variable Courtyard Urbanism – High-density Fabric Type for New Urban China

From block community of ancient Chang’an, to ex-President Mao’s people’s commune and Deng Xiao-peng’s gated communities, we recognize the morphology of Chinese urbanity has been governed by those in power and their policies. In early 2000s, President of China Hu Jintao has developed his ideology of ’constructing a Socialist Harmonious Society’ for contemporary China. Subsequently, questions of how architecture and the city that can truly reveal Hu’s thinking have been raised. With this background, the thesis starts from recognizing present Deng’s urban typology – Privatized Gated Community is not able to realize Wu’s ‘Harmonious Socialist Society’ anymore. An alternative urban fabric of adaptable mesh-liked urban type, evolving from the Chinese courtyard typology is counter-proposed to re-fabricate a contextually responsive public/private relationship between housing, mixed programmes, community and the city.

Taking ‘void’ as the deep structure of courtyard type, by regulating its ‘ruled surfaces’, a 3D void-regulated system of circulation, mass and programme distribution will be developed. This variable void brings the public realm back into the superblock, and provides the city with public-private open spaces as well as accommodating diverse user groups and multiple grounds for multi-programme activities. The resultant network of multi-scalar voids and new types proliferating throughout the high density urban fabric redefine the urban idea of traditional hutong and courtyard’s spatial sequence – from the city to the unit, at the same time responding new verticality, programme and density provisions.

The project demonstrates the viability of a self-similar generative design process that can be evolved from local-cultural type formations with multi-scalar variations. It also demonstrates starting with an architectural idea, the evolved type can produce large scale sustainable solutions for the future city. The new variable urban type – ‘adaptable mesh’ aims to reveal the coherency of Chinese spatial identity and to be a more sustainable, rich and authentic urban form for evolving contemporary ‘socialist harmonious society’ of 21st century urban China.

Chung Wai Wong

The project ‘Variable Courtyard Urbanism’ challenges fundamental modes of urban development in China’s cities today, where FAR 2.5 typically result in generic megablock high-rise plots that ignore traditional spatial and morphological patterns. The deep analysis of courtyard types across China produced a comprehensive parametric system of spatial types that could be varied and adapted to specific urban contexts and contemporary programmatic needs. Beijing was well chosen as a typical context that contained such potent DNA for the creation of urban fabrics. Evolution of such types affected by fluctuating urban field conditions produces a typologically coherent yet highly differentiated fabric of variable courtyards, can both create continuous fabric at high densities for tabula rasa sites, as well as heal ruptured urban areas.

This is a highly skilful and sensitive approach to Chinese cities in dire need of a new paradigm beyond the generic. Not only has the project rigorously deployed advanced parametric modeling, fundamental disciplines of architectural types and deep structure are also updated through generative methodologies that are able to create continuous mixed-use variations. The notion of types developed in this project are not the static repetitive models of the past, but instead through an evolutionary approach have returned to the essence of architecture and type as ‘an idea for the city.’ It is contextual and spatial at the same time through the serial manipulation of the courtyard type as city fabric and architectural generator.

This is a sustainable tactical and bottom-up approach to cities that suffer from top-down planning with little consideration for architecture. High densities and mixed programmes are accommodated in the project, with the flexibility to adopt different architectural designers without losing overall urban coherence. Particularly rewarding was the rich sectional qualities of the project and the inversion of structure to the courtyard interiors, allowing diversity of spatial progression so typical of Beijing’s traditional hutong streets. This not only happens at street level but also at multi-level crossings of infrastructure, public space and programme. The project is a mature and critical piece of work that deserves RIBA recognition for its urban ambition, innovation and compelling architectural demonstration.


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