Essay: the Role of New Media in Architecture in Urban China

In the build-up to our expert meeting ‘Designing the Hybrid City’, we asked our intern Snoweria Zhang to research the perspective of Chinese architects on our subject matter. How do Chinese architects contemplate the role of digital media in urban design? What challenges and opportunities do they see that are specific to the Chinese context of Urban Design?

A Study of the Role of New Media in Architecture in Urban China
By Snoweria Zhang

Introduction

Since the turn of the century, cities have become multidimensional; they not only consist of buildings and the people who reside in them, but also digital products that can react to the surroundings and respond to the residents’ actions. Cities are no longer just physical spaces, and buildings provide so much more than just a location – they are made “alive” by the arrival of this digital era. Inevitably, the city will depend more and more on these new media and their integration in the development of the city. Nevertheless, most architects and urban planners still mainly focus on designing the “hardware” of the city, and artists, programmers, and telecommunication companies usually come in after the city is built to add in the “software.”

A city’s evolution and development do not happen under one person’s command; it is a reciprocal process between residents, designers, and, now, some digital elements that can react to their surroundings. As the city becomes increasingly dependent on not only the functioning of the individual parts, but more importantly on a good combination of buildings and emerging media, we certainly need a better understanding of these new media and how they are affecting the design practice, the buildings that are being constructed, and other aspects of our quotidian life.

1. Digital media in the design process

When the word “new media” is mentioned, most architects and designers think of the tools that are available to them in the design process, such as AutoCAD and BIM. This rapid development in technology has engendered different sentiments in designers. Steven Wang, an artist-turned-architect and a graduate of UC Berkeley, pointed out that prior to this digital era, the design process can be very tedious and incomprehensible for non-architects, which include most clients. This not only made it difficult for designers and clients when communicating their visions and needs, but also constrained the speed at which a project can be done. With the aid of digital cameras, iPhones, and similar media, designers can easily jot down their transient inspiration or instantly share their thoughts with colleagues or clients. Moreover, designers now have the capacity to be working on several projects at once, which allows for more cross-referencing between projects.

Architects from East China Architectural Design & Research Institute Co., Ltd. (ECADI) have expressed similar sentiments on the issue. Not more than a decade ago, architects’ biggest problem was communication with the clients. Non-professionals usually have a hard time conveying what exactly it is that they want, and architects didn’t find it easy to explain their blueprint full of intersecting lines and circles to the untrained eye. With the 3D technology that is available today, architects can easily show clients renderings of their future construction, and they can even choose to provide a virtual guided tour of the building even before a single brick is laid. This has undoubtedly provided immeasurable convenience for architects.

However, Steven Wang also pointed out that with the rapidly growing availability of information, the expertise of most fields are decreasing. With the easy and wide access of the Internet, every interested individual can effortlessly retrieve information in any field, resulting in a decreasing specificity of professional fields. Therefore, architects might no longer be experts in the field, and they are slowly becoming “consultants,” especially in a society where customer demand is highly valued. As an architect, Wang often faces clients who have envisioned a project for a certain purpose, and only visit the architect’s firm to “consult” what is feasible and what is not. Of course, the renderings and other details are still the architect’s responsibility, but Wang feels that the conceptualization is slowly being handed to the clients.

Of course, there are plenty of other architects who are less enthusiastic about the rapidly emerging tools. Igor Peraza, an architect from EMBT who worked on the design of the giant basket that is the EXPO Spain Pavilion, expressed his concerns for an architect’s role in this vast ocean of new media. He thinks that an architect should first think about how people can appreciate a building, and the high technology merely comes along to make things easier. In his words, architecture is heavier on the humanity’s side on a scale against technology. It is crucial to be aware of technology and adapt it to the building, but it should never be a primary concern for an architect. There is always the danger of following without rethinking the purpose and the ultimate effect, as not everything has to rely on technology. Rhino might be helping designers to render three-dimensional and quite complex structures, but good design principles still come from life.

In this light, designers at EMBT are interested in using old materials in innovative ways rather than being engrossed by newly developed technologies. Peraza’s comments highlight the emerging difference between the Chinese and the European design philosophy. The general trend in China is luxury, not just in architecture but in many aspects of life, from cars to houses. New technology is always welcomed by the Chinese without a frown, because it gives another means to display what could be done in an extravaganza of emerging media.

2. The role of technology in the designed objects (hardware of the city)

In addition to direct changes that new media have brought to the design industry, they are also of great help to China’s architectural development socially. In this booming society that only picked up its pace in the 80s, social changes are happening by the minute, and the scale is stunningly pervasive. Architecture, on the contrary, is a comparatively slow-evolving field. The abundance of thought-sharing tools and community networks have expedited the development of architecture in response to the changes in social life.

Wang Xiao’An, Chief Designer of the EXPO Performance Center, mentioned that in the 80’s, architects were accustomed to working individually in a private room. Now with the higher demand for communication, walls are broken down and a closer-knit community is formed. This new working space have allowed architects, artists, and clients to share resources and thoughts more effectively, and they have been applying this change to their design as well. About twenty years ago, the Shanghai TV Station had all of their programs recorded in separate compartments to minimize distractive interference and to ensure high sound quality. Now with the help of better microphones and related media technology, ECADI’s new Shanghai TV Station, much contrary to the previous design, has an entirely open and singular interior that houses screens, desks, and recording devices all in a great hall. Wang asserts that such a design fosters community and improves efficiency.

Fu Haicong, Chief Designer of the EXPO Center, mentions that the original concept of “better life” points directly to the European life style and the pursuit of a quiet and simple life, as opposed to the luxurious one dreamed of by the Chinese. However, most foreign designers are only exposed to the commercial side of Shanghai and China at large, where the investment is much higher than most middle- and lower-class residential buildings. Ample apartments are handed back unequipped with pipes or water systems. Therefore, the majority of Chinese architects’ concern now is to find a solution for these under-funded and mal-equipped structures before considering the use of new technologies and media.

3. New media in urban life / software of the city

New media are destined to bring about changes to city life. With the EXPO as a backdrop, many architects and designers have experimented with their interpretations of the slogan “Better City, Better Life.” It is difficult to say what it means specifically, but the slogan definitely implies that city and life are inseparable. Giel Groothuis, a Dutch architect at FAR Architecture & Design Center in Shanghai, thinks that Shanghai is hosting the EXPO to search for new technology and strategies that can be used in the future. It is comforting to know that China is taking time to think about what solutions to implement in the country, as it is faced with an enormous pool of possibilities brought about by new media and the political issues that come along. For instance, electric cars appears to be a sustainable substitute for gasoline-driven automobile, but it might pose problems in a society with a high demand like China, including what to do with the large amount of electric waste.

It is crucial to note that aside from the technological advances that new media are bringing to the design industry, the social changes are no less prominent. In fact, with regard to the changes that new media might bring to the city, Steven Wang’s stance is mainly social. The interviewer cited the emergence of wireless internet as an example and asked how similar technologies can change the design industry. Wang thinks that these technologies will not change the physical appearance of a city much, because for city-wide coverage of wireless internet, a device the size of a television tower would suffice. For instance, San Francisco has pursued this not long ago when Google and Earth Link collaborated in an attempt to promote a “connected city.”

The project was aborted, but architects started to realize the social impact that these new media might bring. For instance, traditionally in the United States, people usually reside far from one another and an individual’s circle tend to be really small. This triggers the growth of social networks like Facebook and Twitter that promote a new means for communication.

In China, similar changes are happening. For example, with the expansion of online shopping, the need for shopping malls will gradually decrease. Of course, this is not to say that shops and malls will completely disappear – there will always be products (e.g. clothes) that are better purchased in person. Nevertheless, shops like Best Buy might significantly decrease in store size. The existence of shopping malls will become more spiritual than material, much like churches in medieval Europe – a place for people to meet friends and socialize. Similarly, libraries might become purely an archival center. With these changes already in action, architecture will definitely need to catch up.

Fu Haicong has made similar remarks: shop sizes can become smaller, and public areas will need grow in size. Specifically, the airports that ECADI has designed in recent years feature smaller and smaller waiting areas as digital media are providing passengers with more accurate and real-time information regarding the status of their flights. Fortunately, Chinese urban designers and architects are gradually becoming aware of the inevitability of these transformations and are integrating them into their designs. However, in China, very frequently the content of the building is not decided before it is built. Therefore, architects need to design flexible buildings. In addition, the Chinese clients tend to be passive in the design process, and architects often have to force the client to give them what is needed specifically. Peraza felt that architects have to be ready for changes, and they have to get used to working without knowing the final purpose of the building.

The introduction of new media also brings hope as potential a problem solver for both design and societal issues that are unique to China. The country has a long and rich history, and this can be problematic in the rapid development that has been happening in the country in the last three decades or so. When asked about the current trend in China, most local architects replied with confidence that it is preservation over destruction. Wang Xiao’an pointed out that in the much-too-fast urban development that took place in the last three decades, most market demands has been on more buildings and more living and working spaces as a great influx of people moved into major cities like Beijing and Shanghai. It was inevitable that some of the older buildings that have lost their livability be destroyed to make room for new constructions.

However, all of the Chinese interviewees have expressed unanimous hope regarding the preservation of the tidbits of past that is left. Many have cited Shanghai’s Xintiandi as an example. Popular among tourists, the area filled with stereotypical dark roofs and brick houses is famous for being one of the few places in the city where one can still see the old Shanghai even though the old residential area has been transformed completely into a high-end commercial district. The government saw hope through this project and realized that history does not have to be the city’s burden and that it is possible to combine history and development to design an integrated city where the past is not abandoned.

Similar preservation strategies can be seen at Tianzifang, a Xintiandi-like shopping area in Shanghai, and Zhujiajiao, a resort an hour outside of the city famous for its rivers and boats. Nevertheless, as Steven Wang has pointed out, the culture has been lost. Hangzhou, a popular tourist destination in Zhejiang, offers us not only Xi Hu, a beautiful lake nicknamed “paradise on earth,” but also hundreds of surveillance cameras leading up to it. Simply preserving the buildings is not enough; the core of the culture and the residents is what defines a city and makes it unique. The houses at Xintiandi are original, but the content has been replaced.

Giel Groothuis said from his perspective the current trend is still destruction, but he doubts that the Chinese see it that way. He thinks that the Chinese see it more as building up, adapting a new life style, and getting rid of what is no longer useful. People are certainly concerned about and aware of tradition, but they simply have more issues on their minds. To him it seems like preserving a building does not go beyond taking care of a shell. What is really at stake is to think about the future of these traditional elements, look under the cover, and keep the essence.

Currently, the exact opposite has been happening in Xintiandi, where the shell is preserved for a modern lifestyle based on consumption and leisure, and the original social content has been lost. Most architects have expressed an interest in finding out if new media can be somehow employed to allow the residents stay while still make use of the discarded buildings in new ways. This is where the future of architecture in China lies.

This essay was written by Snoweria Zhang is currently a junior at Harvard College and a candidate for bachelor of arts in engineering sciences and fine arts. In the summer of 2010 she worked as an intern for The Mobile City, carrying out a research project on the role of digital media in architecture in China.