If the ancient city concerned religion,
And the modern city concerns capital and power,
Then the city of the future should concern
people and nature.
I’ve been to many cities, and most seem to me like shelves in a supermarket. While they are full of eye-catching objects, the contents don’t differ much from one store to the next. Works of architecture, whether mundane or extravagant, are exhibited like products on shelves, arranged by function, waiting to be bought. Perhaps one store’s products differ slightly from another’s, but the overall sense of sameness is as overwhelming as the commercial demands they all continually respond to. My impressions of these cities are muddled to the point that I can’t even be sure which ones I’ve visited before.
Of course, stock shelves are designed with very specific purposes. They can be replicated, mass produced, combined - scalability of production and sales are the main considerations. Like giant stock shelves, Modernist cities were planned for legibility and a certain rationality. Land development costs and usage efficiency guide city planning, resulting in the construction of block grids. Land prices are meted out according to location within the city, and developers are sourced to bid against one another. Architecture has become a product that occupies land, providing maximum usable floor space and stylish exterior packaging. A consequence of the last century’s caustic waves of global, utilitarian urbanization, especially in the Chinese context, “stock cities” have become the most effective model for dealing with growth; today’s generic, perpetually-prescribed development of central business districts, museum campuses, supertall residential towers, and technology parks is subservient to capital trends and accomplished at breakneck speeds. Yet our “stock cities” do not provide emotional refuge for their residents, and pay no heed to the feeling and experience of living within them. This model of the city development has reached its limits. What would a city outside of this stock shelf model look like?
A city is more than just an organism, just as a human being is not merely bones, and flesh, and physiological functions. Like each human, each city has its own spirit. Technology can only solve certain material problems; it cannot resolve issues affecting the spirit of a city, nor can it resolve humanity’s crisis of feeling. Our modern cities lack an inner spirituality; or rather, they lack a soul. What, then, is the soul of the city?
I spent my childhood in Beijing’s hutongs. In the center of every courtyard home was a large tree, and every part of our lives seemed to unfold underneath those trees. These courtyard trees were different from the trees on the sidewalk. People maintained an intimate, lifelong dialogue with these trees; they were at the center of our family and community relationships. When I was younger, I would cross Jingshan Park and Beihai Park on my way home from school. In winter I would ice skate on the moat of the Forbidden City. In summer I learned to swim in the lakes of Shichahai and fished off the Yinding Bridge. Looking back now, having these hills and waters in such a big city was truly utopian. Regardless if these pre-“modern” environments are indeed “planned nature”, they were designed to induce authentic, emotional reactions.
Beijing is an epic city, constructed according to a grand order, yet replete with details that inspire our most subtle affections. As Lao She wrote, “The beauty of old Beijing lies in the gaps and voids between the buildings.” The historical “Eight Great Sights of Yanjing,” which include Beihai Park, are a spiritual map of the city; they are its emotional calendar. These rich, mythical landscapes are infused with the essence of ancient Chinese philosophy and aesthetics. They act as living canvases that can be experienced within the everyday lives of Beijing’s residents, and treasured in their memories. This remarkable example of visionary urban planning is the physical interpretation of an idyllic natural world nurtured in the hearts of the Chinese people.
We at MAD often look to old Beijing, to its voids and cultural values, as a source of inspiration to provoke contemporary alternatives to the urban development models prescribed by “modernity,” models so naturalized to us inhabitants of “stock cities.” As a practice, we experiment to induce emotional experience, the once-familiar, through our designs, even if today such experiences register as unfamiliar.
Our recently completed Harbin Opera House can be seen as one example of these investigations. Embedded in Harbin’s peripheral wetlands, the opera house was designed in response to the force and spirit of the northern city’s untamed wilderness and frigid climate. Formally appearing as if sculpted by wind and water, the architecture exists as a climbable, public landscape blending enclosed theaters and mezzanines with their site’s natural topography. The result is an environment that gives new meaning to a site on the edge of Harbin’s expanding urbanism; it exists as a “planned nature” to offer the civic realm emotional and cultural experiences, and to validate their need within our built environments.
Our Chaoyang Park Plaza represents a different example. Inspired by Shan Shui philosophy, the forms of the urban towers are intended to be not immediately familiar, through the recalling of the abstract forms of traditional Chinese aesthetics and urban design. The towers relate to their natural context, such as the hovering sky and the vastness of Chaoyang Park. The architecture is manifestly at odds with its immediate built context, characterized by extensive Modernist slab construction, ironically challenging it through a re-introduction of Chinese history and aesthetics.
Just like the Salk Institute. The first time I visited Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute was during the middle of the night, and the entrance was locked shut; I got in by climbing over a wall. Inside I felt a trembling I had never experienced before. When I stood in the center of the courtyard, facing the pitch-black ocean and sky, it was just like facing a black hole, with an uncertain road ahead. This awe, bordering on terror, was completely unlike the tranquil and sublime atmosphere I later experienced during the daytime. In my mind, this building is sacred, producing an intense sense of place. Its layout mirrors the central symmetry and twin colonnades of an ancient Greek temple. Yet it differs in that the culmination of the central axis is free, opening only to the ocean and sky. One could say this building is in dialogue with nature. Or better yet, the poetic interaction of building and nature invites us to engage in a dialogue with ourselves. I believe this sentiment will still be felt by visitors to this site a century from now. Architecture of this order connects with our natural affinities, creating an allure that transcends time.
Perhaps as we shift our attention away from designing for the market shelf, we may begin to again focus on improving daily urban existence and rebuilding community life. Through this change of preoccupations, we may approach some understanding of what a contemporary city’s “soul” could be.
The article contains excerpts from Shanshui City (Ma Yansong, Lars Müller Publishers, 2015)
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