“The New River City” masterplan aims to blend an innovative urban design approach which links contemporany urban conceptions with traditional Chinese urban civilizations.
As part of the new district of Zhengbian -connecting the areas of Zhengzhou East and Kaifeng West – the Zhengzhou New District -Baisha- will be a key urban project for the future development of Henan province. Baisha Cluster will become an important urban center that, with an area of about 42 square kilometers, is intended primarily for scientific educational research, technology, and innovative industry, along with residential, administrative, leisure, cultural buildings and with the corresponding urban services.
The proposal expresses a commitment to make a completely penetration of the landscape into the urban structure that will define the feature of the urban identity; representing the spirit that guided so many cities in ancient China along the Yellow River.
Overall, the new public spaces, traffic infrastructures, integrated landscape, and buildings of high architectural quality will shape a living and sustainable city along the river. In this way, it is boosted the balance between memory and innovation that links contemporary Zhengzhou with the ancient traditions of its history. The proposal is conceived with the idea of giving a different model to the current urban development reality; which is usually based on the rejection of the local heritage and therefore the proliferation of sameness urban configuration, and thus identity absence.
Contemporary sciences describe identity whatever makes an entity definable and recognizable. Identity is always described in relation to something, often material: objects, places, assets, or no-material: memory… They define individual’s personality and make him/her be part of a recognizable entity, as well as a particular place able to define itself by their own qualities. On the other hand, “identity” is a term used to describe an individual’s comprehension of him/herself as a discrete, separate entity. Yet, such comprehension needs to be within a compressible frame.
It was already said by the Greece philosophers, and particularly by Aristotle, that man is a social animal1. Essentially, because he/she has the capacity of talking, interact with his/her counterparts, and by doing so he/she takes part in a society which composes his/her social frame. The question remains of how to build that frame; what the elements that make it possible are; and how its proper configuration is. Indeed, when the proliferation of the so-call generic spaces is already everywhere, and identities are endangered. After Rem Koolhaas theorised the generic city2 as a city without qualities, not being unique in order to compete with other global city players, some problems, like the lost of territory identity, have appeared. This fact has disassociated individuals from the elements that they feel identify with.
Despite the current existence of these dissociation phenomena (almost manipulated by economic factors) the generic actions in architecture realm are usually rejected by the specific conditions of each territory. Despite generic patterns can be found trough every social performance, it is not possible to find generic territories, and therefore might not able to found generic cities.
In Baisha cluster, this urban and therefore social problem has been answered by creating the most connected hybrid space in relation with the most particular local characteristics; a counterpart of the already spread idea of unified space which no longer belongs to one particular society, and therefore foster the process of the urban banalization3.
By keeping the importance of the pre-existence urban morphology, and the interrelation with the landscape, it is intended to foster the inhabitants’ identification with their place.
Understanding the urban morphology has meant to structure Baisha area base on nodal points4, or in other words base on the acknowledgement of the pre-existed settlements; a new-polycentric city based on connectivity but capable of offering real urban qualities.
These nodal points are mixed-use areas which are the way of activating the city and producing a system in constant movement. “People need to belong to one identified unit, identified neighborhood”5, Christopher Alexander’s statement is continuing being valid today. It is possible in mega-cities to create cities inside the city. It will be achieved by restructuring urban cells as a self-sufficient habitats connected with others; reconfiguring urban areas with dense, compact, and mixed-use neighbourhood units linked by public transport; appropriate scale, diversity, complexity and different local and general connectors.
It is not a question of looking back to the past at what urban configurations used to be, but at what might have been reinterpreted again. Not trying to find melancholic-nineteen-century-ideal neighborhoods, but combining lessons of the past with the exploration of those current fluxes, movements, connections. The combination of local characteristics; seas, canals, mountains, energy resources, and infrastructures, will enrich an urban diagram of extreme social and economical factors and generating a new combination of beauty, efficiency and social values.
The idea of the community areas comes from the Company Towns: they used to be industrial towns in America where companies used to provide all sort of services. Theorised by Clarence Arthur Perry6 in 1929, they were sustainable mixed city areas which, somehow, was against the Modern spirit of dividing the city in independent functions. The Hilberseimer´s repetitive and anonymous vertical city, crossed by wide motorways represents the extreme of the universal and global adaptable planning system.
Despite the gloomy idea the Hilberseimer7 brought to us, it is interesting what it was mentioned in the publication of The new town centre. It was explained the idea of a possible dissolution of major cities, bringing a complete penetration of the landscape into the urban context.
Nowadays, the technological condition allows the combination of a dense urban fabric, the penetration of an urban landscape, and the sustainability of the whole system.
Paradoxically, technology and infrastructure have brought the surprisingly ideal of the primitive village where everything and everyone were interconnected, involve with, and dependent for.
It is thanks to memory that the sense of identity does not dissolve during sleep, as it is in the local pre-established conditions where the urban space finds its own proper configuration.
As inhabitants finds their memory in the surrounding material elements, Baisha area encourage the penetration of the natural heritage into the new urban configuration.
Baisha area is a 500,000 inhabitants’ urban development where the various centres of activity are linked up by an efficient rapid transport system, and the gradual dissolution of the built mass helps to keep the connection with the natural and man-made heritage.
Every successful large system was once a successful small system. Therefore, instead of planning Baisha area as a whole, it has been thought by the creation of different and independent linked units. On the grounds that it is not possible to install complexity, this urban or nodal cells will grown to eventually create a urban complex, rather than been installed.
The Nodal City, where material and non-material things flow through two coincident scales -the mass transportation network and the penetration of the landscape- is a city of articulated parts, and transitional spaces.
The new urban Baisha development, as a complex intelligent development, will need the existing built substance, existing communities, and existing cultures in order to enrich the physical implication of the citizen with the place. Furthering, it will result in a contestation of cultures and identities that are currently being lost.
On the one hand, the first-twenty century infrastructure connecting Baisha with Beijing and HK will generate the ideal platform as representation of the world operation. The preservation of the existence conditions will encourage the possibility of building a no artificial identity, but rather together with the local and global connectivity, to establish the base for the possibility of developing a new one.
One may have to accept the fact that the urbanity as is known has been transformed. The current experience as a contiguous stenography of realms: public and private; void and solid; nature and artificial; which became problematic in the past, nowadays, such contradistinctions seem to be an opportunity. Hopefully, all these oppositions will be managed not in order to build an ersatz stenography, but a reconfigured urbanity. Hopefully, this new direction will take urbanity away from the machine principle to principle of life.
Some examples in China –for instance the water towns cities- show how the preservation of the natural resources has been the strongest factor to give to the urban place its own identity. In this circumstance, seemingly contrary rural and urban qualities have been able to be combined, and also to have the opportunity to explore the connection of all the hidden pre-existing qualities in the original territory.
In the new environment where city is a marketing concept, the new rules to produce urban habitat need to be modified. The understanding of networks, communications, connectivity, and flows need to prioritise the urban agenda. A flexible, absorbing, functional, surprising system might be developed. Yet, it will need to be integrated with the existing urban territory intelligence, and with the global system at large.
It will be necessary to resist the normal compulsion to make a sweeping gesture that defines the identity of a site and separates it from the rest of the system. By not creating a monolithic entity imposed on the territory but a regime that stimulates cultural activities and spaces throughout the system. The system needs to be porous like a sponge, but not hermetic like a bubble.
Manuel N. Zornoza
(1) Aristotle, The Politics, Book I, 384 BC-322 BC.
(2) Koolhaas, Rem, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan: Academy Editions, London, 1978.
(3) Koolhaas, Rem, The Generic City, S,M,L,XL, The Monacelli Press, New York, 1995.
(4) Nodal City; it is a polycentric urban configuration where points works independently as well as together reinforcing each other.
(5) Alexander, Christopher, A city is not a tree, Architectural forum,1965
(6) Arthur Perry, Clarence, The neighbourhood units, Regional Plan of New York and Its Environs., 1929.
(7) Hilberseimer, Ludwig, The new town centre, in the book City Plan, 1927