11 July 2017

Guangxi’s brand-new arcology

Remember that classic DOS game by Maxis, SimCity 2000? Unfortunately, its game mechanics may have made it out to be a glorified advertisement for the Laffer Curve and supply-side œconomics, but it did indeed feature some interesting social science-fictional concepts. One of these, a ‘future technology’ which became available as a reward after your city reached a certain threshold of population, was the arcology.

The concept of the arcology itself – a neologistic mishmash of ‘architecture’ and ‘œcology’ – belongs to High Modernism (Frank Lloyd Wright’s utopian Broadacre City has been considered a spiritual forerunner of the arcology concept), but the concept was floated specifically to combat some of the major ills of Modern design – especially the waste and pollution associated with suburbs. In an arcology, the architectural design itself is deployed specifically to increase population density, reduce sprawl, make lived spaces more compact and accessible, and ameliorate or eliminate the harmful impacts of human habitation on the environment. Theorists associated with the arcology include Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller and (most famously) Paolo Soleri.

Arcology as a concept worked its way into dystopian literature and film, also – including William Gibson’s Sprawl series and the Philip K. Dick-derived Blade Runner. SimCity 2000 itself, though, billed the arcology as something of a ‘city within a city’, a ‘futuristic self-contained [city] where a huge population is all contained in one building’. Up until now, though, most ‘arcology’ projects have been experimental high-density developments in existing traditional cities, as opposed to the gigantic, steely, glimmering Blade Runner-esque constructions of the science-fictional imagination, whether utopian or dystopian.

But the government of China is apparently considering building an arcology after the futuristic, utopian model, following the utopian intentions and principles of Wright and Soleri, in the city of Liuzhou, Guangxi Province, designed by Stefano Boeri: plans for this project were unveiled last week. Forest City features buildings which are designed to support greenery, generate its own energy and ultimately reduce air pollution; and it really is meant to be a standalone city. The project will be surrounded by farmland. ‘The Forest City was created as a scalable development following a petal formation. Each petal, which caters to a population of 20,000, can be scaled to include five petals in a single region, forming a flower-like formation centered on communal green space. All buildings would be covered in trees and greenery to help suck tons of carbon out of the atmosphere, pump oxygen into the air, and provide soothing habitat to both humans and native fauna.’ Boeri himself describes his project thus:
What they [Chinese developers] have done until now is simply to continue to add new peripheral environments to their cities. They have created these nightmares – immense metropolitan environments. They have to imagine a new model of city that is not about extending and expanding but a system of small, green cities.
I have to say that I like and approve of the intentions of this project: I’m not a fan of suburban sprawl either, of the air pollution and environmental destruction that inevitably accompanies it, or of the denatured, atomising effect sprawl has on our communities. I approve, as indeed many other conservative urbanists approve, of Boeri’s idea of urban spaces being an intimately-connected network of small, green built spaces. Having lived for three years in China – in two cities where living spaces were contained in six-storey Soviet-looking concrete blocks painted various garish shades of pink, orange and yellow, and severed by multi-lane streets from places of work, making even walking commutes a chore – I must confess that some fresh architectural principles, tending toward compactness and a conviction that ‘small is beautiful’, could do wonders in a number of places. And, of course, this is another thing that will put the already breathtakingly-beautiful and sublime Guangxi Province on the map, and preserve further what makes the province special. At the same time, I think there will be and are particular problems associated with the idea of arcology as China is pursuing it.

The great big glaring question with many new developments in China, of course, is who precisely is going to live there, and how will they be drawn there? China is facing a demographic crisis and has already begun overbuilding in many places – this is a problem Boeri acknowledges, but one which seems to cut against his own project as much as the architectural ‘nightmare’ he seeks to supplant. The second question is: what precisely is wrong with the elder architectural traditions in China, and especially the architecture of the siheyuan? Extended families, even as many as four generations and including more than one ‘nuclear’ family, lived in compact, self-contained urban units centred on a common-use courtyard for centuries before Western architectural principles began to spread, particularly after the Xinhai Revolution of 1911. Could these older principles be adapted to building ‘new urbs’ in China, rather than adopting the possibly overplanned utopianism of the arcology?

China’s unique population, property-use and pollution problems do present opportunities for unique solutions, and it is not a surprise that both the government and private actors would be drawn to ideas like Soleri’s and Boeri’s to confront them. It will certainly be interesting to see what comes of the Forest City of Liuzhou. But perhaps a note of caution and a hint at other alternatives is what China could use at this point.

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