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Prize winning architect Li Xiaodong talks de-urbanization at RAIC lecture

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by DON WALL

Renowned Beijing architect Li Xiaodong unveiled a glimpse at a new Chinese de-urbanization plan to a curious Toronto audience on Oct. 29 as the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada held its 2015 Moriyama RAIC International Prize Illumination Lecture.
Recently Beijing architect Li Xiaodong revealed a new Chinese de-urbanization plan at the 2015 Moriyama RAIC International Prize Illumination Lecture.
Recently Beijing architect Li Xiaodong revealed a new Chinese de-urbanization plan at the 2015 Moriyama RAIC International Prize Illumination Lecture. - Photo: DON WALL

Li was awarded the $100,000 Moriyama prize last year in recognition of his landmark Liyuan Library project set in woodlands in Jiaojiehe village near Beijing. Its most striking feature is its outside cladding, consisting of branches and twigs affixed vertically with the goal of achieving harmonization with its natural setting.

Li's design for the library — it is more of a reading room, he says — was judged to have best met the award criteria of being "transformative within its societal context and expressive of the humanistic values of justice, respect, equality and inclusiveness." The structure consists of one elongated room with wooden tiers for lounging and reading and has become a tourist attraction and source of income for the village.

"This project is about the relationship of a building to its surroundings and its role in serving the community, rather than a building as a discrete object," Li has explained.

"An architect's duty is to search and create the highest order for human environments."

Among the dignitaries present for the Moriyama lecture were Toronto's Raymond Moriyama himself, co-sponsor of the prize, along with the RAIC; Ontario Association of Architects (OAA) president Toon Dreesen; OAA past-presidents Bill Birdsell and Ranjit Dhar; and RAIC president Sam Oboh. Li's speech was titled Cultural Diversity and Glocalism.

The great architect, fully conversant in English, mentioned his library project only tangentially in his speech at the OAA headquarters, telling his audience he was leaving a discussion of his works to the second leg of the Moriyama lecture series, which was set for Montreal on Nov. 2. Instead Li turned to how the Chinese government is dealing with galloping urbanization.

Canada's population of 35 million is an order of magnitude less than China's 1.4 billion, Li acknowledged, so the dire problems his homeland has in housing people with any respect for humanism are not directly applicable to this nation. After illustrating how Hong Kong has dealt with the basic needs of shelter — creating beehive-type capsules for living quarters, a few cubic metres in size, in some cases — he offered his vision for the future, a partial solution to China's rampant urbanization.

The statistics are startling. In the past 30 years, the percentage of China's population moving to cities has gone from 20 to 50 per cent, Li says. In the next 15 years, it is expected that another 400 million will become city dwellers.  In response, Li says, for the past few years he has been developing a model that would transform China's rural landscape. Instead of accommodating many millions into cities, Li and others are pushing for "de-urbanization" in a way that achieves sustainability and green goals.

One principle to follow is to recognize UNESCO liveable cities criteria, said Li: "Social, economic and environmental needs have be balanced."

And China cannot build as they do in the United States, with everyone driving everywhere; instead, new communities must be walkable or traversable by bicycle.

Li's solution? New, high-density communities with fixed boundaries must be built amidst existing farmland. Planning for a pilot project is already underway outside of Chengdu in southwest China. There will be no encroaching on agricultural land; there will be no industry, to minimize pollution, and commercial activity will be limited to the services and agricultural sectors. The ideal residents, given the economic activities envisaged, are seniors and farmers. Food for the residents would come from within the neighbouring 500 square kilometres. And the optimal population — perhaps 100,000 per new community, he suggested — would be fixed as well, once food needs were ascertained.

The Moriyama lectures are being recorded and will be available to a broader audience on the Internet.

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