How a Beijing Development Brought Mankind
A bright red elevated walkway is the centerpiece of an innovative new development in Beijing. Stretching for half a mile and connecting a series of gardens, parks and outdoor recreation areas, the Red Walkway resembles an aerial park within a forest of buildings. But this bold new design isn’t high-end resort or luxury condos. It is public housing.
Now open, the Baiziwan public housing complex in Beijing, designed by MAD Architects, is a 12-tower mega-development providing modest government-subsidized housing for around 4,000 families. According to architect Ma Yansong, who has designed large-scale museums and municipal buildings across China and the United States, the project is both a critique of social housing in China and a model for how it works. can change.
When the Beijing City Public Housing Center approached his company to submit a proposal for a public housing complex, Ma was ready. He has been researching social housing in China for nearly a decade, starting with a course he taught at Tsinghua University in 2014. He has visited many social housing projects across and around China. of Beijing over the years, and made a running list of the ways they failed their residents. “We saw so many problems,” he says, from their closed exteriors to their endless sameness. “There is not enough humanity in these projects.”
Another problem he repeatedly saw was the isolation of these communities. “They were so disconnected from the city,” he says. “They were surrounded by walls. They looked like prisons.
He told the city that if his company submitted a proposal for new public housing, he wanted to make sure none of these problems happened again. “The government was quite open, actually,” he says.
After several years of design and development, Ma’s ideas took shape. Instead of closed and monotonous buildings, MAD Architects designed an open urban social housing complex, with crossing public streets, a wide range of shops and restaurants, elderly and health care facilities, and, for residents only, the red looped walkway and a variety of outdoor amenities along its path.
Ma says one of the keys to making the project different from other social housing projects is its connection to the surrounding neighborhood. MAD Architects’ design includes a significant amount of commercial space on the ground floor accessible to both tower residents and the general public. “There was no obligation to do such a big commercial component,” he says. “We have made the floor space an urban space. It is open to all. »
Openness is a recurring theme in the project, particularly in the second floor pedestrian loop and the exterior gardens. The half-mile loop connects several park-like spaces and areas where residents can meet and play chess. There is also a playground, an urban farm and an amphitheater for performances. Some of the towers have even been hollowed out, with the footpath crossing what might otherwise have been more apartments. “We wanted to maximize this public space,” says Ma.
The buildings themselves are unassuming, Ma concedes, especially compared to more curved projects in MAD’s portfolio, such as the future Lucas Museum of Narrative Art that appears to float in Los Angeles and the Harbin Cultural Center, which resembles a spacecraft, in northern China. The compact units, straight lines and uniform walls are a product of the government’s requirement that almost all construction take place offsite, in modular housing factories. “Some of these requirements will limit your construction costs and the shape of your building,” says Ma.
Working around those constraints, Ma says the design tries to inject as much livability as possible. Each tower orients each apartment to the southern sun, with large windows bringing in abundant natural light. The sun, Ma argues, is a right.
Compared to public housing projects of the past, Ma says this complex offers a more urban experience while meeting government space and budget requirements. He says other cities are taking notice and his company is in talks with the city of Shenzhen on a similar project. Overall, he says, the project is an attempt to rethink how housing can be built in China’s dense cities.
“Our buildings are very simple. We want to celebrate humanity, we want to celebrate neighborliness, equality and freedom,” Ma says. “The ambition is to set an example so that all future developments take these issues into account.”