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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Not So SuperBlocks

Residential development in Chinese cities over the last twenty years has been primarily characterized by expansion of the urban fabric ever more outward, with large arterial roads linking government sponsored superblock communities.  These massive parcels of land, which may approach 100 acres in some cases, contain standardized highrise apartments surrounded by a green buffer zone fronting the street and connected by a ring of interior roads.  Often walls surround these vertical neighborhoods and only a single (gated) point of entry provides connection to the outside world.  With little commercial street frontage and poor pedestrian access this high density model of growth is, ironically, unsustainable in much the same way as minimally dense neighborhoods of single family homes in the United States: the communities struggle to function in a self-serving manner when a simple trip to the market all but requires hopping in the car.  Further, the lack of neighborhood retail and barriers to entry limit any notion of cohesive community and any opportunities for programmatic friction.

But the urban shortcomings of superblocks from an academic standpoint contrast with the perception held by the general public, who place a premium on the privacy and exclusivity of gated communities and proceed to snatch up these apartments as quickly as they are built.  Many even purchase units solely as investments, a sure indication of the faith they hold in the continued desirability of superblock living. Though the historical French Concession area of Shanghai and inner ring of Beijing are themselves considered highly desirable, political/economic forces (in China there is little distinction) coupled with public enthusiasm insure further proliferation of the superblock typology.

The inner ring of Beijing teaches us though that magnificent street life can in fact occur within large and relatively insular blocks.  It’s not so much that the superbock is incompatible with urbanism but rather the modern developer-driven approach is incompatible with the superblock.  Traditional Beijing hutang are a maze of human scaled canyons: 12-14 feet wide bustling alleys lined on both sides with shops, restaurants, and markets.  Residents live either above or behind the storefronts they operate and patronize, and in this way the community is self-sufficient.  A haircut or a bowl of noodles is never more than a short bike ride away, meaning a resident could potentially live for weeks without ever leaving their superblock.  Hutang then become the thoroughfares in this city within a city, and chances for programmatic friction – the barbershop next to the antique store – are abundant.

And so the key to activating and thus urbanizing superblocks has been at the disposal of the Chinese all along.  The shame is that with developers, government, and public all wedded to gated communities, we may never get to see a 21st century take on the Hutang that once defined life in China.

Matt Luery

 

Filed under: Architecture, China, Hutang, Superblocks, Urbanism,

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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Director:
Andrew Liang
Instructors:
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Students:
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu