Dachong China a converted informal settlement

Image courtesy of China Resources Co.

By Jing Zhang

An “urban village” is a very unique spatial and social landscape formed by the rapid urbanization process in China’s major cities. It’s a rural village surrounded by urban development rather than farmland. The land for housing is owned by village collectives instead of a municipal authority. Moreover, the residents in the urban village are a mixture of the poor, the transient, and migrants from other regions.

Urban villages feature overcrowded, informal dwellings in the vicinity of well-developed urban districts. In this type of settlement formation, the traditional one- or two-story village has given way to seven- to eight-story buildings. Without the enforcement of city building codes and regulations, the villagers build high-density housing through the construction of additional floors to maximize their profitable rental space.

At the same time, the residential plot layout and street network have not changed from the designs meant to serve the previously rural village. The multi-storied buildings protrude along the streets and are so close to each other that their residents can imagine reaching out to touch their neighbors, and have dubbed the buildings “shaking hands” buildings, and “kissing buildings.” These types of developments make urban villages so unique.

Local governments have been motivated to remove urban villages, as they are considered eyesores, sources of urban crime, and obstacles to housing development. However, urban planners have advocated for the preservation of urban villages to some extent, in the interest of social equality.

Urban villages can provide housing for those excluded from the formal housing market by the household registration system, people like rural migrants. Urban villages provide housing for millions of rural migrant workers in need of affordable housing.

The largest urban village transformation project

Dachong Village, in Shenzhen, China, is the largest urban village transformation project in the world’s fastest-growing city. SWA’s Los Angeles studio has been working on an urban renewal project there for the last three years. The land acquisition process has been difficult and the compensation for the villager’s housing has become very high.

The planning process has involved years of negotiation and collaboration between the government, the villagers, and the developer. In 2007, China Resources Co., a government-owned development company, took on the transformation of the 70-hectare Dachong Village.

The development includes a CBD (central business district), a gated community, a 100-story high-rise office tower, a five-star hotel, and a 180,000-square-meter shopping mall. China Resources Co. has used modern urban planning to develop this reclaimed land, while responding to society, market forces, and even art and religion.

This urban renewal project replaces 100 percent of the existing buildings, with the exception of two temples that have been rebuilt in an effort to preserve their historical significance. One, the Dawang Temple, is where village people worship Matsu, a goddess protecting fishermen and sailors. The temple is situated at one corner of the office block.

A pedestrian tunnel goes under the temple, and a sunken plaza five meters deep sits in between the high-rise office tower and the temple. After the SWA design team analyzed the hierarchy of circulation, proximity of programs, and 3-D modeling of the site, they came up with an innovative idea: using the sunken plaza as a “veil” between the office tower and the historic temple.

Placemaking with a plaza

In this scheme, grand steps flow down from the office tower to the sunken plaza, forming an amphitheater with sloped sides and covered with vegetation. The views from the steps focus on mist created by a fountain in the plaza and a water wall.

The temple is situated above the water wall at ground level. When people overlook the sunken plaza from the office entry, the temple is revealed as a withdrawn object gleaming behind the water wall and mist fountain. As they descend the steps and approach the mist fountain and water wall, the temple disappears from view.

The pilgrims at the temple will be separated from workers at the office tower by this significant grade change. From the experience of working on this project, SWA has learned that embracing conflicting user needs on a site does not weaken the identity of the place. To the contrary, the temple is a meaningful symbol of culture and an homage to the past, which adds cultural nuance to this recognizable landmark.

Urban Villages are the evidence of a particular time on our history, which is why the designers decided to record this moment using an engraved city map on the water wall within the sunken plaza. The water wall is the division and, conversely, also the connection between the temple’s past and its present.

To produce the engraving, aerial photographs were compared with maps of the region’s layout. From above, the village looks like an overcrowded slum without a single breathable space, but in the two-dimensional ground-level drawings, the height of the buildings is eliminated from the perspective and the bucolic features of the rural village appear.

Finally, the design team used Grasshopper software to repeat the layout, while doubling, then tripling and quadrupling the distance between buildings. The result creates a separation between the structures, allowing one to take in their individual beauty.

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