The Urbanism\Architecture Bi-City Biennale (UABB) in Shenzhen finished in February, but at least one element of it lives on. Floating Fields, a project by Thomas Chung, Associate Professor of Architecture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, was installed at the UABB site at the Dacheng Flour Mills in Shekhou as a demonstration of a concept to return agriculture to the Shenzhen's bay with floating agricultural fields. The project, which forms the major landscape piece at the Biennale, received the Biennale Organising Committee Award at the event's closing ceremony.
At the UABB site, Floating Fields created an array of open-air shallow rectangular partitions, some filled with growing fields and others with water on which floated growing boxes. Together, they created a multi-cycle ecology which included mulberry dyke ponds with duck and fish, aquaponics, algae cultivation and water filtering. At the closing Harvest Festival, the plots were harvested to make salad and the ponds fished to make fish soup. As Chung reports: "we left the ducks, and we should probably just keep them as pets, as they bring some life to the place."
The ducks should enjoy at least another year in Dacheng, thanks to a commitment by sponsors China Merchants to maintain the Floating Fields there. That also gives Chung opportunity to refine the project and continue engaging with the local community.
About Floating Fields
Floating Fields is premised on a vision for ‘Re-Living The City’, speculating on a place-based bio-social urbanism. It aspires to an alternative, organic living based on reinvigorating post-industrial architecture by creating enjoyable public space through a productive edible landscape, at the same time reviving the roots of the polyculture ecology (multiple agri + aqua-cultures) that once defined the unique territorial landform of the Pearl River Delta.
Inhabitants of the low-lying, flood-prone, delta landscape fused agriculture including silkworm, mulberry leaves and fish cultivation with inventive eco-engineering to evolve the Mulberry-dyke Fish-pond, one of the most celebrated examples of intensive eco-agriculture of the region. It engendered a once flourishing water-based commerce that has now all but vanished leaving abandoned landscapes. Likewise, this year’s biennale venue, the former Da Cheng Flour Factory, is a product of Shenzhen’s rapid urbanization, a monumental effort that covered overnight the centuries-old wetland polycultures with concrete and industry to fabricate the instant flotation of the expectant metropolis. The obsolete factory, now cracking up to allow sunlight and overgrown wild blossoms to seep through to the water underground, testifies to the enduring resilience of nature.
Floating Fields draws inspiration from the context on several levels to resuscitate the lifeless site. The presence of an existing covered waterway running diagonally through the site provided inspiration to reintroduce the aquatic theme. Running along the oblong former factory dormitory, the life-giving waterway is revitalized into a series of filtering ponds. The idea is extended around and outwards from the building’s other side, where concrete ground is broken up to form large productive ponds. Part of the concrete rubble is crushed and recycled as gravel to fill pathways between ponds. The connected ponds are themselves formed from concrete bricks, and complemented with various platforms, steps, benches and pavilions to create a walkable landscape combining food production and leisure.
The series of connected ponds holding various aquatic functions create a complete ecological water cycle that wraps around the old dormitory, a linear block which has itself been converted into a multi-use learning resource centre with exhibition, roundtable space, library and a café restaurant. A contemporary version of the dyke-pond cultivation is combined with low-tech aquaponics; mulberry trees are grown to feed cocoon-spinning silkworms inside a pavilion; the waterway inspires a corridor of filtering ponds with water-cleansing plants and grasses for fish feed; and colourful micro-algae is expertly cultivated and harvested to enhance the water purification and produce fish feed.
The self-sustaining water cycle begins with nutrient-rich ‘waste’ water fed into the algae pavilion’s ponds, then cleansed in the filtering ponds and purified in the water lily pond. The ‘cleaned’ water then flows through the koi carp pond, duck pond, into the big aquaponics ponds with floating plots surrounded by mulberry beds. The floating plots return oxygen to the water while partially absorbing nutrients in it, before it is fed back to start of the cycle to the algae pavilion. The floating plot idea is tested out as light-weight, mobile farming plots on different horizons, on water-bodies, filling pavilion roofs or on top of the converted dormitory. Part of the cleaned water is also used for rooftop plot irrigation.
Floating Fields integrates multiple cycles, wherein each pond can have two-way nutrient provision, waste water recycling, crop production, water purification and landscape features, creating more flexibility than conventional systems. The connected pond-scape operates as a self-sustaining ecology to demonstrate a virtuous cycle of hybrid urban-agricultural environment that can also become at once a productive and leisure public space for the enjoyment of all.
Besides the productive-leisure architecture-landscape hybrid of ponds, plots, paths and pavilions, Floating Fields generated events with great response and publicity from community and media . A Planting Festival gave over 100 city kids and their families the chance to sow their own floating plots, catch fish and learn about duck, silkworm and algae life-cycles firsthand. A Tasting Festival supported by local CSA groups offered participants fish soup and salad rolls (harvested on site) with talks on urban agriculture and the potential of microalgae in architecture and urban ecology. A Harvest Festival at the Biennale Closing successfully harvested the first crop of floating plots, presenting algae cultivation results, and included a forum "Envisioning urban agriculture and ecology for Bio-social living."
Returning to fundamental urban re-living, disbanding excessive construction, and resuming a symbiotic space for nature, Floating Fields hopes to cultivate comforting nourishment and soothing experience amidst the restlessness of our buoyant city.