Urban development in China has been a contentious issue, represented by megacities and endless gated communities, remnants of the country’s large communal working and living units, the ‘danwei’. However, in recent years, the paradigm has been shifted largely by developers for more innovative living concepts, the practice of designing inclusive communities anchored by public and cultural buildings serving the wider community. One of the earliest experiments, Liangzhu New Town by Vanke is now a benchmark for creating diverse community.
Liangzhu New Town is located in the Northwestern suburbs of Hangzhou, a megacity in Eastern China. Initiated in 2000 by Vanke, China’s biggest real estate developer, Liangzhu New Town was driven by Ebenezer Howard ‘garden city’ concept to blend traditional Chinese country living with urbanised lifestyles. Situated in what is now the Northwestern suburbs of Hangzhou, Liangzhu was still recently the countryside and a World Heritage site with over 5000 years of history, a late neolithic site of rice cultivation in ancient China. Aside from its historical background, Liangzhu is also abundant in natural resources, surrounded by 25 mountains, 5 lakes and 1 river, creating a unique rural setting and development possibilities for tourism, leisure and living. The entire masterplan covers an area of approximately 16500 acres.
The initial master planning stage spanned 3 years and lead by the belief that “Town and Country must be married, and out of this joyous union will spring a new hope, a new life, a new civilization”. CIVITAS, a Vancouver-based urban design firm led the masterplan design of Liangzhu New Town, and defined the 3 core principles for this sensitive development:
1.Respect for the local ecosystem
2.Preserve and showcase the archaeological richness of Liangzhu with public projects to attract city dwellers and opportunities for local development
3.Utilise the local environment and proximity to metropolitan Hangzhou to materialise the concept of Garden Living in the countryside, and develop a prototype for new urbanism in China.
2. Public architecture as site anchors
In order to anchor the development in it’s context, David Chipperfield was invited to design the Liangzhu museum during the first phase, together with a low-density living zone and hotel resort. Surrounded by an artificial lake, the museum houses archaeological findings dating from 3000BC. The building is composed of four volumes with equal width of 18m and varying heights, connected by courtyards to allow visitors to wander from the formal experience of the historical exhibitions which are displayed in large black-box exhibition halls. By setting multiple openings on these four volumes, visitors can easily linger between exhibition halls and courtyards, as if they were traveling between past and present, through a modern Chinese garden.
The success of the Liangzhu museum did attract urban dwellers to this previously unknown region and solidified Liangzhu as a cultural and leisure destination attractive for living. By 2009, supporting services such as markets, kindergartens, hospitals and mixed commercial businesses were added to the second phase masterplan, creating long-term employment opportunities for locals.
More public projects were initiated to anchor the second and third phase of the masterplan to establish Liangzhu as a cultural district and living destination just outside of metropolitan Hangzhou. Tokyo-based Tsushima Design Studio was invited to design the Mei Li Zhou Church, providing the development with a public gather place and a place of memory for local residents and visitors. The church is resting on a hill embraced by pure nature, establishing a close relationship between nature and the local community. With a bell tower standing out as a local landmark, the church acts as a spiritual retreat for visitors of all religious beliefs. The chapel is made out of recycled wood while the facade is cover with concrete. Together with a white granite plaza, the church solemnly welcomes its visitors as a spiritual fortress.
Pritzker Prize winner Tadao Ando was invited to design Liangzhu Cultural Center. While visiting Liangzhu, Ando was impressed by the unique cultural heritage and landscape leading to a design that is a modern celebration of the landscape. The cultural art center is distributed into three parts. The exhibition wing located in the south containing art galleries founded by the development in collaboration with art schools from all around the world, as an incubator to promote young artists. The cultural wing stands in the middle, including three major functions: convention, theatre, and a library. The library is formed by gigantic shelves standing directly towards the rooftop, filled with books donated and enjoyed by the residents. Lastly, the educational wing stands in the North, providing classrooms and art tutoring for children. Together, the Liangzhu Village Cultural Art Centre adds a modern cultural touch to the community, complementing the lifestyle of residents as well as the cultural experience of visitors.
Quanxue Park designed by Z+T STUDIO and Quarry Park designed by office MA, together with four other manmade parks are utilizing existing landmarks such as disused quarries together with manmade landscapes to create unique experiences.
3. Density and diversification
In terms of spatial planning, Liangzhu New Town has followed a principle adapted from the existing distribution of villages closely distributed along the rivers throughout the region. The development currently composes 8 linearly connected villages built for tourists to stay and residents to dwell. Tree-lined avenue link all villages together with living facilities and public services located at the cores of each village. Human scale urban planning enables a maximum 5min walking distance services access for all residents.
With a principle of spatial organization based on population density, within each village, the architecture of diverse forms and spatial clusters is able to form, fostering a relaxing and natural atmosphere like a traditional Chinese neighborhood. Streets within each village extend freely according to geographical topography, with buildings with relatively high density located in the center of each village, and low-density residential buildings are distributed around the higher ones, extending into the forests and hills around the villages. Various housing typologies such as retirement homes, co-living apartments are mixed co-working and health facilities to provide the foundation for the economic activity of residents and locals.
4. Community building
A combination of high-quality public buildings, landscapes, and diversified housing stock of varying density has allowed the residents to have a sense of place and belonging to their living environment, unique from the mass development typologies seen throughout most of China. As early as 2008, residents gathered as volunteers, forming the very first Liangzhu Constitution. Liangzhu New Town had collected opinions from 3931 households and came up with a “Village Convention” in 2010. A set of 32 rules agreed by the residents are engraved at the entrance of Liangzhu New Town, representing residents’ commitment to sustaining a harmonious community.
Initiated as an ambitious idea, Liangzhu New Town has questioned the future of housing in China, and over 20 years established a proven new model of development that is environmentally sensitive, culturally diverse, publicly inclusive and community-driven. As an idealized contemporary ‘Garden City’ it has played a role beyond the development of housing to a model of urbanisation for the countryside surrounding megacities.