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· Robin Nicholson

Reflections on China: Part 2

The first RIBA/Chongqing Workshop - 'The City Breathes'

Matthew Priestman had proposed this workshop for young designers when he first heard that we were going to be in Chongqing where he has an office in Central China. After discussing it in London, he partnered with the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design and they identified a site on the edge of the city at Xi Peng. The balance between the urban and rural is a key part of the 13th Five Year Plan as the Chinese move industry and people westwards away from the now polluted coast, bringing people closer to their original towns and villages; this was a wonderful opportunity for the multi-disciplinary teams to think more broadly, without being told what to do, which they all seemed to relish.

Exhibition poster

On Friday 11th November, we start with a meeting at the China Academy’s new gleaming 30-storey office in Jiangbei where we were hosted by the Deputy Director Xu Jun (Anna) and Matthew introduces the project; it seems that English was not going to be a huge problem.

Fertile and beautiful countryside

During a coach drive out west to the Dai Xi River country park, the players are allocated to teams and they start getting to know one another – mainly urbanists with planners, landscape architects and architects. We are greeted by the enthusiastic and successful mayor who acts as our guide around a beautiful lake; we stop at a road junction with new tourist pseudo-vernacular toilets (why hadn’t they used the existing but old farmhouse?) in amongst flourishing vineyards (large dessert grapes rather than wine); then he showed us a village refreshed with white paint and painted brickwork – hmm! The Mayor hosts a very tasty lunch of local produce and we have speeches and photographs.

Lunch with the Mayor

Redecorated village houses

Back to Jiangbei to an older civic office, my fellow engineering tutors Dr Mike Murray and Prof Andrew Baldwin introduce themselves and I give a talk on ‘Sustainable cities for a sustainable future’. We then all go to the Bei Cang library where we are to spend the next two days; this re-purposed factory is the centrepiece industrial building where the developer is planning to transform the surrounding early residential towers into creative arts studios – Fish Island and Hackney Wick resonate albeit at a smaller scale. I help finish hanging the Cullinan Studio exhibition, while the young professionals start sorting out their initial approaches.

Cullinan Studio exhibition in Bai Cang Library

During Saturday we held group tutorials and Mike Murray gave a talk about environmental design and retrofit. Bartlett graduate Weitao Li from Will Alsop’s local office followed with a whistle stop tour through the Alsop oeuvre and their local Test Bed 2 project.

Mike Murray and Matthew Priestman giving a tutorial

As Sunday afternoon turns to evening they begin to polish their dazzling dual-language powerpoints and pin their drawings up – some beautiful, others expressive, but all thought-provoking. The big shot critics arrive including Anna’s chief Zhang Shenghai, who had flown in from Beijing and the head of the Chongqing University Department of Architecture.

The young professionals had done brilliantly and asked themselves some big questions, such as the winning group’s “Where are we? Who are we? Who am I?”. Lots of certificates and photographs and then off to supper next door and a toast or two of Baijiu (firewater)!

Robin Nicholson

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