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 Phillip Rollfing  

Rapid Growth in Urban China

Architecture professor recounts
June 2005 research visit to China



In June 2005, Robin Abrams, associate professor of architecture at Texas A&M University, traveled to China with three Ph.D. students Bin Kang, Xuemei Zhu and Zhipeng Lu, to work on a number of research initiatives addressing issues of neighborhood conservation, design and housing.

The trip was made possible from an International Research Travel Assistance Grant (IRTAG) from Texas A&M and by funding from the College Research and Interdisciplinary Council.

The group’s itinerary included trips to Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Suzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. Abrams was investigating and documenting the three eras of Chinese housing and neighborhood design — Imperial, Soviet, and Contemporary.

“Chinese cities are facing unprecedented demands for housing provision, with each city coping in different ways, Abrams explained. “Guangzhou, the city most affected by rapid growth and insurgence of ‘floating population’ is tearing down its historic fabric at a frightening rate, moving low-income residents to remote suburbs and building enormous gated high-rise towers for middle income residents. They are also double-decking city streets to handle increased automobile traffic.”

While Shanghai also has a high-rise program, in contrast to Guangzhou, the city has implemented a “Red Roof” program.

“They are attempting to upgrade much of the Soviet housing through paint, elevators, balconies and shiny red tile roofs. This is all occurring on a scale that a western urban designer finds difficult to comprehend,” Abrams said. “I realized rather quickly that a western ‘expert,’ in many ways, has little to contribute to the urgency and massive scale of Chinese cities, although there are parallels to post-war Britain, my other research focus.

“I found that housing solutions that were proven unsuccessful in Britain — high-rise living for example — seem to be not only acceptable to the Chinese population, but desired,” she continued. “This brings up several further research questions, relating to the social logic behind housing acceptability – which is the direction my research has now taken.”

Also traveling with Abrams was Bin Kang, a doctoral student who took the opportunity to studying two housing communities by the same developer in the Guangzhou suburbs — one from the very end of the Soviet era, the other new.

“They were only four years apart in construction, but light years apart in terms of quality of the external environment,” Abrams recalled.

Kang was specifically interested in the quality and use of outdoor spaces, and its affect on neighborliness and sense of belonging.

Xuemei Zhu and Zhipeng Lu, Abrams’ other traveling companions, were engaged in very preliminary research for their dissertations. Zhu was studying how children move about the city, and Lu’s was interested in the elderly, and how they engage with the city.

While in China, Abrams lectured on housing and urban design, reviewed studio work, and met with architecture students and faculty at the University of Hong Kong, South China Technical University in Guangzhou and Nanjing and Tsinghua universities in Beijing.

“It was a joy to work with students, both undergraduate and graduate, who impressed me not just with their command of English, but with their enthusiasm for learning,” Abrams said.

All four travelers returned to Beijing in November 2005 to share their research in the US/China Relations Scholarly Exchange sponsored by Texas A&M.

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3 eras of Chinese architecture in Guangzhou

Guangzhou streetscape

Hong Kong street

Shanghai night market