If you think Chinese 21st-century urban design is all about large-scale, top-down master plans, think again. The Beijing-based People’s Architecture Office (PAO) believes that China’s urban future lies in lightweight, modular buildings rather than steel and concrete skyscrapers.
Three years ago, we came across PAO’s remarkable Tricycle House and we’ve been following the creative work of James Shen, He Zhe, and Zang Feng ever since.
Designed as an instant housing solution for migrant workers in rapidly growing Chinese megacities, the Tricycle House is a home-on-a-bike with everything on board to work as a stand-alone home – including a bathtub, a stove, and a bed that doubles as a dining table.
The modular, plastic design allows for the expansion and connection of units, which in turn could lead to organic, self-sufficient villages for urban nomads in Chinese cities.
Whether it’s a movable housing concept like the Tricycle House, a modular canopy to breathe new life into public spaces, or a ready-made plug-in to modernize traditional Chinese buildings, the creations of People’s Architecture Office have a few things in common.
They’re modular, they’re lightweight, and they’re social.
Architecture as an event
“We create architecture for events, but also architecture as an event,” emphasizes co-founder James Shen. When you take a look at the office’s latest project, People’s Canopy, you get the idea.
For the City of Preston, UK, the architects created a series of giant modular red canopies that open like an accordion. Once unfolded, the canopies serve as super-temporary urban spaces for all types of gatherings.
Similar to the Tricycle House, bicycle wheels were added to each of the modules in order to allow citizens of Preston to move the canopies around and install them themselves.
Since it takes several people to move any module from one place to another, it challenges inhabitants of Preston to think and work together on creating new urban social spaces – and that’s an event in itself, according to Shen.
The people’s perspective
People’s Canopy has proven an effective pop-up solution for tackling Preston’s problem of disused public spaces in the city center. “In the making process, we actively sought support from the urban authorities and citizens of Preston,” says Shen.
“To be honest, we were positively surprised by the authorities’ trial-and-error attitude towards unconventional methods of city-making. They perfectly understood that, in order to improve a city, you should go out and try things, instead of spending years planning and arguing. Preston’s openness to experiment really helped to generate unconventional ideas. At the same time, it helped us to get citizens on board for the creative process.”
The firm’s focus on human interaction illustrates their way of working. It also explains where the name People’s Architecture Office comes from.
“We found that many architects focus very much on buildings and not so much on the people using the buildings. The people’s perspective is always the starting point of our creations since, in the end, they should improve the daily lives of individuals.”
PAO’s emancipating, human-centered designs allow citizens to be more involved in contemporary urban challenges and making their cities more livable, inclusive, and fun.
Preserving urban neighborhoods with plug-in houses
The lightweight forms and shapes of PAO’s buildings, as well as the office’s focus on human-centered design, is nothing less than remarkable in the context of China’s top-down urban planning approach.
Take the Courtyard House plug-in, a prefabricated, easy-to-assemble module – “a house within a house” – for upgrading decaying homes in Beijing’s Dashilar district.
“We created the Courtyard House plug-in to preserve century-old buildings while upgrading them to modern living standards and making them energy-efficient,” explains Shen. “This way, we can save traditional neighborhoods, like Dashilar, from large-scale demolition – a common practice in rapidly urbanizing China – and secure the human scale at the same time.”
According to Shen, the mayor of the district was an active supporter of the Courtyard House plug-in and chances are that the concept will be applied on a larger scale in the future.
A bright future for temporary design
PAO also works on larger, comprehensive urban challenges, explains Shen. “We believe that we can use technologies and insights from our temporary and small-scale concepts in traditional big-scale projects, and vice versa.”
The co-founder of People’s Architecture Office sees a bright future for temporary design as a solution to tackle larger urban problems. The rapidly changing world asks for flexible urban design. “At the first glance, our projects might seem to be far-fetched, but in the end, they turn out to be very practical.”