Location: Chongqing, China
Client: Founder Group
Budget: 600rmb / msq
WallaceLiu have re-imagined a 20m wide, 1km long highway in the South Western Chinese city of Chongqing as a shared surface 'livable street' by replacing the delineation and monolithic character of the highway with the language and scale of a public space. For the city, the client and ourselves the project provided an opportunity to explore how China's infrastructure, built to facilitate rapid growth, can be transformed to nurture an emerging urban culture.
The site represents the typical periphery of a modern Chinese city that has changed its land use as the city expands. The highway, Yannan Avenue, along which 7 large plots of land were purchased by the state-owned developer PKU Resource (北大资源), will become the new route through nearly 20,000msq of street retail and high-density residential compounds and adjacent to existing low-income social housing.
During the construction of the highway it was decided on site that two electricity pylons would be too costly to remove and therefore the land around them could not be changed. As the highway was at an elevation well below the pylons the impact of this was huge, resulting in two cliffs that interrupt the highway, creating unsafe pinch points, poor visibility for drivers and pavements with dead ends.
After the development received outline planning, the developer was concerned that the highway will provide neither a safe and pleasant environment for the new community nor a good shopping and eating atmosphere for the large amounts of up-coming retailers.
WallaceLiu won the project in 2014 through a competition with an initial idea that the safety issues created by the cliffs could be used to argue that the highway width in its entirety could be reduced to two lanes, to match the width at the pinch points. By resolving these awkward accidental problems, we argued, we could change the whole space for the better. The proposal included temporary solutions to trial the 'downgrade’ and its impact on traffic and pedestrian behaviour, then, through time, to complete the permanent new kerbs and pavement extensions as funding became available. This however raised tension and concern in the local planning and transport department and eventually, with the support of the client, we managed to secure support for a shared surface design where we paved over the highway instead.
The shared surface, as a typology of public space, aims to remove the dominance of vehicles. It provides a blurred boundary between the actual road and its surrounding parks, plaza, compounds and other urban facilities. We imagined the entire highway to be transformed into a walkable and playful place.
The symptom of a highway dominated urban landscape is strengthened delineation based on an extruded street section, which serves the speed of passing traffic only. Kerbstone, road markings, traffic signage, pedestrian fences, perfectly ordered street trees, hedge boundaries and limited pedestrian crossings, are all elements of this car dominated landscape. By removing these elements and designing the paving, furniture and planting to work holistically, the delineated highway is remade as a characterful and vibrant open promenade. Pedestrians are encouraged to cross and use the street at their convenience and drivers must be more aware of the people at any moment therefore slowing down as they travel through the space.
The technical resolution of the idea was made through the paving of the highway with a new granite surface, the repaving of pedestrian areas with a similar material and the introduction of a new type of kerbstone that was flush with both sides therefore blurring the boundary between highway and pavement. Through careful design of the new street levels we were able to retain the existing sub-base and drainage therefore significantly reducing the cost of the new work. Around the two cliffs special safety measures were introduced in the form of smoother turning circles and ‘cropped’ granite setts that create a bump when driven over.
Because we could not reduce the width of the carriageway we had to engage with its scale through design to remove its visual dominance. We did this by enlarging the new landscape elements such as public benches and planters, the main path through the park and the width of pocket squares to radically alter the visual proportion and impression of the overall place as one walks down the street.
The middle section of the street is the most significant part of the change where the existing street park on one side adopted an entire new geometry of paths whilst keeping existing mature trees. An informal and unfenced public playground was created at the southern end of the park by digging into the landscape to create walls and slopes for climbing, sliding and imaginative games. Timber log type seats are located near to the play, encouraging and expressing a possibility that this play can also extend into the street. A set of large planters and seating was placed opposite the park creating a mirrored green space in a consistent language, therefore locating the highway the centre of a green promenade.
To strengthen the character, emphasise the idea that this is a single place and further blur the boundaries of the road and pavements we used three types of commonly available granite to render a warm tone to all paved areas. The colour mix is chosen to compliment the intense golden canopies of the existing gingko trees along the avenue. We avoided using large patterns in the surface as our research suggested it was difficult to achieve a high build quality and it would not create the calm atmosphere we wanted to create. Instead, we designed four different mixes of granites laid out as 15m panels which were then located in different parts of the site. By altering the coursing dimension, the finish, the joint width and the proportion of each type to introduce subtle differences in the paving texture. To soften the edges of the hard paving where it meets planting in the park or planters along the street, we used both bonded gravels and loose gravels to achieve a relaxed ground cover for siting and gathering.
The existing gingko trees were to be become part of the open park and offer shade alongside newly added mature trees to encourage people use the street in the extreme hot summer of Chongqing. We also designed a series of coloured canopies to help lift the generally grey tone of surrounding towers, framing and filtering views at significant stopping places in the street. They are made with hanging Perspex panels mimicking coloured clouds over a pebble-grey coated steel structure to cast complex and vivid shadows on the ground. The idea was also to install rotatable spot lights above the Perspex to cast equally strong shadows on the pavement in the night though this was not realised due to the limited budget.
Other key design elements include a set of off-site manufactured steel-timber furniture. This seating is designed to form a ‘wave’ of sit-able and climbable decks that can be used for large or small gatherings, that encourage children to play on them and to encourage community events to take place in the street. They also act as new psychological signals for traffic to slow down as they pass by. The smallest seats are mostly clustered around the park for calmer individual use. The build quality of these seats is very high due to its off-site production and the specification of the hardwood. We purposely convinced the client to not apply a glossy paint over the timber, so the varnish can show the beautiful natural aging whilst protecting the wood against weathering.
The project started on site summer 2015 and the whole middle section and part of the northern and southern sections were completed in summer 2017. The most significant design decision was to place an emphasis on the build quality and user experience of the public space rather than to create a symbolic, object and pattern based landscape. The street has now reopened and has been rebranded as the New Kowloon district. We were delighted to see how new and existing residents started to enjoy the place and that the key decisions we made have worked.
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