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All (urban) fields are (urban) fabrics but not all (urban) fabrics are (urban) fields.

For this post I want to talk about a fascinating book that just came out, Changing Chinese Cities: The Potentials of Field Urbanism. The author, Renee Chow, is not only a Prof. of Architecture at UC Berkeley and Principle at StudioUrbis, but she was my supervisor while I did my graduate studies at Berkeley, and continues to be a mentor and friend. Aside from having a personal relationship with the author and the research done, I have to say, in the most objective way I can, that this book is full of thoughtful analysis, reflecting a new understanding of the potentials of urban fabrics, and more particularly of field urbanisms.

field urbanisms

The book offers case studies, essays, and design explorations (illustrations and diagrams) of Chinese cities to demonstrate how field urbanism can identify the inherent urban and architectural systems that differentiate cities, and can be applied across sites and individual buildings to maintain an area and region’s distinct recognizable character.

“City design has never been more important and never has it been more problematic […] Meanwhile, the methods and knowledge we employ in their design is not advancing,” says Chow.

Chow is looking at the effects of development and design strategies from the mid- to late-twentieth century, which although seen everywhere, are magnified by the transformation of Chinese cities in recent years.

While computation and big data are emerging as tools to model urban complexity, Chow contends they are based on a “too simple, bifurcated view of cities – inside or outside, built or unbuilt, public or private” and that China’s extreme, object-oriented urbanism, where disconnected iconic structures dominate the skyline, offers an ideal base to test potential solutions to the densification, diversification, and sustainability challenges facing major cities around the world.

In this regard, Chow talks about a current culture of object-building contributing to urban fragmentation, which bring about many problems:

  • A separation between public and private, as well as isolation between private realms;
  • The homogenization of experiences within cities. The differences between districts, between streets, in orientation are lost and so are the unique differences of identity between cities. More and more, cities look more alike “becoming a loose chain of buildings with swaths of wasted spaces between objects that are neither sustainable nor legible.”
  • With a strong focus on their exterior “appearance,” urban components are less likely to be designed for change and are unintentionally.

In contrast, rich urban fabrics use a variety of resources and forms that are ever changing, responsive to topography and able to adapt to the user needs, evolving through time and reflecting the product and process dynamics of city making, urban form and of the people who create and inhabit them.

Contingent on the latter, Prof. Chow coins the term field urbanism to describe “the ways in which spatial relations, built and urban, can bind and form the experiences of a city. The word ‘field’ refers to shared relations — the ways in which parts act upon each other, connect and propagate. ‘Urbanism’ is of course about the daily life of people in cities.”

“Field urbanism acknowledges collectivity — the reciprocities between public and private realms. It provides the ability for systems to operate at different environmental scales. Whether building new infrastructures or reinforcing aging infrastructure, we need to assess the best scales of operation. It reinforces the diversity of urban environments — within and between cities — and clarifies orientation, helping maintain cities’ unique legibility.”

Read an interview (Field Urbanism website). 

ChowPortrait-750-410x273RENEE Y. CHOW

Renee Y. Chow is Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at University of California Berkeley and a founding principal at the Berkeley-based architecture and urban design practice STUDIO URBIS. Over the last decade, Chow has refocused on Chinese urbanism, researching and designing projects. Changing Chinese Cities: The Potentials of Field Urbanism is the culmination of her ongoing interest in China and theories on field urbanism, first explored in her earlier book, Suburban Space: The Fabric of Dwelling.

Chow has been honored by Architecture Magazine as one of its “Ten Top Architectural Educators” and by the AIA California Council with its Research and Technology Honor Award. She previously taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she also received her SBAD and M.Arch.

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