How a Beijing development brought humanity

A bright red elevated walkway is the centerpiece of an innovative new development in Beijing. Winding half a mile and connecting an array of gardens, parks and outdoor recreation spaces, the Red Walkway is like an aerial park in a forest of buildings. But this bold new design isn’t a high-end resort or luxury condo. This is a public residence.

[Photo: ArchExists/courtesy MAD Architects]

Now open, Baijiwan Social Housing Complex in Beijing, designed by MAD Architects, is a 12-tower mega-development that provides modest, government-subsidized housing to approximately 4,000 families. According to architect Ma Yansong, who has designed large-scale museums and civic buildings in China and the US, the project is at once a critique of social housing in China and a model for how it can change.

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[Photo: Zhu Yumeng/courtesy MAD Architects]

When the City of Beijing’s Public Housing Center approached his firm about submitting a proposal for a social housing complex, Ma agreed. He has been researching China’s social housing for nearly a decade, starting with a course he taught at Tsinghua University in 2014. He has toured a number of social housing projects in China and around Beijing over the years, and created a running list of ways that have failed him. Residents. “We saw many, many issues,” he says, from their gated exteriors to their endless likeness. “There’s not enough humanity in those projects.”

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[Photo: CreateAR/courtesy MAD Architects]

Another problem that he repeatedly observed was the alienation of these communities. “They were very different from the city,” he says. “They were surrounded by walls. They looked like prisons. ,

He told the city that if his firm had to submit proposals for any new social housing, he wanted to make sure none of these problems recur. “The government was actually quite open,” he says.

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[Image: courtesy MAD Architects]

After many years of design and development, Ma’s ideas have taken shape. Instead of closed, monotonous buildings, MAD Architects have designed an open, urban social housing complex, with public streets, a large array of shops and restaurants, senior care and healthcare facilities, and, for residents only, looping red walkways and A variety of outdoor amenities along the way.

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[Photo: Zhu Yumeng/courtesy MAD Architects]

Ma says that a key to what sets the project apart from other social housing projects is its relationship to the surrounding neighbourhood. MAD Architects’ design includes a significant amount of ground floor commercial space that is accessible to both the residents living in the towers and the general public. “There was no need to do such a large commercial component,” he says. He said, ‘We have made the ground space an urban space. It is open to all.”

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[Photo: CreateAR/courtesy MAD Architects]

Openness is a recurring theme in the project, particularly in the second floor running loop and the outdoor gardens. A half-mile loop connects several park-like places and areas where residents can meet and play chess. There is also a playground, an urban farm, and an amphitheater for performances. Some of the towers were also carved, tunneling walkways through what might otherwise have been more apartments. “We wanted to maximize this public space,” says Ma.

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[Photo: Zhu Yumeng/courtesy MAD Architects]

The buildings themselves are modest, Ma admits, especially compared to the more curated projects in MAD’s portfolio, such as the upcoming Lucas Museum of Narrative Art which seems to float like Los Angeles and spaceship Harbin Cultural Center in northern China. Compact units, straight lines and uniform walls are a product of the need of the government in almost all manufacturing offsite, modular housing factories. “Some of these requirements will limit your construction cost and the size of your building,” Ma says.

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[Photo: Zhu Yumeng/courtesy MAD Architects]

Working around these constraints, Ma says the design tries to inject as much vibrancy as possible. Each tower orients each apartment towards the southern sun, with large windows bringing in abundant natural light. Sunshine, Ma argues, is a right.

Compared to social housing projects of the past, Ma says the complex offers a more urban feel while complying with government space and budget requirements. He says other cities are taking notice, and his firm is in talks with the city of Shenzhen on a similar project. Overall, he says the project is an attempt to rethink how housing can be built in China’s dense cities.

“Our buildings are very simple. We want to celebrate humanity, we want to celebrate neighborhood, equality and freedom,” Ma says. “The ambition is to set an example that all future development should consider these issues.”

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