Welcome to Wuhan

Almost two months after embarking on a my teaching studio in Wuhan I am slowly starting to get a tiny hold of this city. Having spent most of my day walking around the old city center of Hankou, the township on the opposite shore of the Yangtze River, I was trying to sum up my impressions of Wuhan on the long bus ride back to the university campus. Besides being one of the top ten cities in China in terms of size, Wuhan is somewhat of a dark horse, and it's quite hard to pinpoint its main asset. For all its universities and collages - one out of ten inhabitants is a student at one of them, 1.2 million(!) in all - it's still far away from what I would call a "university town", like Cambridge, Lund, Heidelberg, Leiden or Austin; small, convenient, well-developed, highly academic and full of students. Education in Wuhan, it seems, is more like one of the city's main industrial bases. It's the production of students that is emphasized, not production of new knowledge. And since very few universities in China - Wuhan is no exception - promote studies in the humanities, the output every year is a very large batch of engineers with unspoiled belief in "Scientific Development", i e the extension of which you would call a technocracy.

The riverfront of above mentioned Hankou is lined with night clubs and bars, massage parlours and luxury cars. The buildings are "restored" early 20th century colonial-style buildings turned into a locale where the new rich get their groove on. As a public space it's decent, and I'm sure some of those night clubs are too, but that typology of space is as played-out as the colonial era it originates from. The rest of Wuhan is all about bigness, and it's architectural space as impressive as any one-liner dropped from a helicopter alongside 10-lane motorway strip or wedged in around a roundabout the size of Latvia. The physical dimension of most of this city - I'm sorry to say - is not worth looking at with anything other than fascination - for its brute ugliness and lack of human scale.

Actually, after understanding some of the more underlying messages widely and explicitly published on billboards across the city, I am starting to think that socio-anthropologists could have a field day here in Wuhan. According to my sources, most of the advertisement on buses, billboards, tv and radio revolve around plastic surgery, potency-enhancing medicine, underwear, cars, alcohol and women's hospitals (abortion clinics). In other words, an unsavoury cocktail of emerging-market-induced indulgences.

Or as Wuhan based artist and curator Gong Tian expressed it: Wuhan is a mix of everything cheap, loud and low, plus some anarchism. It's also known as a punk city, a side that I have yet to explore. It all seems so difficult when the city is the size of a European country and there's no subway (yet).

Well I'm not sure the photos below support my story, but at least they are moments from the past two months.

 

   

 

 

 

           

Zero Energy Slum

The other day I paid a visit to the newest addition to Huazhong Architecture School in Wuhan where I am currently teaching. I had found this Panoramio photo with description on Google Maps and I got curious to see what these new premises were housing. I quote from the description (presumably written by someone highly involved in the project): "The national demonstration project of renewable energy building in Huazhong University of Science and Technology, approved by the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, is dedicated to construct a teaching or office building with renewable energy use to adjust temperature and comfort all year in hot summer and cold winter area. To begin with, the project has taken advantage of Active Dynamic Hollow Walls (ADHW) with fluid air layers and climate adaptive windows. Furthermore, renewable energy, collected and stored by circulating water in the underground heat sink or heat source, has earned its position in the project because of the local advantage of an underground temperature annul balance. Fresh air exchanges heat with the water containing renewable energy in an under-floor radiator to adjust its own temperature. The fresh air is released into the indoor through an under-floor air supply system, thus regulating comfort in an indoor environment. In addition, the annul power consumption of the comfort regulation system is no more than the annul power generation of solar cells on the roof of a building. In a word, buildings in the project succeed in utilization of solar energy, underground heat sink in summer and heat source in winter for anti-reason use and have achieved the goals of saving of energy, land and water along with building materials, of environmental protection and of pollution reduction."

High ambitions, no doubt. Actually, whether or not this building lives up to its environmental claims become quite irrelevant when confronted with the architecture and construction materials. Below are a few photos I took of the inside, and bear in mind that this building is built less than two years ago:

As an experiment to show that these energy-saving technologies are efficient, this building might be successful on paper. But the extraordinarily poor quality of design and materials completely undermines the possibility of convincing anyone that these techniques are compatible with ordinary construction procedures in China. Building it in the first place is not only a waste of money and materials, but a liability to the real research and work that is going on to find truly sustainable solutions to housing construction.

To Live Is to Leave Traces

- Walter Benjamin As the chosen site for my students' sectional exploration of layered architecture in Wuhan, this block contains that complex programmatic adjacencies which have been purged from almost all of the inner cities in the developed world. Textile factories and music schools, dormitories and printing houses, social welfare centres (!), hospitals and speculative housing are all growing on this small hill north of the Yellow Crane Tower. During the next few weeks, my students will explore this area, finally getting to know it better than their own back yard, as they inquire and observe reality through the eyes of the insurgent architect (or better yet, a doctor doing autopsy on the city to know how its inner systems actually work).

Below a few snapshots from my own wandering about.

 

 

Wuhan Studio

From Oct 24 I will be leading a studio in Huazhong University in Wuhan, China. Wuhan is one of China's 2nd-tier cities, a monster growing at fast and steady speed and most presumably governed by crooks (one evidence of which is that they sold one one third of the city's biggest and most famous lake to a real estate developer, so that in the future, the public will not have access to it. Fortunately, the water is anyway too polluted for bathing. I went to Wuhan on a weekend-trip three years ago and I assume the monster has grown by a few hundred square kilometers since then. It'll be great to explore it, now that I am more adapt to the scale and logic of Chinese cities. Until I have more recent photos, here are few from last time in June 2008.