Monday, May 07, 2012

Remodeling Canberra on a Chinese City

Changchun International Financial Center Architectural RenderingThe Australian National University in Canberra was the venue for a talk by architects, planners and historians on "China’s Canberra: The past and future of Changchun". They pointed out that the Chinese city of Changchun (长春) was modeled on Canberra's original plan and suggest that Canberra's future can be based on the redevelopment now taking place in Changchun.

Cox Architects have provided master planning advice for the city and designed the "Changchun International Financial Center" (长春国际金融中心), a 300,000 m2 development on the major axis at South Gate (3518 Renmin Street). The plan is to have one 80 story tower on one side, lower buildings and preservation of the access on the main axis.

Obviously Canberra will not need the density of Changchun, but Rodney Moss, Director of Cox Architecture and Professor of Architecture at the University of Canberra, argues that the post WW2 suburban development of Canberra is not good city planning. He argues for high rise development of the existing Canberra town centers and that concentrating high rise will improve the look of the city.

One interesting feature Professor Moss showed was that some of the high rise buildings proposed for Canberra have three floors of staircases, to allow people to see their neighbors. This looks a like three story walk-up flats, stacked on top of each other to make a tower. The idea that instead of getting out of a lift in a high rise building in a dim corridor and rushing to their apartment, the residents would alight into a large area with a balcony, staircase and a view out a large window. They would therefore be encouraged to spent part of their time in the communal area and meet their neighbors.

It occurred to me that use of the communal area in a high rise building could be encouraged by placing the mailboxes there. Normally mailboxes for residents are placed in the foyer of a high rise building. If instead they were on every third floor, the residents would be encouraged to alight from the lift on that floor, collect their mail and the walk the open stairway up, or down, to their floor. In this way they would be more likely to see their neighbors. Also this would significantly speed up the lifts as people would be alighting on every third floor, not every floor. Peer pressure would tend to encourage this behavior, even when mail is not being collected, with all those for a particular staircase getting off together.

Professor Moss pointed out that Canberra is the second fasted growing city in Australia and it will have to be made 50% more dense in the next 20 years, if it is to remain within its borders. He argues that the Changchun model can be applied, increasing the density of the existing centers and preserving the open space.

Professor Richard Rigby, Executive Director of the ANU China Institute pointed out that Changchun was planned under Japanese occupation, with a design based on Canberra. Also of interest is "Changchun: unfinished capital planning of Manzhouguo 1932–42" by QINGHUA GUO (2004), which describes the plan as "... A Chinese north–south axis and grid plan was overlaid on the Beaux-Arts plan. ...".

Dr Michael Jasper, Assistant Professor - Architecture and Design in the University of Canberra's Faculty of Arts & Design displayed plans of Canberra which are in Changchun from the period of the 1930s and the Changchun 1932 Plan, showing Griffin's influence.

Changchun as a Model for Canberra

The parallels between Changchun and Canberra are extensive. Changchun had a tram added in the 1940s down the main axis (Changchun Tram) and now has model light rail (Changchun Light Rail Transit). Canberra was similarly planned for a tram down the main road, and currently considering a tram or bus-way. Changchun has a very high speed railway station, which is also being proposed for Canberra.

Changchun was planning to build satellite cities around the old core, much as Canberra. Cox Architects proposed to build up the old city more densely and rejuvenate the old open space around the city, rather than build on it. They also proposed connecting the old open space to the new areas and making the the waterways more accessible to the population. The main idea was to plan the open space in more detail, so it would be of more use. Also the land use policy should allow residential development be allowed mixed in with commercial use in the city center. In essence Cox have prepared a plan for Canberra of the future.

These proposals for Changchun provide a good model for Canberra. There can be high rise in the town centers and lower height around them. As the planners point out, new buildings can have reconfigurable walls so that they can meet future needs. As I put to a Canberra planning meeting, in my view planning to triple Canberra's population to one million would make it a more sustainable and livable city.

One development which planners have failed to take account of is the effect of the Internet on where and how people live and work. This is something which architects and planners need to investigate further.

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