With the amount of architectural phenomena China’s churning out these days, it can be tough for decent renderings to garner any sort wow factor. The market is just glutted with all manner of wackadoo designs, from car-free “Great Cities” to the world’s next tallest building to alien/pinecone towers. Still, these renderings for an urban oasis in Changsha, Hunan, to be built from scratch by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF) stand out. An “experiment in future city planning,” this lakeside city lets the architects play with neighborhood structure, flood prevention systems, and urban agriculture, all the while housing 180,000 residents—that’s 100,000 more people than accounted for in China’s other planned pop-up city. KPF’s press release calls the Meixi Lake project “a live test case”—always a reassuring phrase when talking about urban architecture—designed to integrate nature into densely populated cityscapes. The city—described as “actually happening” by a spokesperson—will be organized by neighborhood pods, each housing about 10,000 people, with a school, shopping center, and other public spaces in each town-like structure. The plan, proposed five years ago, is intriguing, though the verdict’s still out on whether it has enough pie-in-the-sky details to be make it into the selective club of most outlandish cities of the future.
I detect some skepticism here. But, I’m interested in this phrase of a city acting as “a live test case.” Experimenting with cities? While the sociologists of the Chicago School suggested Chicago was a laboratory, I don’t think this is what they had in mind. I suspect this language couldn’t be used openly in the United States even though certain development plans and projects have acted as experiments of sorts over the decades. For example, public housing went through an experiment of sorts starting with the construction of high-rises in the 1950s and 1960s. However, these high-rises (famously marked by the destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis) were torn down in recent decades after being marked as untenable. When talking about cities as live test cases, does that mean the development will be evaluated years down the road and if it worked, it will continue but it will be changed if it didn’t work? Could portions of test cities be torn down and then make way for new cities?