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‘They looked like prisons’: How a new development brought humanity to China’s public housing

MAD Architects prioritized open space and community in a new Beijing housing project.

‘They looked like prisons’: How a new development brought humanity to China’s public housing
[Photo: Zhu Yumeng/courtesy MAD Architects]

A bright red elevated walkway is the centerpiece of an innovative new development in Beijing. Winding half a mile and linking a series 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 condos. It’s public housing.

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[Photo: ArchExists/courtesy MAD Architects]
Now open, the Baiziwan social housing complex in Beijing, designed by MAD Architects, is a 12-tower mega-development providing modest, government-subsidized housing to about 4,000 families. According to architect Ma Yansong, who has designed large-scale museums and civic buildings across China and the U.S., the project is at once a critique of social housing in China and a model for how it can change.

[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 was prepared. He has been researching China’s social housing for nearly a decade, starting with a course he taught at Tsinghua University in 2014. He’s toured many social housing projects across China and around Beijing over the years, and made a running list of the ways they failed their residents. “We saw many, many issues,” he says, from their gated exteriors to their unending sameness. “There’s not enough humanity in those projects.”

[Photo: CreateAR/courtesy MAD Architects]
Another problem he saw repeatedly was the isolation of these communities. “They were so disconnected from the city,” he says. “They were surrounded by walls. They looked like prisons.”

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

[Image: courtesy MAD Architects]
After several years of design and development, Ma’s ideas have taken shape. Instead of closed off, monotonous buildings, MAD Architects has designed an open, urban social housing complex, with public streets that cut through, a large array of shops and restaurants, senior care and health facilities, and, for residents only, the looping red walkway and a variety of outdoor amenities along its path.

[Photo: Zhu Yumeng/courtesy MAD Architects]
Ma says one of the keys to making the project different from other social housing projects is its connection to the surrounding neighborhood. MAD Architects’ design includes a significant amount of ground floor commercial space that’s accessible both to residents living in the towers and the general public. “There was no requirement to do such a big commercial component,” he says. “We made the ground space urban space. It’s open to everyone.”

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[Photo: CreateAR/courtesy MAD Architects]
Openness is a recurring theme in the project, particularly in the second floor walking loop and outdoor gardens. The half-mile loop links several park-like spaces and areas where residents can meet and play chess. There’s also a playground, an urban farm, and an amphitheater for performances. Some of the towers were even carved out, with the walking path tunneling through what could have otherwise been more apartments. “We wanted to maximize this public space,” Ma says.

[Photo: Zhu Yumeng/courtesy MAD Architects]
The buildings themselves are modest, Ma concedes, especially compared to more curvaceous projects in MAD’s portfolio, such as the forthcoming Lucas Museum of Narrative Art that appears to float in Los Angeles and the spaceship-like Harbin Cultural Center in northern China. The compact units, straight lines, and uniform walls are a product of the government requirement that almost all of the construction happen offsite, in modular housing factories. “Some of these requirements will limit your construction cost and your building shape,” Ma says.

[Photo: Zhu Yumeng/courtesy MAD Architects]
Working around these constraints, Ma says the design tries to inject as much livability as possible. Each tower orients every apartment toward the southern sun, with large windows bringing in abundant natural light. Sunshine, Ma argues, is a right.

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Compared to the social housing projects of the past, Ma says this complex provides a more urban experience while also complying with the government’s 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 developments should consider these issues.”

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