My thesis emerges as I, as designer, explore various visual media and interdisciplinary methodologies to study city. The research is motivated by the urgent inquiry shared by many urbanists to understand the city especially during changes and crisis: how to study, represent, and ultimately design for urban environments?
Various artists, architects and scholars, past and present, have studied and documented urban components, both static forms and their occupation by people and objects, to reveal relationships between individual elements and larger urban contexts. They have represented the relationships through analytical or aesthetic lenses, and adopted text, photography, drawing and film as tools to address different concerns. They also cross-referenced to other disciplines beyond architecture, such as sociology and anthropology. My research gains inspirations from those earlier explorations. In the first part, I compare sets of historical and contemporary urban theorists and architects based on the same visual media, exploring research methods used by those precedents—photography from Kevin Lynch’s “perceptual form” in Boston and William Whyte’s small public spaces in New York, drawings from Atelier Bowwow’s “architectural ethnography” and Drawing Architectural Studio’s dystopian Beijing. In the second part, the thesis tested the aforementioned visual media and methodologies to Beijing’s hutong district, as a way to reveal the issues embedded in the urban environment and address the challenges in preservation and revitalization of that area.
My reflections on the unprecedented urbanization process and changes in Chinese cities initially motivated the project. The human scale urban vernaculars like hutongs in Beijing and their life-enhancing informality have been demolished or gentrified en masse in recent years to pave the way for large-scale developments. The process prompts my critiques on design education and practice in China, which tend to oversimplify or overlook the importance of understanding the city. The thesis pursues a longstanding but nevertheless enigmatic question among designers: how to study and represent not only the static forms of urban environments but other embedded elements: such as the occupations of people and objects, the social structure, and the culture? Ultimately, how to design livable cities?