City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Mary-Ann Ray

Mary-Ann Ray has worked with Michael Graves, James Turrell and Richard Meier. She is now principal, along with Robert Mangurian, of the firm Studio Works in Los Angeles. She, they, also teach at SCI-Arc. I like that her CV includes several schools in the USA, and would like to hear more about the process of designing state schools in the US, yet tonight she is talking at Postopolis! LA about their work in China, which includes the studio BASE (confusing website ahoy) in Caochangdi.

Unfortunately I missed the start of her talk due to ‘technical issues’ (as in, the need to buy some fries from the bar opposite, in order to stay warm and nourished throughout the slowly chilling evening.) Apologies to Mary-Ann for this.

I returned to find her halfway through a fascinating discussion on a 1959 plan for Beijing. Apparently, this has never been published and it’s an extraordinary document. Ray notes that Mao played a primary role in the idea of making the city of Beijing – "as a kind of ruralised urbanism”. The plan divides the city into a series of “dispersal group units” – these are tripartite arrangements that each has elements of housing (commune), factory and natural productive districts. These are then distributed in various combinations all over the city. Between these settlements are trees and green spaces, meaning around 40% of the total land is gardens, parks and farms. Ray notes that there are currently 3 million trees being planted in Beijing, so at least this aspect of the plan is perhaps being realised …

Mary-Ann Ray

The plan was never put into practice, yet it remains a fascinating document. Ray illustrates a mapping of these combinations in Beijing today, via satellite photos indicating green agriculture, blue factories, housing. They’re not traditional hutong neighbourhoods, says Ray, but they’re more akin to traditional village-like organisations – at least in this relationship between village, factory and agriculture around the edge. She indicates a detail of a “burgeoning urban village”, with multi-storey buildings being illegally built by entrepreneurial farmers.

Ray then talks about their forthcoming Caochangdi: Beijing Inside Out book, and their work in Caochangdi (or Cao Chang Di), one of over 300 “urban villages” currently in Beijing, and therefore interesting in the context of the earlier discussion of the Mao plan. Ray, Mangurian and studio live and work in Caochangdi, alongside a population including between 4000 and 7000 mostly illegal residents.

She describes an entirely fluid and variable use of space, which seems (somewhat bizarrely, or perhaps utterly typically) poised in perfect tension between high art and low commerce. Ray quickly runs through a typology of the layered spatial uses she encountered, each indicating a complex rendering of translation, appropriation, authenticity: a dog meat restaurant; Korean Christian church operating under cover of an animation studio; Ai Wei Wei projects; quonset huts; Mongolian corn-fed restaurant; a miniature golf course with Chinese characteristics; a driving school with fake on/off ramps; migrant sewer workers in temporary tent housing; a Swiss art gellery … (And that was only a few of her examples I managed to jot down).

Elsewhere, partly due to the influence of the omnipresent Ai Wei Wei, Chinese artists are everywhere. Ray notes, with a wry smile, that even Martha Stewart visited. There’s a tree-planting campaign – attempting to hold at 40% green – which is ironically reminiscent of the 1959 Mao plan. But the real action is in the illegal multi-storeys, temporary cafés, scruffy construction sites dotted with urban shepherds tracking solitary pigs, and so on.

Mary-Ann Ray

Ray’s talking to photographs of Caochangdi. Many illustrate the migrant workers – known as the “floating population” – who take what she says are known as “the 3D jobs – dirty, dangerous and difficult”. The studios she’s led have constructed typologies of these jobs, or mapped the migration of dogs, and so on (another theme of Postopolis! LA is architects making infographic mappings of skewed demographic incursions into the city.)

Ray describes a typical scenario, which started with farmers making buildings “in a very normative way” (simple red-brick structures etc.) Then Ai Wei Wei hits town and starts building projects in the village too, in a particular style – essentially, a minimalist reinvention of these vernacular forms, in a distinctive sober grey. Ray then relates that, as these are Ai Wei Wei works, foreigners come in and start paying more for these buildings. And so, the local farmers copy them, almost exactly. In turn, Ai Wei Wei then has to start working in red brick to avoid these copies of the grey … So Ai Wei Wei’s famous ‘Fake’ project is usurped by fake-Fake designs. We have real-Fake design vs fake-Fake design.

In the Q&A, Ray is asked “How can we, or should we, ‘learn from Beijing’ in terms of cities elsewhere.”

Ray replies that “Cao Chang Di is a unique thing,” and seems to resist the idea that much can or should be transferred elsewhere. When pressed, however, she does think it’s important to look at some of the processes at work here and in cities with similar structures, processes and drivers. “Most of the concrete being poured in the world is being poured by squatters”, she says, with “architects making one half of one percent”. She points to (Postopolis! NYC speaker) Robert Neuwirth’s Shadow Cities book; that might “hint at something” in terms of thinking about contemporary urban infrastructure.

She also describes how democracy usefully exists at a very local level – the (urban) village leader is elected directly and is far more approachable than in many ‘western’ urban governance models.

Mary-Ann Ray

Geoff asks about Beijing’s “water issue” and Ray notes the extraordinary geoengineering at work in order to stop the advance of Gobi desert. She says that sandstorms have been described as “the fifth season” there. But having lived and worked in Beijing a while, she can report that things have been getting better: “Summers have got better since greenery has been deployed to hide urban villages from expressways.” (Interesting that urban villages are hidden from expressways, not the other way round.) 

Ben Cerveny asks whether the classic hutong structure features in these urban villages. Ray responds that the hutong was really seen in the inner city of Beijing. In this respect, hutong-dwellers were related to imperial family in some way. “Not directly,” she says, “but you might be the imperial diaper cleaners …” However, “once you were out of that, you were in the outer city (and) further out was lower class (further out again were prostitutes and thieves, or at least thought to be so by the rest of the city)”. Out here, these “villages achieved densities that were akin to mid-rise housing”. This was “partly to conserve land and partly to conserve heat.” This density, she says, is Chinese in essence.

Overall, this was a fascinating talk. Elements of the talk – in common with many ‘Westerners’ talking about China – perhaps sounded a bit like anthropologists discovering ancient cultures during the 19th century. Perhaps this is an inevitable side-effect of the format and situation. A fellow PostOps organiser also wanted to know more about the synthesis of western and Chinese culture at this point, rather than continuing to focus on the outsider's view of China.

Yet Ray and colleagues appear to have engaged far deeper than most, and her analysis feels considered, informed and interested. Her exposition of the 1959 plan for Beijing, and its unlikely informal parallels today, provided a fascinating insight into the true haphazard nature of urban development, in China and elsewhere.


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