Professional Development

This post is a summary as well as thoughts on two articles I recently read. The first was “Immersive Research on Public Rental Housing in Baiziwan, Beijing – Learning from Ma Yansong” by Jiajing Zhang of Gaomu Architectural Design Consultancy from December 2021 and the second was “Ideality as Motivation: The Social Housing Practices of MAD and GOM”, by Zheng Hujin and also Jiajing Zhang, from June 2022.

In 2002, the Shanghai-based Gaomu Architectural Design office began to look into what they saw as the instinctively discomforting lack of diversity in housing design due to the growing dominance of capital in real estate. Anyone who’s been to China will know what they mean.

This reality on the ground is more regulatory than cultural, or even market-led. For example, the tower field to the right of this image was designed by UN Studio.

This lack of diversity takes the form of an overabundance of large and medium-sized apartments and an inefficient use of land, both of which make it difficult in large cities for young and low-income people to buy or even find a place to live because of their low status in the housing market.

The first thing I like about this story is that some architects identified a problem and began to think about how they could make it better.

In their Longnan Gardens project, Gaomu office proposed 1) very small units to counter the large and medium-sized units, 2) very high density to counter the inefficient use of land, and 3) residential diversification to counter the homogeneity of offering. The smallest units were the first to be rented.

The second thing I like about this story is that the architects implemented their ideas.

The image below shows the entire project. Building spacing and sun paths determine the heights of the relatively low buildings and internal sunlight and spacing determine the shape of each footprint. There’s a range of housing types.

The combined influence of sunlight requirements as well as spacing according to the basic rules below produce perimeter blocks with one side open and of varying height. You can understand those basic rules from this diagram. The only unfamiliar rule is how building spacing varies with both height and orientation.

If that thick grey arrow in the bottom left corner of the diagram above indicates South, then it means buildings can be spaced closer if their long sides face south. If that’s the case, then the alleged Chinese market preference for south-facing apartments is just something we like to believe. These next two developments are what usually results from following the same rules.

The next thing I like about this story is the same as the second. Some other architects identified the same problem and implemented their own ideas for how to make it better.

The story continues in 2021 when MAD architects in Beijing, led by Yansong Ma, published their BaiziWan Social Housing Project. [The images and photographs by ArchExist, CreatAR Images and Yumeng Zhu appear in all descriptions of this project.] With Baiziwan Social Housing, a Y-shaped stepped-tower typology is applied to a site divided into eight by three cross roads and one along its length. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Y-shaped, stepped buildings. MVRDV used them in 2018 with their Future Towers in Pune, India, and presumably for the same building height and apartment spacing advantages.

In this case, the rules are still that the ends of blocks be 10-12 metres apart, while the spacing between blocks is calculated by the height of the highest part for openings to the south – which, in this next diagram, is “down”. The stepping or “terracing” is the result of sunlight regulations and not the result of a desire to make a mountain-like building despite MAD having form with mountain buildings.

Both MAD and Gaomu wish to create a ground level more open and more functioinally active and social than the norm.

Both offices also want to provide a mix of apartment types sized for the low-income rental market. On the left above is a MAD single aspect studio apartment on either side of a dual loaded corridor, in the middle is a two-level two-bedroom apartment and, on the right a one-and-a-half level two-bedroom apartment paired around central corridors every other floor. It’s a genuine attempt to provide low-cost rental housing for persons on low incomes and in a way that proposes an alternative and better way of doing things. Rather than a diversity of building types, this MAD project has a diversity of public spaces at ground level. Gaomu and MAD both deserve credit for getting it this far.

• • • 

Clearly, Gaomu Architectural Design and Ma Yansong and MAD share the same concerns but, while admitting that a famous architect is always going to attract criticism and be accused of top-down design, for Gaomu, there was still a lack of diversity in the buildings themselves.

Their response was to take what they had learned and implemented at their Longnan Gardens project, and design a project for the same Baiziwan site using the same brief and the same principles and drivers.

Gaomu had their questions but I like how they weren’t interested in critique. They wanted to understand why certain decisions were made, while also testing and confirming their own approach.

The design period began at the latest when Baiziwan was made public in May or June 2021and continued until they made the results of their exercise public in December21. The team followed the plot division and road network, observed the 80 metre height limit, the 3.5 plot ratio, the requirement for 4,000 households, and complied with Beijing regulations. They did however decide their own proportions of the different types of units. In order to keep the site parameters the same, they used the right-hand side (below) of the site for the same amenity. The plot ratio of 3.5 was higher than anything they’d previously had to follow.


A diversity of building types was important to Gaomu and they knew from previous work that, in terms of floor plate efficiency, certain building types are more suited to apartments of certain types and areas. Single corridors work better for apartments of about 60m2 but double-loaded corridors are better for apartments of 40m2 or less.

A circular configuration is more suited to apartments as small as 22m2.

A traditional gallery configuration was more suited to 40m2 apartments.

For added diversity, six teams in the Gaomu office were free to design their individual blocks. They applied the following rule and truncated the building heights according to sunlight regulations.

The design of the blocks at the intersection corners was particularly important to them, along with views of those corners.

It seemed all was well until, towards the end of the study, the Gaomu teams noticed they’d neglected to take into account the site influence of the three large towers on the south side – the up-side, in these next two images. Jiajing Zhang, the Gaomu project leader later surmised that the towers were a legacy from a previous stage of the same development and the client, dissatisfied with the direction of the project, commissioned Yansong Ma and MAD. The large setback in the MAD scheme accounts for the shadows cast by these three towers. Accordingly, Gaomu adjusted their scheme but it made everyone appreciate the limitations of a six-month research project when compared with a six-year design process and ultimately why the Y-shape was adopted in the first place. The Gaomu teams ended their study with a greater admiration for Yansong Ma and MAD.

There’s much to admire here.

  • The Gaomu architects did their research and learned from it.
  • They honestly admitted their oversights.
  • They didn’t hesitate to express their admiration for the other architects.
  • The results of this process were made public.

I don’t think many architects would re-design a project by other architects in order to understand it and, not only do that, but also have an open dialogue with the other architects about it and on top of that share all this with the general public. These are conversations worth having. We should have more of them.

You can see how Gaomu’s Longnan Gardens Social Housing Estate was presented on ArchDaily here in July 2017, and here you can see how MAD’s Baiziwan Social Housing was announced on ArchDaily in June, 2021.

This is another thing. In both these ArchDaily articles, the architects discuss the obstacles they faced but, even if we read it, we still can’t appreciate the amount of work involved in attempting to design and build something better in spite of punishing plot ratios and sunlight regulations. This entire story is a case study in itself, showing that the result of doing architecture is more than a set of photos and some accompanying text that can’t even begin to describe the knowledge, skill and art that went into the making of a project, but will nevertheless be the basis for the opinions most of us will have of it. I’m heartened to see these architects understand the superficiality of our media environment and, by using it to tell us about the reality of building design, are working to improve that too.

In the concluding paragraphs of the “Ideality as Motivation: The Social Housing Practices of MAD and GOM” article, Jiajing Zhang makes some very good points. I paraphrase.

  • “Both MAD and Gaomu seek to use design to highlight the shortcomings of existing guidelines, norms and regulations. However, improvement at the system level cannot be achieved by the actions of individual architects. It is far beyond the ability and responsibility of the individual architect to solve the problems of urban space. Norms come from the imagination of those who make them, and imagination comes from both experience and creativity. Experience that lacks creativity is reflected in norms that stifle potential possibilities.

This, ultimately, is the crux of the matter. If regulations are designed to ensure certain minimums, then all that happens is that minimum requirements get met. In the case of sunlight for example, setting an overly prescriptive hourly requirement for windows of habitable rooms will produce rows of slab buildings that satisfy the code in the quickest and easiest possible way, whereas some different code might encourage other building forms and other possibilities.

  • “Excellent works should be created by the system rather than by fortuitous conditions”. Instead of strongly supporting specific projects under the existing rules of the game, government departments should modify the rules of the game so they are more scientific and rational.

This is an intriguing thought even though it’s 100% reasonable and makes me wonder why nobody thought of it before. Regulating for minimum standards simply doesn’t push in the right direction. Now the thought’s been articulated, we need to think about how the system needs to change to make that happen. It’s a challenge and if MAD or Gaomu or someone else ever succeeds in nudging regulations to encourage excellent solutions, it’ll be just what we need after a century wasted framing architecture as value-adding design and cost-efficient construction.

  • “In today’s social context and the current state of the industry, collective housing designed by independent architects is the exception. The generation and existence of projects such as these is neither universal nor continuous. Their success does not mean that breakthroughs and changes will be forthcoming. A Quixotic solo effort is often the opposite of success. Glory and failure are two sides of the same coin. Individual actions may end in failure but it is the frequency and continuity of those actions that creates the possibility of improvement.”

Well said.

• • • 

December 18, 2021, the WeChat public account of Gaomu Architects released the article “Learning from Ma Yansong”, which detailed the design ideas and achievements of Gaomu’s version of Baiwan Home.

[AT] 张佳晶:北京百子湾公租房的沉浸式研究——向马岩松学习
张佳晶 AT建筑技艺  2021-12-18 10:05 Posted on 北京

Original 郑慧瑾 张佳晶 高目  2022-07-23 19:46 Posted on 上海
Ideality as Motivation:The Social Housing Practices of MAD and GOM
[郑慧瑾] Zheng Huijin1
[张佳晶] Zhang Jiajing2(通讯作者)
1 贝诺建筑设计咨询(上海)有限公司(上海,200020)
2 上海高目建筑设计咨询有限公司(上海,200232)

3 thoughts on “Professional Development

  1. Jonathan

    Great article. Great explanations. Excellent planning.
    The site planning reminded me of the NYC 1940’s 50’s apartment planning in the developments. Although not as well resolved, the towers tended to be rotated cruciform with substantial open space, tennis courts, basketball courts and landscape, including now mature trees, in between.
    They are commonly derided as not fitting the with the city grid.

    as always, keep up the excellent work.

  2. Ashley Lane

    Am I correct that there are no living rooms in any of the plans, is this normal for these types of developments?

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Yes, that’s right. In some countries such as the UK, apartments without living rooms are known as “studio” apartments and this is quite usual. If I remember right, the minimum area for a studio apartment for a development to qualify for housing association funding (if such a thing still exists) used to be about 32 sq.m. For that you would also get an armchair with a view of a TV.

Comments are closed.