Credible Utopias

Credible Utopias

Aerial plan of 5-square miles at Qingdao.
Courtesy IMC Octave

How can you create a vibrant community from scratch? To Chinese developer IMC Octave it’s not a theoretical question but a working plan for a series of new communities across China.

The 21st Century Living development project is the product of the real-estate arm of IMC Group, a Chinese conglomeration that began its life as a small-fry shipping company in 1949. Leading the charge is Calvin Tsao of New York’s Tsao & McKown and his brother Frederick Tsao, who took over as director of IMC Group from the company founder, their father, in 1995.

 Approached for years to design projects in China, the brothers were disheartened by the commercial objectives of prospective developers. “We felt design should serve a higher purpose, especially in China,”said Calvin Tsao, who also teaches frequently at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Octave’s stated mission—to develop an environment that “balances agrarian and urban societies”—responds to a perceived “malaise and anxiety” resulting from China’s rapid urban growth as it cuts large portions of the population off from its rural past without cohesive alternate planning strategies.

Chengdu Xiqu Masterplan (left) and Chengdu Longchi masterplan (right).

The firm is implementing a variety of projects across China, each one a different development under a unified concept. Ranging from 300,000 square feet to upwards of 24 million square feet, the projects are divided into three categories: Ex-Urban links agricultural communities to the city; Urban or “Agora” focuses on live-work-play concepts in a mixed-use urban context, while Post-Industrial Mixed-Use Development re-purposes industrial sites. Octave recently completed Qingdao IMC Center, an Urban project and will finish two more: Free-Trade Zone Phase 2 Development in Dalian in 2013 (Post Industrial) and Yang Chang Lake Harmony Hotel development in Suzhou in 2014 (Ex-Urban).

Designs for 21st Century Living masterplans such as Chengdu Longchi and Chengdu Xiqu (both Ex-Urban) emphasise pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods with an interconnected network of courtyards and parks. Though similar to many “healthy living” concepts with outdoor areas, pedestrian scale, and front-end landscape design, Octave’s developments also reference traditional Chinese architecture and culture. But there is an additional rigor in their intent to reconnect Chinese villages and cities through new infrastructure.

Chengdu Xiqu town center.

It is a tall order, but Octave has devised a holistic approach, which in June included an extensive educational tour of New York for a handful of company colleagues. Including lectures, theatre trips, walking tours, and tracking down local food carts, the 10-day itinerary offered New York as a blueprint for a diverse and cosmopolitan urban environment. Noted academics contributed, too, including Peter Rowe, from Harvard Graduate School of Design, who spoke about patterns of growth in China and identified networked communities as a potentially fruitful approach to new development.

So far the Chinese government has been supportive. “Of course, we seek out regional governments that are already enlightened, so the agenda is shared,” said Tsao. Still, there is a long way to go before these instant towns prove their worth as models for future development, but the road is wide open.