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Is the future of urban design found in the past?

Not everyone is on board with the Jetsons-style vision, says green architect Jason Pomeroy in Guangzhou.

Anyone offering me the prospect of indulging in Cantonese roast meats has me sold in an instant. So when the Chinese translator of my book The Skycourt and Skygarden suggested I hold a masterclass for his students in Guangzhou, I immediately packed my bags. While I don’t intend to give up my day job as an architect, I leapt at the opportunity to enjoy roast meat in the company of bright-eyed, eager beaver Masters students at South China University of Technology, in a high-tech, high-rise, and high-density ‘future city’.

Friends had prepped me for what to expect – a Blade Runner-esque urban habitat with a veritable feast of futuristic architecture, along with bike sharing schemes and a youthful population for whom apps are a way of life. They weren’t wrong. Modern architecture, like the Guangzhou Opera House, adorn the city as jewels to be more stared at than experienced. Other than these eye-catching gems, the rest appeared to be the ubiquitous glass, steel and concrete structures that populate global mega cities.

  • South China University of Technology

But when I arrived at the university, I saw an environment that was more turn-of-the-century architectural sensitivity than turn-of-the-page architectural porn. Low rise, courtyard orientated brick buildings with stunning Chinese landscaped gardens, sat cheek by jowl with the occasional piece of concrete modernism. Surely, the students would espouse ‘the shock of the new’ I thought. After all, this millennial generation is surfing design trends and new architectural genres on every electronic personal mobility device in existence as they flit between dormitory, studio and cafe.

After my lecture on future green cities, one student asked how the tide of people fleeing the villages in search of prosperity in the city could be stopped. I told her that since time memorial, people have been striving for a better life and seen the city as a beacon of such hope. “By 2050, 75 per cent of the world’s population will be living in cities”. She looked deflated, and in an instant I saw that her utopian dream was actually for a balance between village, old town, and city life – not Jetsons-style future cities.

Her question spurred me to visit the Old Town. In its day, it was the future city of international trade. I was transported into another era – where life feels simpler, slower, though nonetheless spontaneous, and chaotic. The flavour is savoured in the Cantonese cafes, the smells of the bakeries, the traditional workshops that produce goods for the community, and the vibrancy of the street life that takes place within the sheltered colonnades. These disparate elements create an intense tapestry of culture that the new central business district with its gleaming skyscrapers struggles to match.

This is not to say that the architecture of the Old Town is classic Chinese – there are no hutongs here. To be sure, the look had a certain “neutrality” about it” – it was a place for international business to thrive without any notable and immediate reference to Chinese culture. Centuries later, the new CBD arguably follows a similar ethos in that it doesn’t express virtues of Chinese culture that can often happen in rapidly developing post colonial cities. Thankfully, the architecture students that are the city’s future have their eyes firmly on the past as well as the present. In envisioning the future cityscape of this international hub, they may yet find that balance between old school charm and futuristic aspirations.

Prof Jason Pomeroy is the founder of Singapore-based urbanism, architecture, design and research firm Pomeroy Studio. He also hosts the television series Smart Cities 2.0, City Time Traveller (Series 1 & 2) and City Redesign and believes that travel is a fundamental part of education. Read our full interview with Pomeroy here.