Cox Architects bring the ‘Mini City’ to China

This project breaks the mould of what a typical high-rise apartment complex should be made up of...

by Nick Myall 12 October 2017
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    The site for this project is the Chinese port city of Guangzhou, a rapidly expanding centre of commercial and heavy industry. The district’s growth, based on the ever-increasing export market has meant that the supply of new housing has had to maintain pace to accommodate the exponential rise in population. Additionally, the associated environmental challenges have had to be addressed.

    Cox Architects was engaged to design a ‘Mini City’ in the heart of this area, and improve facilities without resulting in a loss of density – which is typical to the area – and incorporate more sustainable objectives. The task required urban planning, architectural and technical innovation. 

    Rather than isolating housing from industry, the architects incorporated the benefits of industry into the new development, to create better environmental outcomes. The result is a development that embraces the closer integration between the work and living areas of this part of the city. Locating the living and work areas near each other alleviates the isolation experienced by residents. Ordinarily, they are housed in dormitory suburbs throughout the city, in individual apartment building tower blocks that bear no relationship to each other.

    The original development consisted of 16 individual residential tower blocks near a busy centre of the city. They were not unlike many similar apartment buildings in the area except that the proposed completed development would be much larger in scale compared to the individual surrounding buildings.  

    Cox Architects was commissioned to reinvent the concept, to seek fresh opportunities for this proposed new ‘Mini City’ and to incorporate new urban planning techniques that would enhance the benefits of a large-scale development.

    The result is tower blocks that are linked in groups of four to form pods that encapsulate a semi-enclosed space between the blocks. This space can be ‘conditioned’ to improve the habitability of the apartments and create other commercial and safety advantages.    

    The main benefits of grouping the pods were as follows:

    It formed an internal space capable of being ‘conditioned’ for habitual use.

    It split the height of the building into four zones, thereby significantly increasing the occupants’ safety.

    It offered the possibility of generating energy from the strong winds that occur between tall buildings located near each other. These winds are normally detrimental and problematic to residents so harnessing the energy takes advantage of this problem and instead, offers new solutions and opportunities.

    It enhanced the commercial opportunities at the podium areas for mixed commercial use zones integrated with the apartments.

    It increased the structural rigidity of the tower blocks.

    To achieve these design objectives, many complex technical solutions needed to be developed which were new to the building industry. The architects sought the expertise and involvement of the burgeoning local vehicle manufacturing industry located near the site which saw great interest in the development.

    The expertise sought included:

    Assistance with the aerodynamics between the tower blocks.

    Development and incorporation of hybrid technology to reduce energy consumption and dependence on standard refrigerants to condition spaces within the complex. 

    Development of materials technology for the building envelope using vehicle manufacturing techniques.

    The cross-fertilisation of technology and ideas from the two separate industries was not new to the architects. Mr David Cox, Managing Director of Cox Architects explains further:

    “Our research and involvement with the vehicle manufacturing industry began in the late 1970s in Europe. The industry was undergoing a mini internal revolution, trying to improve working conditions by breaking the assembly lines whilst still maintaining production output. Only a handful of architects were involved in this ‘revolution‘ at the time but we felt like we were ‘splitting the atom’. 

    This development is entirely different in concept from that period in one fundamental way. Whilst this early work involved wholly incorporating architects and the building industry into the vehicle manufacturing industry, the China project invites the vehicle manufacturing industry into the building industry. The opportunities are now more widespread and both industries have much more to gain from this integration. We need their ‘muscle’, precision and technical development and they benefit from expanding their industry into exciting new areas which require their expertise.”

    This project breaks new ground in many areas of development between urban planning and architectural and technical development. Where architects are most needed is in understanding the connection between these elements of design. Whilst many design professionals are required in the completion of this project, it’s the architect who must forge the initial path by forming the original concept. This understanding is vastly improved where the architects have had a long history in the involvement and integration of research and development into design areas far beyond the usual boundaries of architects. Cox Architects have had this experience and the long-term benefits can be seen in this example. 


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