Jingru Cyan Cheng – Hukou Reform as Urban Reform: Rethinking the Superblock as A New Model of Governance in China

First Supervisor: Pier Vittorio Aureli
Second Supervisor: Sam Jacoby

Jingru Cyan Cheng is a Chinese researcher and architect. She graduated with M.Phil in Architecture from Architectural Association (Projective Cities Programme) in London. Prior to attending the AA, as a senior undergraduate, Cheng was appointed to work on an extension project (completed in 2013) for Huazhong University of Science and Technology, China, where she earned her B.Arch with an award-winning thesis. Cheng is currently the co-founder of ACROSS Architecture, an academic association aiming at bridging the gap between the East and the West; ACROSS has organised symposiums in London and has published regularly in architectural magazines in China.

The thesis puts forward a project for the twenty-first century Chinese city at both architectural and territorial level. The opportunity for such a large-scale project is provided by the forthcoming reform of the hukou system (household registration).

The hukou system is an administrative instrument of the central government used to control labour mobility and welfare distribution by dividing Chinese citizens into rural and urban households. The forthcoming reform aims to abolish this fundamental rural-urban dichotomy. Although the reform of the hukou is foremost social and political, its impact on the form of the city and the latter’s relationship with the countryside will be inevitable.

The history of Chinese planning follows a cellular logic of development, growth and control (evident, for example, in the courtyard house and danwei models) that embodies the changing ideas of collectivity in both socio-philosophical and spatial terms. This cellular logic depends on modular units that assume a coherent social structure relying on clearly defined social ties. However, the increased mobility and mix of urban populations that will result from the hukou reform will undermine this logic. The current predominant planning model, the mega-plot, is an outcome of a fundamental contradiction between state-driven planning and market forces; this model is already collapsing due to conflicts rooted in labour mobility and uneven welfare distribution. The hukou reform will exacerbate these conflicts, presenting therefore an opportunity for radical urban reform in China.

Assuming the consequences of the hukou reform as a main social and political horizon, the thesis will advance a new model for a superblock, as both alternative to the existing mega-plot as a strategic urban design component for the development of a new idea of the city The understanding of the superblock, which is different from the Western notion of a city block or a perimeter block, should be carefully contextualised in China. Derived from historical precedents (the courtyard house and danwei models), the superblock is reconceptualised in this thesis to represent and construct particular forms of spatial order that will tackle emerging relationships between political and economic agendas that have appeared problematic in the mega-plot model, especially in light of the consequences of the hukou reform.

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