Spatial integration of new buildings in an existing environment is food for much discussion. However, this subject is not about words. Studies should focus on forms and patterns, if the goal is to achieve historical continuity in an urban design. This concludes Jiaxiu Cai in her PhD research.

The research focuses on the rapidly expanding city of Wuhan. In 1870 still an agglomeration of three small towns, now a metropolis with an area of 8,500 square kilometers and eleven million inhabitants. Especially in the last decades, growth exploded. Old neighborhoods were demolished, the original residents had to leave the city or had to move to a new flat in the suburbs. Massive urban infrastructures broke through urban fabric. "The constant time pressure of urban development is so big, that designers and city developers do not have time to think over and provide an elaborative design solution," says Jiaxiu Cai. "That leads to loss of typical buildings, urban fabric and social cohesion. It disrupts the entire society."

How was that possible and how could it be improved, Cai wondered. During her studies in China, she learned that good architecture and urban design is only possible if a designer understands the life of the people who live in it. During her doctoral research she combined this wisdom with two research and design methods that she discovered in Delft: the Delft morphological approach and the pattern language approach. She returned to Wuhan to use the morphological approach to map the urban form transformation of the city. The pattern research gives an idea how the lifestyle of people changed over time.

In the case study of her PhD thesis 'Design with forms as well as patterns', she looks at eight stages of the development that Wuhan went through since 1870. Maps show the spatial structure of the city and its transformation, including both the historical city and the regional development. The morphological study concludes thirteen spatial elements, which are decisive for the city. These are, for example, homogeneous areas, such as residential neighborhoods of a hundred years ago, and the secondary roads that connect them. The neighborhoods that were built at high speed after 1970 seem to be hanging around it like loose sand. "The maps show the current Wuhan as a fragmented city," says Cai. "The big question is how to deal with it: do you accept it as it is or are you going to do something to change it?"

The 'pattern book' she developed for her research shows the influence of the large spatial changes on the lives of residents and shows the life style transformation. A series of sketches shows how functions that were characteristic of the old city districts disappeared in the new districts. Smaller sidewalks and roads made street markets and a lively street-in-street culture impossible.

Hairdressers that used to go from customer to customer with their hairdresser's bag, cut hair on a street corner or in a shop under their house, nowadays only can be found in a store in a shopping center.
Another typical pattern from the old city were the many stairs that residents built to make new connections and rearranged spatial organization. The creative connecting elements contributed to efficient densification and organization of urban space. There is hardly anything left of it in the efficient new neighborhoods.

Cai distinguishes in Wuhan a total of 20 different patterns, which interlock and form languages together. Under the influence of large-scale urban development transformations the intricate patterns disappear, and with it the city's ability to make new connections, she observes. "That causes loss of dynamic and diversity and it turns people’s life upside down. The pattern study shows that not only the physical, but also the social structure is falling apart," Cai observes. "That damages the entire society. As a city builder you have to learn from people's lives in order to achieve a better design. Pattern language is a valuable tool, because it helps to formulate and communicate the design goals."

Published: January 2019