Cities of the Sun

[Image: Ningbo, China, via Google Maps].

Although I will leave it up to you to decide if you agree with the author’s critique of planning regulations, there is nonetheless a fascinating post over at NYU’s Marron Institute. It was originally published back in 2014, but I just saw it the other day thanks to a tweet from Nicola Twilley.

There, Alain Bertaud describes a planning rule from 1950s China: “In the 1950s,” Bertaud writes, “China established a regulation requiring that at least one room in each apartment receive a minimum of one hour of sunshine on the day of the winter solstice, December 21.”

As an architectural constraint, this is actually quite amazing: it needn’t inspire identical towers with identical windows all pointing in the same direction, but could very easily lead to a riot of creativity and innovation, pushing architects to imagine increasingly clever structural and material means for opening even the deepest megastructural interior to winter sunlight.

In a sense, I might say, it is not the regulation’s fault if architects come to the table with a yawning and lackluster response. While this is admittedly an anachronistic comment, given what little I know about city planning in China’s state-driven economy of the 1950s, my larger point is simply that even extreme design constraints can be implemented with subtleness and creativity.

[Image: Guangzhou, China, via Google Maps].

Bertaud continues: “even though the rule no longer applies, its impact on the spatial structure of Chinese cities remains.” This kicks off a kind of forensic examination of Chinese urban form, with the goal of finding the sun of the winter solstice shining somewhere at each city’s regulatory core.

First of all, right away stuff like this is incredible: it is urban-planning analysis as astronomical inquiry, or, more abstractly speaking, it is the suggestion that, hidden somewhere in the fabric of the world we’ve built for ourselves, there are traces of older rules or beliefs that still make their presence known.

This is why things like apotropaic marks are so interesting, for example, not because you have to believe in the occult, but because these marks reveal that even superstition and folklore have spatial effects, and that these beliefs have influenced the design and construction of thresholds and hearths for centuries. Even apparently secular architecture has irrational patterns of belief built into it.

[Image: Beijing, China, via Google Maps].

In any case, the solstice-planning rule “boiled down to a simple mathematical formula: distance d between buildings is determined by the height of building h multiplied by the tangent of the angle α of the sun on the winter solstice at 11:30 in the morning using solar time.” It is “a mathematical formula linked to the movement of the sun,” which, for Bertaud, falsely lent it the air of science, creating the illusion that this approach was rational—in short, that it was a good idea.

One interesting emergent side-effect of the rule, however, is that, by necessity, it had different spatial effects at different latitudes due to the curvature of the Earth. Chinese urban form became a kind of diagram of the Earth’s relationship to the solar system: the distances between buildings, the layouts of rooms inside those buildings, the locations of windows inside those rooms, all taking their cue from a celestial source.

Like a careful study of Stonehenge, you could reverse-engineer the precise location of the sun on a specific day of the year from the layouts of Chinese cities.

But is such poetry really worth it, economically and spatially? Bertaud certainly thinks not. Check out the original post for more.

(The images in this post were arbitrarily taken from Google Maps purely based on locations referred to by Bertaud’s post; they should not be seen as visual evidence of the 1950s planning law discussed here.)

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