Designing Beyond Function: Anti-gentrification as the new paradigm for preservation in Urban China


Location: Xi'An, China

Year: 2017

The project aims at creating Hyper-connectivity to bring the integration of the area to an urban level, making a sequence of public spaces, to transform the area from an isolated island next to a city center into a “cultural landscape” that could be observed from both afar and within the area.

 By implementing the essential quality of space, the path lets people explore the area and connects the delicate composition of different characteristics of space.

 Focal points are inserted in the area with minimum impact on the ground to create attraction as architectural follies, introducing the concept of “pure space”.

 People can experience the project physically, by following the path to reach different points; visually, through visual connection to gain the sense of direction; and through memory, the hidden places, the path already taken, that always exists in imagination or memory.

 Designing Beyond Function is an experimental project of urban improvement, a solution for anti-gentrification; it is a manifesto to provoke discussions about the relationship between culture and city development. By implementing the complexity of spatial composition to organize the sensational experience, the project encourages the audience to introspect the essence of space, through different sceneries and time. It is an approach that could be applied anywhere needed, a universal solution to involve city users as well as local communities.


Project Area


Daobei Area, is located next to the historical center of the city of Xi’an. It is composed mainly by the population escaped from Henan Province during the famine of the 40s. They jumped out of the train when arriving in Xi’an city and settled down here to start their new life.

This site is located between the main railway station on the south and a national Heritage Palace on the north. It is surrounded by huge city monuments, infrastructures, a comparison between density and void.

This area represents a piece of cultural urban tissue formed by mostly 1-2 floor small scale fabrics of low building quality, with residences and family-owned businesses. This area has a vivid community, being one of the very few “villages in the city“ left in the central part of Xi’an. It is lack of connection to its surroundings and faces the probability of gentrification.


Renovation Issues in China


It was never a simple action of revaluation of the remaining historical urban tissue in China. What comes next is gentrification and what makes it so dramatically noticeable are the speed and its huge extent of this progression. The notion of gentrification and its negative impacts have never raised an effective national discussion while the inevitable adverse consequences are proven to be acknowledged worldwide.

Particular cases can be observed, as they are not merely falling into the circle of demolition-reconstruction, but as successful preservation projects.

Tianzifang in Shanghai, a spontaneous preservation driven and supported by independent artists integrated with its original residents, which kept the small-scale activities; or 798 in Beijing, former abandoned factories renovated into individual studios and galleries, set a “perfect model” to be applied for all the other renovation projects for the rest of the country.

These are a few examples showing that preservation is effectively carried out, old buildings are in fact being preserved, especially as artistic-related and recreational functions. The general approach is to convert an abandoned, under-developed, or misused area into a district related to artistic or designing activities. Once the artists or designers settle in, other spontaneous businesses start to grow and bring popularity and genuineness to the neighborhood. The newly designed activities brought vividness and rejuvenation to upgrade the area and its surroundings.

Covered under the propaganda of the intention to preserve and upgrade historical neighborhoods, the negative consequences are in many cases neglected.

The improvement of the living quality increases housing prices and causes relocation of the local residents, transforms the previous family-owned businesses to profit-oriented commercial activities, changing the social structure of the residents and creating segregation and alienation. The delicacy of the equilibrium of the neighborhood has been challenged not only by these drastic changes, but also by the disappearing, ever-changing, or out-of-scale surroundings.

The attempts to preserve ancient urban tissues are always seeking experimental new strategies of intervention. Bringing new vitality, upgrading the under-designed public spaces without compromising the delicate balance of the community should be considered as priority.

How can architects develop a strategy to preserve a surviving area by keeping the existing closeness of its inhabitants meanwhile avoiding gentrification?

In order to avoid demolition, it is necessary to add extra value to the areas that meet only basic residential needs, which no longer fit the conditions today that leaves a problematic environment for daily life. Adding value should be measured not only according to economic figures, but also from a spiritual point of view. Converting the historical tissue lack of functions and values to an active and lively area makes it illogical to demolish.

In the recognizable models of preservation there is always the noticeable common feature of injecting new functions to start the process of revaluation. This process raises property values and replaces local residents with the newcomers creating gentrification.

The simplest and direct solution to avoid gentrification is not to introduce any extra function; in this way the negative effects of commercial expansion could be prevented.

If we consider one of the most influential manifestos of the 20th century Form Follows Function by Louis Sullivan still valid, then how can we design a form without function?

Designing Beyond Function is a methodology established on neither formalism nor context. It condemns the conventional attitude to develop concepts driven by the program, pushing the designers to reconsider their foundations and coming back to the basics.

Predictable future usage with a pre-designed program takes up only a small portion of the whole building life span. The function could be altered, but what remains the same is always the constructed space. The dogma of the function is outdated, so to go beyond the architectural purpose of the program, we should shift the focus to the space from the idea of simply matching the daily needs.

A fascinating space reveals its different purposes, and intrigues the desire according to the users. Avoiding the creation of any program creates an alternative life experience, based on numerous possibilities of “situations” created by people.




Coupled with density is the culture of connectivity; density will not work unless there is an integrated connectivity within the city. [Rocco Yim, 2013]

Urban China is composed by various typologies of urban tissues that together create the image of city. Impermeable blocks, gate communities and historical areas are coexisting side-by-side, resulting in a Paralyzed City of isolated enclaves.

Cities of massive density like Hong Kong, show the potential of Hyper-connectivity approach, which connects a variety of higher and lower architectural quality parts to enable the city to perform smoothly.




We used to have [...] the sense to belong to a specific space. We use to live in neighbours where we had a social background, a community, [...] Now the Chinese are becoming lonely, they are losing the feeling and becoming “homeless”. [Zhang Lei, 2013]

Cities are homogeneous, generic, a place of alienation with no sense of belonging.

By injecting distinctive points of attraction into the urban landscape, it brings the sense of affinity between the users and the city.


Essential Quality of the Space


[Design has] to ensure a pattern which directly influences how people use the space, as well as the relation with the site and the city. [Chen Yifeng, 2013]

The public space lacks of character. They are typical spaces for monumental purposes, out of scale, unfriendly and without consideration for the users.

Opposing the lack of quality of the design the space needs to be defined according with principles of quality, codes that are un-linked with the use or function. To do so the design needs to go back to its essence.

Architectural quality of space is the result of the dialogue between the users the space, interacting physically, visually, and through memory.




In the way the Situationists had once imagined, a city with places where activities and events happen spontaneously, a new system overlapping the existing village. The first step is to preserve the existing system. Adding another layer onto it maximizes the preservation of the area.

We keep the existing density of residential houses, making no change to the social composition of locals’ daily life, but upgrading the value of the underused public space in order to keep the delicate balance of the neighbourhood.




Pier Alessio Rizzardi,

Zhang Hankun



Matteo Umberto Poli