Winning the 2012 Global Architecture Graduate Awards is RCA graduate Haiwei Xie’s hybrid project where East meets West
For some time, a rich seam of resentment has been building up in London’s poshest neighbourhood, Chelsea. Over recent years, its indigenous population − namely the English upper classes − has been increasingly overwhelmed and usurped by a steady influx of the foreign super-rich, a group apparently immune from the vagaries of the global financial meltdown. As one wit put it, ‘the difference is no longer between the “haves” and the “have nots”, but between the “haves” and the “have yachts”.’
In 2009 these latent tensions were the subtle undercurrent in the furore over the Chelsea Barracks development, which briefly became the focus of protest about the scale of change. Designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, the £1 billion ‘Modernist proposal’ (as all the newspapers called it) would have created luxury blocks of apartments on the 5.2 hectare site, on a completely different development grain to the surrounding London streets. His sensibility offended, Prince Charles stepped in and wrote to the site’s Qatari owners to have a word. The scheme was dropped; Lord Rogers was furious; and newspaper property editors all had a whale of a time for a while.
Haiwei Xie’s representational strategy marries the axonometry of traditional Chinese scroll painting and the digital world of The Sims to create a truly global hybrid
At the time the debate over what sort of development would fit the site was typically polarised between the ‘Modernists’ and the ‘traditionalists’ − Quinlan Terry even making an alternative proposal on more Classical lines. However the inaugural winning project of the Global Architecture Graduate Awards could possibly satisfy both camps, with its progressive high-density combined with its traditional urban morphology; the only sticking point for the traditionalists might be that the urban forms are foreign imports.
Designed by Chinese student Haiwei Xie at the Royal College of Art, the project title B.R.I.C. House combines the traditional English picture of domesticity with the acronym for the emerging economic nations − Brazil, Russia, India and China − whose diasporas are already well represented in Chelsea’s flush new arrivals. But far from catering to this global elite, the scheme is designed to be more inclusive. ‘The intention is to create a high-quality but low-price, high-density but low-rise housing development aimed at a diverse and multi-cultural society,’ says its designer. The architecture is shaped for the emerging groups of single parents, single persons and immigrants, and accordingly prioritises public space over private provision. Everything but personal bedrooms is shared, and Xie develops what she calls ‘public living rooms’, using development patterns borrowed from the four B.R.I.C. nations.
The project convincingly positions itself, not only in the global political and economic landscape, but also, architecturally, as a proposal for one of the capital city’s most contested sites. The dexterity and bravura of the presentation’s sampling of recognisable elements from many different places in order to make something new and distinctive neatly marries Xie’s visual rhetoric with her intellectual intent. It is also, in its more-or-less happy collision of cultures, a perfect metaphor for how the story of London is evolving; and − as the tale of a Chinese student coming to a London institution, thriving, and winning a global award − a small parable of that larger 21st-century story: East meets West.