Meinhard von Gerkan’s office is situated on Hamburg’s Elbchaussee near the river Elbe. On the afternoon I visited him for this interview, the water glistened in the bright sunlight. No obvious sign posts lead the way to the offices of “gmp – Architekten von Gerkan, Marg und Partner”. Renowned architect Meinhard von Gerkan, 79 years old, has designed more than 60 airports, dozens of giant stadiums and numerous landmark buildings around the world. In Shanghai, he is especially famous for designing Lingang New City. It is a new city district, planned from scratch just like Hafencity, the Harbor City in Hamburg. Begun in 2003, Lingang New City is scheduled for completion by 2020. I was curious to learn more about what has been described as the “ideal city” from its architect.
Li Li: Let’s start from the beginning. Could you tell me how you came to design Shanghai’s Lingang New City?
Meinhard von Gerkan: Initially, I received an invitation, along with the news that the city planners would be considering proposals from 45 architectural firms around the world. In the first talk with our customers, we asked them where Lingang New City actually is. ‘Can you take us there to have a look?’ The answer was: ‘There is no need to see the site, because this place does not yet exist.’ More than half of the land was reclaimed from the sea. There are no mountains, no roads, no building, nothing but a few streams. I remember thinking that this was a unique opportunity to create an ideal city from scratch. I usually have only 1% space to play in most architectural designs of mine, with the remaining 99% already occupied, but the Lingang New City project gives me 100% space to play.
For my design directives, the first thing I considered was that people living in the city would drive cars, but the cars shouldn’t disturb people’s lives – a car is just an accessory to their daily lives. The idea was to reduce the vehicles’ noise, the impact on pedestrians and the exhaust pollution. The second thing I considered was that the land in the center of a large city is usually the most expensive. With all administrative offices, banks and shops in downtown, very few people can live in the city center. During bank holidays, the centers often become ghost towns. My inspiration therefore was to simply leave the space at the center of Lingang New City empty – an open space for the public.
Li Li: You plan to create a huge lake at the heart of Lingang New City. How did you come up with this idea?
Meinhard von Gerkan: I live in Hamburg, and Alster Lake is in the city center, with many buildings surrounding the lake. The air is fresh, and a lot of people living by the lake can enjoy it. Another experience of mine is that buildings with water nearby often sell at a good price, for instance, the unit price of our office building near the river Elbe is three times higher than of those far from the water. Eventually the compass became my design inspiration, all the buildings around the lake face the water. Parks, green spaces and public-service facilities are close by, and around the lake itself anyone can go for a run, picnic and enjoy life near the water.
Li Li: It seems that the quality of life of Lingang New City’s residents is a priority for you. How will the city be structured and organized?
Meinhard von Gerkan: I have carefully studied the lifestyle the Chinese people have maintained for hundreds of years. The most typical example for a traditional Chinese urban lifestyle is the alley, with small roads connecting every household. Each family belongs to a large community, and everyone who lives in the same alley has the obligation to help their neighbors. This is an example for how city planning can determine social behavior.
Today, this traditional lifestyle has become rare in China, especially in big cities.The Chinese appear to be copying the Western lifestyle of Americans and Europeans. But in Lingang New City, the aim is to rekindle a closer relationship between neighbors. The city’s structure is based on the principle of compass distribution, radiating from the center to the perimeter. The city expands in a ring form. Located in the radial roads, each residential area can accommodate 13,000 people. Within each residential area, there are small businesses, hospitals, kindergartens and other social buildings and facilities, which will allow the residents to form close neighborhood communitities.
I would say although lots of Chinese people are enjoying a comfortable life, living in apartments with elevators and plumbing, they have lost their traditions. In Lingang New City, because of the compass-style design, the longest distance between two points is the radius. So unless people want to show off their cars by taking the longer routes, everything you need is actually right in your neighborhood.
Li Li: Your design was ultimately chosen from the 45 proposals. Does the creation of Lingang New City make you proud?
Meinhard von Gerkan: (laughs) Yes, I am proud. I never expected to actually win. I know that city developers think of interest rates and money. In their eyes, turning a downtown area worth truckloads of money into a lake might sound like a crazy move. Fortunately, the customer understood that although the center of Lingang New City does not house any buildings, the lake upgrades all surrounding areas – which in sum worth is worth more than a high-priced downtown area with less attractive surroundings.
Li Li: Do you still remember the moment when your design was awarded the contract?
Meinhard Von Gerkan: They had reduced the initial 45 proposals to 15, and then again to three. We were in the top three. According to the schedule, there would be a celebratory following the announcement of the winner. We were all waiting in the meeting room, while the dinner was arranged next door, with place cards for everyone on the tables. My Chinese partner was walking around the dining room, and noticed my name right next to the Head of the Lingang New City organizing committee. My colleague immediately told me that we had won the competition.
At first I did not believe him, thinking that winning or losing has nothing to do with the seating order at the dinner table. Later I realized that the Chinese pay a lot of attention to the seating order. The most important guest – in this case the architect who was awarded the contract – is always seated close to the people in power. The Chinese partners of the other two teams were also aware of this, because I could see the disappointment in their faces.
Li Li: Let me conclude this interview by walking down memory lane. Of your many achievements, which project gives you the greatest satisfaction?
Meinhard von Gerkan: Over the course of my career, I have designed over 60 of the world’s airports. My first such project was Berlin’s Tegel airport, right after I had gotten my master’s degree. Later, many people said that it is the most convenient airport for international air travel.
When you look at today’s modern airports, the shops inside are as large as boarding areas. Sometimes passengers have to walk several kilometers to get to their boarding gates. To make money, the airport operating companies keep expanding shopping spaces. That is an entirely stupid design concept, which I resolutely oppose.