It's curtains for pagodas

How do you design a conservation project for 21st-century China? Think Formula One cars and stealth bombers, says Jay Merrick
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The Independent Online

Studio BAAD – pronounced "bard" – has been hovering on the edge of major projects for several years, having made a name for itself with its distinct and original architectural solutions, whose modernism offers surprises in texture and detail. Their trademark approach is invariably a wide-eyed kind of creativity infused with influences from pop music to hi-tech military kit.

Now the Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire practice is suddenly on the world stage with its plan for a "bioport" on up to 165 square kilometres of silt island in the coastal maw of the Yangtze river. The challenge was to find a way to populate the island without affecting its delicate ecosystem; the project will include a new town of 80,000 people, a housing and hotel development around a marina, and a university campus. It also weaves in a real-time webcam network overlooking wetlands full of endangered species of birds, a huge, floating metallic carapace-cum-island, and a wing-shaped communications dirigible.

There has, with Studio BAAD, always been a sense of expectancy. Last year, BAAD partner Philip Bintliff's team worked with the nonagenerian doyen of Postmodernism, Philip Johnson, on the Chevasse Park makeover in Liverpool. This extraordinary mix of parkland and retail outlets, over-sailed by a vast, asymmetrical wave-form canopy, has gone to appeal: Liverpool City Council don't like the developers involved, and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment is worried about such a seismic change in Liverpool's centre of gravity. But the point was made: Studio BAAD could deliver unusual, large-scale architectural ideas.

It is the Chinese who have been the midwives for the practice's first major birth – a delivery achieved, as with the Liverpool project, with strong input from Philip Johnson/Alan Ritchie Architects and the Toronto-based environmental consultant, Jeff Stinson. This team effort was good enough to dispose of a French practice on the final shortlist and, remarkably, the hugely resourced WS Atkins, whose Hong Kong office alone dwarfs Studio BAAD's.

The path to success was an engulfing experience in terms of both process and the bold ambition of the Chinese in creating an international object-lesson in environmental conservation on Chongming Island.

"We entered a number of competitions, jointly with Philip Johnson and Alan Ritchie," says Bintliff. "Then in February, we got a call from Ritchie saying that they'd been invited to go to China, and would we like to be involved. We thought you don't often get invited to go to China. So we decided to go along and have a great trip."

As soon as they cleared customs at Shanghai airport, they realised that their Chinese hosts had given the Chongming scheme an extremely high profile – and wanted to get on with it. "We were whisked from the airport to a very smart hotel," recalls Bintliff. "We'd been travelling for 30 hours and they said we had 20 minutes to freshen up before being taken to the Shanghai planning bureau."

Once there, via a traditional visit to Shanghai's Golden Bell Plaza, they began to get an idea of how big the project was. "We were taken to meet professors who started to talk about the things we needed to know – wind patterns, physical conditions. And they kept saying that whatever happened on the project, it had to be cutting-edge. They wanted Chongming to be a conservation model for the 21st century.

"After an hour or so, there was a break for coffee, and one of the client's reps came in and said we had to show them our ideas. We had no drawings, no computer. Only a wipe-board found in another office. So we had three days of meetings, drawing our ideas on the board with blue marker-pens. The professors would change over at lunchtime; and we would still be going at dinner."

Bintliff's impression was that both the Chinese planners and their consultant academics had done a great deal of work on the project already. "They knew a lot. But they couldn't synthesise all this ambition and information into a concept that was feasible." Finally, they asked the question: what does the concept look like? "I drew a Formula One racing car and a stealth bomber. And they applauded. We found out later that they were dreading a scheme with pagoda roofs!"

Studio BAAD and the New York team had made a significant impression. Despite an obvious desire to use the latest technology, the Chinese understood that a low-impact approach would be sought: Bintliff's stealth fighter must have been a key image; something utterly cutting-edge that was both there and not there.

"We also suggested a network of webcams around the island," says Bintliff. "This meant that bird-migration data could be available all over the world. We didn't think there was any need to build more roads into certain areas to be able to observe birdlife. We thought our solution was easily sustainable. And we said there shouldn't be a new power station or sewage-treatment plant, or cables or pipes. And the Chinese professors were nodding in agreement because they had already carried out similar studies."

There's a town and roads on Chongming island, and Bintliff made a risky suggestion: "We didn't want to get rid of cars." Why not? "Because cars are going to get better – less environmentally damaging."

Philip Johnson produced another key concept. "With his input, we came up with the idea of blossoms that would develop in key areas," explains Bintliff. "Blossoms that were new habitat features in the landscape." This idea perfectly suits Chongming's image as the Garden of Shanghai. The world's biggest alluvial island has taken 1,500 years to form, and the Yangtze's silty outflow adds 500 hectares of super-rich land every year. The architects have also planned zones of wetland, saltmarshes, grasslands, and even feng-shui woodlands. "Which means that there has to be a living masterplan in which the challenge gets harder and harder, not easier," says Bintliff. "This means the development can be managed with an increasing understanding of what's possible. The management of the process is key."

Studio BAAD and the eminent New Yorkers made their final presentation in July. "We produced a DVD, played on a plasma screen," says Bintliff. "A sort of pop video. But the idea was to evoke the island in sound and pictures, along with modern images – a kind of elaborate mood-walk."

"We think of time as a constant," he muses. "It is carefully measured to international standards. But the precision with which we measure time cannot prevent the future accelerating towards us at an ever-increasing rate." In the case of Chongming, the future begins next year when it goes on site – and the island's fishponds, reed-beds, spotted greenshanks, and spoonbilled sandpipers begin, along with Shanghai's environmental strategy, to go global.