After learning to know Urban Elephant's David Gregory and LiYan Yang in the Architecture for Humanity's Design Like you Give a Damn conference last fall, I was very happy to get a chance to visit their office in Guangzhou while transiting trough the city.
Peng Li, one of the partners, presented me the current works of the office and we had an interesting discussion on urban design in China and in Guangzhou in specific.
According to Peng Li, social impact design as a term can't be said to exist in China. However, Urban Elephant focuses on public projects and especially in conservation of the historical center. Their biggest project so far is the ongoing revitalization of old canal structures of Guangzhou, which have become very lively urban spaces.
The office was started four years ago with four friends. Conservation is a clear direction for the company, but this kind of work can't feed the office entirely and private customers are needed to support the public projects. All the partners are all in their early 30s. Nowadays in China there are great opportunities also for young architects and offices to handle big projects. The conservation projects came to the office via a professor at the university, very well known for his specialization in historical buildings and environments. Peng Li himself has an international background, he completed his Master's in TU Delft and worked for Foster & Partners for a few years.
Compared to Peking and Shanghai, conservation in Guangzhou is a new phenomenon. However, attitudes are changing fast and just last year the city government started looking at the historical preservation of the old city. This is due to the change in the government: as the rulers of the city want to leave their mark to the city, they are now looking into areas untouched by their predecessors.
Most architects in Guangzhou don't have much consideration on social issues in their designs and there is not much interest in the old city. The internationally rising interest on good quality urban spaces as for example the High Line in New York has not reached China and Guangzhou yet. When asked about the Chinese preferences of urban spaces Peng Li answered that there are no special preferences, as "the cities are so dense, that any urban open space will become popular. This is different from the west, where people are more aware of the quality of the spaces. In China the density is so high so just an open space is enough."