The 798 Arts District in Beijing is a thriving mixed-use district, regarded globally as a successful example of industrial urban transformation. Sasaki completed the 798 Arts District Vision Plan over a decade ago, and on Wednesday, March 28, was awarded the American Planning Association’s highest honor, the 2018 Pierre L’Enfant International Planning Excellence Award. Sasaki collaborated with a Belgian philanthropist with a passion for contemporary Chinese Art and a consortium that oversees the pension fund for former factory workers to realize the plan, which laid the groundwork for the district’s evolution from a forgotten industrial remnant to a premiere destination. Today, 798 is the third most visited tourist destination in Beijing, after the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. It is consistently considered a benchmark for adaptive reuse and arts district development around the globe.
“When we first visited 798, it was in a state of partial decay, and there was beauty in that. In many ways, the district still feels gritty and unpolished—and I think that’s a great thing—it adds to 798’s authenticity,” says Sasaki landscape architect and principal Michael Grove, ASLA. “The fact that there are these relics of the district’s industrial past is an important memory for the city to retain.”
When Sasaki was working on the plan for 798, much of Beijing was going through a vast transformation to prepare for the 2008 Olympic Games and developers were razing and rebuilding much of the city. Rather than tear down the industrial infrastructure and buildings designed by a collaboration between East German and Chinese architects, Sasaki recommended preserving as much of the existing infrastructure as possible to capture the spirit, history, and character of the place. The interdisciplinary team of planners, urban designers, and landscape architects crafted recommendations that infused historic buildings with new program, recommended new development in a massing strategy that complimented the scale of the existing district, enhanced pedestrian circulation, and integrated plazas and courtyards into what was once interstitial space.
“Many of the initial recommendations within the district plan have been implemented faithfully,” reflects Isabel Zempel, a landscape architect and principal at Sasaki. “It was very clear to us that there were three big moves: the core, the streets and alleyways, and the potential for new development clusters surrounding the district. When you set up these big moves and other designers come in and make something from the plan, that’s very rewarding to see. The main plaza that we envisioned was executed as we imagined, and is now used as an arts plaza. That’s exactly what a framework plan should do—it should guide evolution.”
Together with their clients, Sasaki sought to repurpose the district as a stable source of revenue while solidifying its place as an influential force in China’s arts scene. Over the course of more than a decade, factory buildings have been transformed into new museums, galleries, and cafes, and previously hidden courtyards and vacant lots are now settings for outdoor sculptures, fashion shows, and other cultural events.
“798 has changed considerably over the years. Much of it is great, but certainly, some of that evolution comes with forces of gentrification, which is hard on the communities that were already there. From a development perspective, I think it will always be one of the world’s great stories of how an industrial district transformed itself, avoided demolition, turned away from the easy route of infilling with high-rises, and took a much more experimental and inventive path.” says urban designer and principal, Dennis Pieprz, Hon. ASLA. “And it was not just Sasaki’s doing—many others have come before and since to work on the district and advance its evolution, while preserving the creative energies that have always been a foundational part of this place. We are all proud and honored to see the plan come to fruition, and to be recognized by the APA for our work.”
To learn more about the plan, read on for an excerpt from the APA’s official press release:
CHICAGO – Global design firm Sasaki will receive the American Planning Association’s 2018 Pierre L’Enfant International Planning Excellence Award for its redevelopment of the 798 Arts District in Beijing, China. The collection of former weapons manufacturing facilities has been transformed into an emerging arts community, complete with museums, art galleries, studios, and work spaces. Today, with over 3 million annual visitors, the 798 Arts District is the third most visited destination in Beijing behind the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.
The Pierre L’Enfant International Planning Excellence Award recognizes planning practices and efforts undertaken outside the United States to address global issues of economic development, human settlement, and social services to promote communities of lasting value. This award is given in cooperation with the International Society of City and Regional Planners (ISOCRP).
In 2004, public outcry and intervention by several cultural institutions prevented the district from being demolished. Owners of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art then embarked on an endeavor to help the landholder, SevenStar Group, reimagine the district as an epicenter for arts and culture. The 798 Vision Plan was the brainchild of an unlikely partnership between a government-led consortium that oversees the pension fund for former district factory workers and a Belgian philanthropist who had a passion for Chinese modern art. Together, they sought to repurpose the district as a stable source of revenue while solidifying its place as a major influence on Chinese art and culture. Beijing officials formally recognized 798 as an arts district in 2006.
“Unlike many other planning assignments in Chinese cities, which often have a tabula rasa approach to development, the visioning of the 798 Arts District was intentionally much messier, with an outcome that is meant to continue to evolve over time and add to the district’s authenticity,” said Sasaki principal Michael Grove, ASLA. “This speaks to the power of a plan that leads with principles rather than development metrics.”
The 798 Vision Plan follows four guiding principles:
The plan created a district that satisfied multiple stakeholders and created a long-term strategy for how the district can evolve and thrive economically by creating jobs, generating revenue, and increasing land values. Its economic model is followed by other cities striving to create arts districts. The 798 Plan also shows how adaptive reuse can transform an entire area and turn it into one of the most important cultural destinations in the world.
“The plan helps create a sense of place for residents and visitors alike,” said W. Shedrick Coleman, AIA, chair of the 2018 Awards Jury. “The 798 Arts District Plan balances multiple stakeholder needs and has continued to evolve while preserving historical connections.”
APA’s national awards program – the program’s highest honor – is a proud tradition established more than 50 years ago to recognize outstanding community plans, planning programs and initiatives, public education efforts, and individuals for their leadership on planning issues.
This year’s five excellence and 20 achievement recipients will be recognized at a special luncheon during APA’s National Planning Conference in New Orleans on Monday, April 23, 2018. Award recipients will also be featured in the April issue of Planning magazine.
For a complete list of the APA’s 2018 National Planning and Excellence and Achievement Award recipients, visit www.planning.org/awards/2018.
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The American Planning Association is an independent, not-for-profit educational organization that provides vital leadership in creating communities of lasting value. APA and its professional institute, the American Institute of Certified Planners, are dedicated to advancing the professional of planning, offering better choices for where and how people work and live. The 38,000 APA members work in concert with community residents, civic leaders and business interests to create communities that enrich people’s lives. Through its philanthropic work, APA’s Foundation helps to reduce economic and social barriers to good planning. APA has offices in Washington, D.C. and Chicago. Learn more at www.planning.org.