Designing the Resilient City

A gift from Vanessa Tih Lin Cheung MLA ’10 offers Harvard Graduate School of Design students a unique opportunity to reimagine a burgeoning London community

Harvard Graduate School of Design students with model city

Between the traditional 19th-century houses of London’s Islington neighborhood and the mega-development of the city’s Knowledge Quarter, home to a cluster of life science, technology, and cultural institutions as well as the bustling King’s Cross rail station, sits a 6.2-acre district known as the Regent Quarter. More than half of this site—260,000 square feet of mixed-use real estate and a range of historic properties—is poised for development, and students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) are exploring some of the most urgent challenges in architecture and design as they consider the future of this neighborhood.

The GSD’s spring 2022 option studio “Unterbau City,” established through a gift from Regent Quarter developer Nan Fung Development Group and managing director Vanessa Tih Lin Cheung MLA ’10, seeks to mediate between the historic and the contemporary with the goal of creating a distinct identity for the area. Through approaches like retrofit and adaptive reuse, students in the studio—named after the German word for “foundation”—are challenging conventional ways of designing physical spaces to promote sustainability, accessibility, public open space, and cultural identity.

“It was through the GSD that I discovered my deep interest in working on the community and environmental aspects of the built environment, finding patterns and forming connections amongst different groups to uncover ways to better every individual’s life,” says Cheung. “Given the opportunity of the Nan Fung Group’s site at Regent Quarter, I thought it would be especially meaningful to invite the brilliant minds at the GSD to come up with creative and practical ideas to cocreate a resilient and lively neighborhood with us.”

Each student is responsible for a portion of the site, navigating strategies for preservation and adaptation—or removal—of historic buildings within their parcel. In the process, they must also work together to negotiate common space, views, access to sunlight, and other aspects of the urban environment. It gives students the tools not only to work on an important piece of architecture and design but also to engage in the collaborative process that’s intrinsic in the field.

“The visions and enthusiasm from the GSD students and faculty have given our team renewed insights into the potential of the Regent Quarter and the neighborhood of King’s Cross,” says Raymond Kwok MBA ’77, senior investment director at Nan Fung Group and a former architectural designer at Skidmore Owings & Merrill in New York. “The studio highlights the multifaceted issues our team grapples with in revitalizing this area while enhancing the history and character of the neighborhood. We welcome the studio’s rigorous exploration of ideas grounded in sound research and localized considerations.”

“Today’s challenges demand visionary leadership and real-world scholarship,” says Mark Lee MArch ’95, chair of the GSD Department of Architecture and studio lead. “And Unterbau City serves as an important benchmark in the integration of disciplines for sustainable design.”

For Cheung, who recently joined the GSD Dean’s Leadership Council, finding approaches that support community and sustainability in the built environment aligns with Nan Fung’s company motto, passed down from her grandfather: “Care for others as you would care for yourself.”

Close up of model city buildingStudents discussing model city
Professor speaking to design studentsVanessa Cheung smiling on Zoom call
People discussing Unterbau City Review People discussing Unterbau City Review
Students and professor speaking to Vanessa on Zoom callProfessor speaking

{ Q+A }

A “Super Studio”

Unterbau City instructors—Sharon Johnston MArch ’95, FAIA, professor in practice of architecture and a partner of Johnston Marklee; Hanif Kara, practicing structural engineer and professor in practice of architectural technology; and David Fixler, lecturer in urban planning and design and a practicing architect specializing in working with existing buildings—discuss the GSD’s Regent Quarter studio.

What are your roles in the studio? 

SJ: As an architect, I maintain a discussion on how individual buildings make up the fabric of the city—and how, when we make decisions about a building, we also shape experiences in a city. It’s incredibly important to understand how buildings make up networks of public space and integrate into existing infrastructure. We make better architecture if we understand how our buildings exist as part of that collective domain.

DF: I’m teaching students to understand what constitutes a respectful intervention—and think of historic conservation and preservation as its own design discipline. The way in which we conserve, alter, add to, and intervene in an existing building is as challenging a creative exercise as designing a new building, and now there’s an explosion of interest because of the environmental crisis.

HK: I have the role of supporting architecture with my engineering, construction, and technology background. Over the last 20 years, I’ve been part of many projects on the 64-acre site across the road from the Regent Quarter, which makes the path forward for students less of a moonshot—they can see this work as an immediate route to attaining a job after they graduate.

What is unique about this studio?

HK: I call this a “super studio” because it adds value to the district but also presents a shift in pedagogy in terms of the collaborative nature of our teaching. We talk about interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary at times, but we aren’t always able to show this in the short period of a semester. In the real world of architecture, if you don’t collaborate with others, you struggle to achieve your goal.

SJ: To teach and run a studio at this level, to have so many different constituents join our conversation, and to potentially share the work through visiting with stakeholders on site is a tremendous opportunity, and it demonstrates what the professional practice is about.

What impact will this studio have more broadly?

HK: With a site like this, we need to tackle the problems of climate change and inequity head on rather than waiting for solutions. It’s exciting to discuss how we can work with existing buildings, build new low-carbon developments, and find middle ground between the two. Achieving this balance will be a huge issue in the Global North, but these solutions are not meant for developed cities only. Many fast-growing parts of the world must build new, but we can begin to offer recipes before those regions are “baked” too quickly, which sometimes happens when areas are forced to react to sharp economic and population increases.

SJ: Many students today are interested in adaptive reuse. The creativity we’ve seen, and the way they’ve embraced constraints and turned them into opportunities, is urgently needed. We want to encourage the notion that this type of design demands equal, if not more, intensity than designing a new building. But equally of focus is the public realm—such as open spaces and gardens—and how to integrate these public spaces in a meaningful way.

DF: This is such a rich site in terms of its location, its scale, and what’s proximate to it. It gives students opportunities to explore the larger issues of urban conservation, cultural landscapes, and neighborhoods, which are increasingly the focus of the work. The studio has presented lessons for how this kind of mediation—between the traditional and the newly developed—can both improve the public realm and interject new life and high design at the same time.