Beijing Design Week (BJDW) is a powerhouse global design event, bringing together an extraordinary array of international designers with Chinese innovators. From 24 September - 5 October, UNSW Art & Design showcased student work produced as part of MAD.LAB studio, a fourth year Bachelor of Design Honours Research Project undertaken in China in April earlier this year. BJDW is an unmatched opportunity to put A&D’s design-led research on the world stage. 

Participating students in MAD.LAB responded to a real world brief developed by industry partners Priestman Architects and Cqubed,  two leading creative practices who are involved in numerous development projects across Chongqing, a rapidly expanding mega-city in South Western China, and in collaboration with the dynamic architecture faculty of Chongqing University. The project is also a response to a bigger picture in China as the nation transitions from a relatively low value manufacturing economy to promoting the creative industries and asking fundamental public policy and planning questions such as: how can we build cities that promote creativity?

Dr Ian McArthur, who leads MAD.LAB and has just returned from Beijing Design Week, explains the significance of working in a country with one fifth of the world's population.

“China is a context where all the complex problems of urban planning, poverty, disenfranchisement etc. materialise but in an incredibly provocative, amplified form. It’s the place to be if you are a designer - or you are driven to critically examine and apply design-thinking to problems of urban living.”

Over three weeks, a group of fourth year A&D Bachelor of Design students and their peers from Built Environment’s Bachelor of Computational Design used mapping as a design research methodology, to respond to these critical questions about urbanisation and development in Chongqing.

In MAD.LAB each student responded individually or in collaboration to this problem with a whole range of design proposals that utilise the mapping strategy to diagnose and identify what citizens want. 

“They asked, ‘how you feel about the city? What do you want from the city? What would make you feel better about living here?’ The students responses to this research worked at different scales, and in different media from apps to architecture.”

As McArthur explains, some of the students considered institutional changes or relational transformations. “One solution harnessed the prevalence of urban farming (due to the mountainous landscape) and proposed linking schools with restaurant owners and farmers to create hubs in urban spaces for food production and education.”

MAD.LAB was exhibited as part of DesignHOP, a key event of BJDW which focuses on grassroots design interventions in the urban space. With more than 1,000 industry and practitioners visiting the MAD.LAB exhibition, BJDW was an incredible opportunity to boost the visibility of the Studio and its proposals, and suggested what MAD.LAB might become. The feedback about the week from the public, industry, the Australian Embassy and BJDW organisers continues to be very positive.

The MAD.LAB exhibition was extensively supported by the Australian Embassy and featured prominently among a range of high profile Australian initiatives that were umbrella under the banner 'Australia @BJDW program'. 

Throughout the week UNSW A&D was also represented by academic, artist and researcher Brad Miller who joined other members of the original Chongqing project team, Dr McArthur and several A&D students. Along with exhibiting MAD.LAB, A&D was part of a collaborative Media Architecture workshop at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) to iterate around a prototype media architecture ‘brick’ that will enable development of two media architecture installations - one for Beijing at BJDW 2016 and one for presentation in Sydney at the Media Architecture Biennale also in 2016. 

The workshop was conducted with faculty and students from A&D, CAFA architecture and Digital Media students and StrongLED, a Suzhuo-based industry partner who will manufacture the final components to construct the works.

During the week McArthur, Miller and students also participated in the first Australia China Collaborative Design Forum which was convened by the Australian Embassy. As part of the Forum Dr McArthur spoke about the critical importance of collaborative and interdisciplinary forms of design education.

MAD.LAB projects will be offered for the next three years as part of the fourth year of Bachelor of Design (Hons) with an ongoing commitment to developing design-led, mapping research and proposals for Sydney and China, thanks to support from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Government. Following the sucesses of BJDW Dr McArthur and MAD.LAB’s industry partners, Priestman Architects and Cqubed are committed to establishing the Studio as a research platform that has a life of it’s own, with potential independent research seeking to explore and address complex urban planning and development challenges. 

You can listen to Dr Ian McArthur talk about MAD.LAB in this three part radio interview with Bruce Connolly of Radio Beijiing.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three