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Chinatown Circle

CHINATOWN CIRCLE

A landmark for the heart of Chinatown. 

Designing an experience to improve the public realm. 


The New York Department of Transportation, in conjunction with the Chinatown Partnership and the Van Alen Institute, engaged our team to imagine a physical experience with a digital component that would give both locals and visitors new ways to experience Manhattan's Chinatown.

Our concept, the Chinatown Circle, imagines how an iconic landmark might become a symbol of community pride and spur economic development. It serves as a wayfinding aid, encourages gathering and rest from the bustle of Canal street, and features an interactive function that shares Chinatown's rich culture and current events.

TYPE Installation 

SCOPE 7 Weeks

PROCESS User Research, Concept Design, Interaction Design, Service Design, Experience Design, Video Prototype.

TEAM Scott Cowell, Young Jang, Janel Wong, Azucena Roma

ADVISOR Jill Nussbaum, Design in Public Spaces

CLIENT NYDOT, Chinatown Partnership, Van Alen Institute

CHALLENGE

How can NYDOT reimagine the kiosk as a symbolic entrance that is meaningful for locals and drives tourism?

Since the 1800’s, Manhattan's Chinatown has served as a gateway to America and home to the largest Chinese community in the Western Hemisphere. Bustling with locals and tourists, its streets are rimmed with shops, jewelry stores, street vendors, and dim sum restaurants that attract millions each year. However unlike other traditional Chinatowns found in the U.S., Manhattan's Chinatown is lacking a traditional gateway arch to welcome its visitors, despite years of planning.

Our challenge from NYDOT was to evolve the Chinatown experience for both locals and tourists by transforming the current information kiosk into a physical experience with a digital component.

NYDOT Project Requirements:

  • Enhance Wayfinding
  • Engage the Community
  • Improve the Public Realm
  • Reinvigorate Chinatown
  • Spur Economic Development
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RESEARCH

What do locals and tourists want or need from a gateway?

To get to the root of the challenge we delved into a six week period of highly immersive and inspirational research. During our visits we interviewed tourists, first and second generation residents, and business owners to understand their perspectives of the district and to gain an understanding of the neighborhood. Our primary goal was to examine how the current kiosk was being utilized, followed by identifying key content and/or services that these audiences want or need to have a better experience when in Chinatown.

The team learned that tourists drop into Chinatown briefly to shop and eat before moving on to other neighborhoods. They did not understand the history and culture of Chinatown and their main pain point was wayfinding. After speaking with business owners and first generation community members, we learned that morale was low as the area is experiencing a decline in income for traditional businesses and that many second generation community members have moved to neighboring Chinatowns. We also met with second generation residents, who embraced their heritage and the neighborhood's past, but were also very hopeful for the future might hold. 

CURRENT KIOSK PROBLEMS

Lack of visibility.

Offers insufficient information.

Design Reflects Only Chinese culture, Despite Neighborhood Diversity.

KEY QUOTES

We need a symbol of hope and change, let people know we are not abandoning Chinatown...
— Wellington Chan, Chinatown Partnership
People need to know Chinatown will change eventually, its not about preserving the old, but imagining the future of Chinatown.
— Second Generation Resident
A marker anyone will recognize, visibility is key, many people get off the subway and stand on the corner 10 minutes trying to figure out where to go.
— Beatrice Chen, VP of Programming at MOCA
 

KEY INSIGHTS

Business in Chinatown has been declining.

Chinatown needs a visible marker.

Community wants a symbol of hope and change.

Disconnect between first and second generation.

 
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OPPORTUNITY

Iconic structures provide neighborhoods with an identity and impact economic growth.

During our research we compared Chinatown’s notable points of interest to other Manhattan neighborhoods. Many included landmark structures, such as the Wall Street Bull and the Chelsea Highline, that were symbolic of the neighborhood's culture and were prime tourist attractions. We learned from research that iconic structures enhance familiarity with a neighborhood and can become a recognizable tourist destination over time, resulting in transformative economic impact. From here we began exploring what might be designed to represent Chinatown's unique identity, enhance the communities quality of life, and spur economic vitality.

 

DESIGN PRINCIPLES

Provides Cultural Content.

Highly Visible Marker.

Marketable Attraction

Representative of the Community.

 
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IDEATION

Initially, we began envisioning ideas and sketching out possible approaches to reimagining the kiosk based solely on the NYDOT project requirements. These earlier designs placed a larger emphasis on wayfinding and interactivity leveraging on "gamification." One idea was and interactive map directory that would pull data and reviews on local businesses, another involved a scavenger hunt meant to encourage venturing off of the main thoroughfare and into the neighborhood. As we identified the current kiosk problems and gained feedback we identified where our current ideas were falling short. Most visitors utilized review sites for business information, CityLink NYC for orienting themselves, and these structures were not visible from afar or symbols of pride. 

At this stage we began generating fresh ideas based on our newly formed design principles, placing a higher priority on visibility and marketability. Followed by how we could also make that structure culturally relevant and representative of the diversity and future of the community. 

FINAL SOLUTION

Chinatown Circle

A highly visible, recognizable landmark to represent Chinatown's unique identity, enhance the communities quality of life, and spur economic vitality. 


While Manhattan's Chinatown makes it on most tourist's itineraries as a quick stop for shopping and cuisine, we believe that Chinatown needs a place that not only distinguishes it as a defined destination, but also as a neighborhood, and a cultural district. Our design strategy is intended to create an iconic sculptural landmark visible from the subway, that over time will be recognized as a must-see tourist destination.

The Circle is a symbol of oneness, fulfillment, unity and connection. It is a symbol that holds value in Chinese philosophy, as well as having the ability to resonate with tourists, local residents or greater New Yorkers. The dramatic but minimal geometry can be distinctly discerned from the surrounding landscape as well as captivating to street goers just from scale alone. The Circle features an interactive function that shares current information about Chinatown culture and major events, such as exhibitions at the Museum of Chinese American History or Lunar New Year. 

By slightly lowering the ground plane and using partitioning architectural elements, the design strives to create a refuge from the busy canal street thoroughfare which serves as the main traffic artery across Manhattan. We envision that this space will be utilized as a meet-up spot, a rest area, and as a gathering space for a game of Xiangqi. It could perform functionally as a pedestrian collection and distribution point for the greater neighborhood and become a marketing tool to attract new visitors to Chinatown.

Wayfinding
Marketable Attraction

Proposed Gateway