Visit Ulaanbaatar on Google Earth – the only way most of us are likely to get there for some time – and you will find that the Mongolian capital looks like no other city. Scattered around the Soviet-era urban centre are hundreds of thousands of tiny white dots. It is as if someone has emptied an enormous bag of confetti across the landscape, the white specks clustering in the folds of the valleys, extending outwards for miles in long, snaking tendrils.
These dots – separated in their own plot and sometimes accompanied by the orange rectangle of a tin-roofed shack, visible when you zoom in close – are yurts (or gers in Mongolian). For thousands of years, these transportable tents, made of wooden latticework wrapped with insulating felt and canvas, have been the house type of choice for the Mongolian herders on the plains. But the nomadic tent-based mindset is not something easily given up when herders move to the city – with problematic results.
“Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world,” says Badruun Gardi, who grew up in Ulaanbaatar and in 2016 founded GerHub, a nonprofit social enterprise that helps people adjust to the challenges of urban life. “When you’re a herder, you can go for miles and miles without reaching another family. You don’t have to think about what living in a confined space with hundreds or thousands of people means. It’s the biggest challenge we face as a country.”
The idea of a fixed capital has always been a strange concept for this nation of nomadic herders. The 13th-century conqueror Genghis Khan ruled his vast empire from a nine-metre-wide yurt, while Ulaanbaatar itself used to be a nomadic settlement, formed by thousands of tents gathering around a movable monastery, following wherever the herds of livestock decided to travel. The Soviets attempted to formalise the capital in the 1920s, changing its name from Urga (Ulaanbaatar means “Red Hero”), building concrete blocks of flats and setting out an urban grid, which was consolidated in the postwar era. But, as thousands have flocked to the city in recent years, driven by the loss of livestock and promises of better education, healthcare and job prospects,the capital has expanded outwards in all directions as a sprawling ger-opolis. The adjustment from life on the open steppe to the hustle of the big cityclearly takes some getting used to.
For starters, the world outside the ger is no longer rolling grassland, but a small private plot, encircled by a two-metre-high fence. City residents must pay for water and fuel, rely on transportation and manage their waste. Their individual actions have an impact on others, sometimes for the first time in their lives; they encounter common problems that become the responsibility of a collective body of people. These social challenges are exacerbated by a host of practical issues: there is no running water in the ger districts, sewerage or central heating. In winter, when temperatures can plummet to -40C, each household burns around three to five tonnes of coal, making Ulaanbaatar one of the most polluted cities in the world. And the scale of the challenge is only increasing.
“People tend to think of the ger districts as these fringe slum areas,” says Gardi. “But they represent over 60% of the entire population of the city, and they’re growing by 30,000 people every year.”
Gardi founded GerHub to help bring a sense of pride back to the ger districts. After a few years of working in whatever spaces it could find, the organisation’s educational and social outreach programme has a new home, in the form of a contemporary take on the traditional ger, designed by the Hong Kong architecture studio Rural Urban Framework (RUF).
Standing as a faceted polycarbonate pavilion in the midst of a muddled ger neighbourhood in the Songino Khairkhan district, the Ger Innovation Hub is a striking arrival. Its shimmering plastic walls envelop a slender wooden framework, which itself wraps around an inner space defined by mud-brick walls. In summer, the entire thing can open up, the wall panels lifting to let activities spill out into the surrounding landscape, while in the harsh winter, the layered structure creates a sheltered buffer.
“We were inspired by the structure of the ger itself,” says Joshua Bolchover, cofounder of RUF, a research-led practice based in the University of Hong Kong, whose students helped to build the project. “We thought, what if we peel the layers of timber, insulation and waterproofing apart to create a room within a room, like a Russian doll?” The resulting structure (judging from the photographs) creates a loosely defined series of spaces that can be adapted to all kinds of activities, from preschool playtime to innovation workshops for teenagers, training sessions for local businesses and drop-in meet-ups for the elderly.
The layered design means that, if it’s -40C outside, it would be about 0C (32F) in the buffer zone (“Fine for kids to run around with their coats on,” says Bolchover), thanks to solar gain trapped by the polycarbonate cladding, while the central space would only need to be heated to 15C, the warmth radiating from the thermal mass of the mud walls. A circular amphitheatre at the centre of the space has been sized so that a ger can be erected over it too, creating an even more insulated central core for more intimate gatherings.Advertisement
“We want it to be as lively a place as possible,” says Gardi. “In winter it can be particularly arduous being stuck indoors for months on end, so we hope this will be a place for social life to happen andnew community ties to be formed.”
Unfortunately, the building only had the chance to host an opening workshop before the coronavirus lockdown halted all activities in the city – Mongolia took particularly prudent early action, with few cases of Covid-19 and no deaths so far. Hopefully when the centre does reopen it will become a vital social hub to help this fledgling community form neighbourhood bonds and reap the benefits of their newly urban life.