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Bull in China’s Shop | The Nation

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Bull in China’s Shop

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Advertisement for “Thames Town” development, Songjiang New City, Shanghai, China

Advertisement for “Thames Town” development, Songjiang New City, Shanghai, China, 2010

A little over a year ago, I was in Beijing during an extreme toxic event. After hacking in the leaden air for days, I was forced into bed, gasping for breath and gulping down antibiotics and herbal elixirs. Although the weather and the landscape aggravated the problem, nobody—not even the Party—could deny that the polluting particles were being disgorged by local factories and power plants and the cars choking the Fourth Ring Road. This was an anthropogenic nightmare, a symptom of planetary disaster and a byproduct of the headlong development in China that has both lifted hundreds of millions from poverty and fouled their new nests.

China has a history of such nightmares, the consequences of headlong transformations. The Japanese invasion, the civil war, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution spread death, destruction and deformation on an industrial scale. Modern China fascinates for the intensity of its becoming, for its role as a secondhand hothouse for modernity, and for the weirdly thick but emblematically hybrid character of where it has arrived. To think about China is to be immersed in the “How Chinese is it?” debate, a longstanding turbulence that has coughed up formulations like “socialism with Chinese characteristics” or “one country, two systems.” Clearly, the genetic engineering of these splicings has produced its fair share of freaks.

For an urbanist like myself, China is by far the most overwhelming game in town. In the span of a few decades, the country’s population has gone from being predominantly rural to majority urban. The Chinese government has announced its intention to relocate 250 million people from the country to the city in the next eleven years. China is on track to build the equivalent of the entire urban housing stock of the United States in the next decade, and the vast movement of its people from farms to towns is the largest mass migration in history. Pick your statistic: the amount of cement poured and the number of cranes in use in China approaches half the planetary total. China leads the world in net greenhouse emissions. The Chinese buy more cars annually than people in any other country. The “illegal” population of its cities is nearly as great as the population of the United States. Just as the Peloponnesian War was for Thucydides, the subject of China’s development is irresistible because it is the biggest thing that’s ever happened.

But coming to terms with the subject is tough. At once a miracle and a disaster, the urbanization of China and the ubiquitous infusion of “Western” forms and mores surely amounts to another Cultural Revolution, with impacts at least as broad and distorting as the first, if less savagely lethal. And like Mao’s weird farrago of catharsis and hysteria, it begs the question of the alien gaze. A critical industry has arisen (both within the country and without) that seeks to explain or rationalize its “modernization” while avoiding freighted colonizing categories. For example, China is awash in—choose your nuance—appropriations, simulacra, copies, fakes or “sinicizations.” The streets are lined with shops selling knockoffs of running shoes, designer clothes and electronics for which most of the originals are also produced in China. Armani becomes Armany. Poof!

Across the country, the architectural landscape abounds with Disney-esque pastiche—ersatz White Houses, Versailles palaces, Eiffel Towers, Venetian canals and Chrysler Buildings—not to mention more preening “starchitecture” than the Persian Gulf. Perhaps most legendary among those with a tooth for such spectacle are the nine new towns surrounding Shanghai, each of them planned to house tens to hundreds of thousands of people and meant to be a “complete” version of a Dutch, German, Italian or other European city. Best known is Thames Town with its red pillar postboxes and telephone booths, its pubs, beefeater-style security personnel and, especially, its preternaturally reproduced little chapel (modeled on Christ Church in Clifton Down, Bristol, and the scene of countless photos of brides in white and grooms in cutaways), as well as a fish-and-chips shop based on one in Lyme Regis. Some days, cruising the mall-clotted downtowns, it looks like the entire national aesthetic was bought from the outer galaxies of basic cable: call now and we’ll double the offer!

This is not entirely without precedent. Historically, China attempted, with some success, to confine foreign traders to a series of coastal locations, although invidious tendrils crept inland—often borne on plumes of opium smoke—and along the Yangtze. These so-called “concessions” took on an unusual morphology in which the transoceanic predators were clustered together in a series of colonial theme parks, where the British, Germans, French, Japanese, Americans and others occupied an autonomous piece of territory within a cluster of adjacent enclaves, each marked by its characteristic national architecture, dress, cuisine, and other civic and cultural institutions. These originally excluded the Chinese (and dogs!), but as the likes of Jardine, Matheson & Co. and other big operators shifted from drug dealing to real estate exploitation, the natives with the pelf to secure property began to be included. The enclaves returned as a key element of China’s post-socialist restructuring in the form of the Special Economic Zones established by Deng Xiaoping to cultivate the buds of capitalism from which the new China has burst into bloom.

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My first encounter with urban China was around twenty years ago. It began at an architecture school in Shanghai, where I discovered not simply the concession-era architecture and urbanism of that city but also the rapidly vanishing remnants of its pre-revolutionary and traditional texture, the Soviet-inflected planning and building of Mao’s era, and—perhaps most fascinating—a particular architectural hybrid, the lilong. This type of building, which proliferated from the late nineteenth century until 1949, is a combination of the typical Western row house with characteristics of traditional Chinese domestic architecture, including, in many instances, an inflected version of the courtyard. The complexes were built in every conceivable style—from traditional Chinese to Tudor-esque to moderne—and the expressive richness and flexibility is part of their appeal. For me, though, what most fascinated was their communal quality: they were built as enclaves adjoining major streets but also with inner networks that excluded cars and defined the physical substrate for the development of neighborhood relations. Moreover, many of these places were not exclusively residential but included a variety of stores, workshops and other commercial facilities. In their conceit of autonomy, they resonate with both the Mao-era “production units” in which workers were housed around their factories and the hugely popular gated communities of today—locales shaped by very different intentions.

Lilongs and the northern Chinese hutongs (aggregations of courtyard houses linked by narrow lanes, largely wiped out in Beijing although their remnants are currently the object of recuperation through gilt-edged gentrification) have tremendous relevance for the style of building that now predominates in China. In general, Chinese urbanism is badly in thrall to the great postwar paradigm of “towers in the park” and their evil companions, the highway and the automobile suburb. This may be, in part, because Mao was contemptuous of cities—he thought them degenerate forms feeding on the virtuous countryside—with the result that urban consciousness and practice were severely retarded. When Deng remade the economy in the 1980s, development essentially picked up where it had left off in 1949 with superblocks, cars, hyper-functionalist zoning and an overly regimented design mentality, now overlaid with the ornamental icing of too-long-repressed gluttony. Partially liberated from a forced homogeneity of thought and expression, irony and vulgarity danced hand in hand: Ai Weiwei is the angry flip side of Thames Town. Lilongs and hutongs are the antithesis of both, mixed-use models rich with potential for unalienating density.

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