Bull in China’s Shop
These days, most of the work of my architectural practice is in China, and the experience has been at once thrilling and appalling. The convergence of authoritarian administration, haphazard taste cultures, cheap labor, piles of cash, and a civil society that oscillates between the Wild West, imperial refinement, curiosity, cruelty, corruption, canniness and crazy consumption is a rich stew indeed. While the bargains being struck by our little studio are something less than Faustian, we still swim in contradictions. One tries to make fine distinctions, but it isn’t clear where the ethical balance is fixed when trying to adjudicate the difference between working for Larry Silverstein (if only!) in New York and some devoluted branch of the Party in Xian or Wuhan.
The question for practice is where to gain purchase and seek leverage. One point of entry is the glut of opportunities, which allow many works of imaginative will simply to fill in the gaps at hand. Another is that for all the coal-fired electricity, clotted highways and toxic soils in China, there are also bikeways, breathtaking ribbons of new subway and rail lines, and actual new cities (being built in the dozens) that could become alternatives to the metastatic mega-cities that dominate actually existing urban growth. The Western media have become fixated on China’s so-called ghost cities (as they did with Detroit’s ghost neighborhoods), but these are mainly monuments to bad timing, corruption and the mislocations of everyday planning ineptitude.
My practice attempts to design beautiful buildings with considerable levels of sustainability, to make them safe and welcoming, and to perform due diligence. Most exciting is the opportunity to design cities and urban districts from scratch, a blank slate presented to us nowhere else and a possibility that—for all its risks—is indispensable for a planet that is urbanizing at the rate of 1 million people a week. The challenge is to find genuine and relevant forms of the local instead of a more supple colonialism, while also recognizing that the Chinese economy is fully caught up in the protocols of global neoliberalism. While I’m no physical determinist, I do believe that cities that reinforce the opportunities for neighborliness, that promote gatherings and encounters at different scales, that recognize the needs of a variety of publics, and that—in their form and operation—respect and mend the earth are, in fact, bridges that arc in the direction of justice. More, I believe that a world of difference is reinforced by the recognition of the local specifics of bio-climate and the conservation of living cultures, and that the capitalism with a human face that seeks to sell the same old shit directly to you is opposed by artistic singularity. This is an increasingly vital supplement to sound urban practice, battling the exclusion, fraud and homogeneity that so dominate cities today.
* * *
It’s clear that we are in the throes of a “great convergence” in the form of the world’s cities. Emerging from a history in which the value of the urban has fluctuated from contempt to reverie, the cities of China are groping to find their shape, driven by both massive growth and the collision of models—including all the standard-issue global prototypes, from gated suburban communities to Corbusian forests of isolated towers, the Manhattan on Acid of one downtown after another, and amazingly ubiquitous zoological collections of alien looks and their myriad knockoffs. But China, by virtue of its scale, ambition and conceptual resources, is surely the perfect terrain for considering the limits of the power of space to create authentic place.
The designer’s hubris is the belief that architecture and planning dictate the organization of public and private life. What’s mainly true is the opposite. Yet cities and buildings are not only capacious records of order and desire but also forms for the promotion of happiness, convenience, comfort and their variously deformed flip sides. That said, it seems particularly interesting that in China, there are few curbs on formal expression in architecture. To be sure, there are the familiar debates about modernism and tradition; about motifs that trouble (the design of a skyscraper in Shanghai was modified because a huge circular aperture was judged too Japanese, resulting in an outcome with an uncanny resemblance to a bottle opener); and, increasingly, about the preservation of historic fabrics. But in a place where resistance to the system can be severely penalized, there seems to be special liberty for architecture and the visual arts, a canny acknowledgment of the actual limits—and utility—of architectural expression.
There is always a little “cult” in culture. I am thinking of those Warhol portraits of Chairman Mao, and how the era of “one country, two systems” initiated by Deng required the energetic coordination of propaganda and advertising for a population that had been trained to be adept at acting on the messages with which it has so long and systematically been bombarded: to get rich is glorious (as consumption displaces production as the measure of virtue)! While the mash-up between capital and control is surely more attenuated in China, its capacity to produce excess is commensurately large—as is the destructiveness of the creativity, be it the environmental and human ravages of a frontier economy, the endless under-the-table chicanery, or the sheer scale of it all.
On the other hand, there is no mistaking the miracle. Hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty. A gigantic civilian infrastructure has been installed. Health, literacy, mobility and other palpable aspects of human development have been dramatically improved. And the people have shown remarkable tenacity in evading state strictures on communication and expression. (For a brilliant discussion of artistic insubordination in reaction to urban modernity in literature, performance and art, I keenly recommend Robin Visser’s Cities Surround the Countryside.) What has struck me with the greatest force during my time in China is the blazing speed with which the Chinese are approaching so many of the dysfunctions of our daily life, including compulsive getting and spending, atomization of families, too much motion, and the quality of contestation between public and private spheres. And herein lies the rub: convergence at our level of consumption is impossible. The planet has a limited bearing capacity, and if we all consumed at American rates, it could support only a fifth of us.
One of the most popular recent TV shows in China was Supergirl, an American Idol–style competition in which the winner was determined by the audience’s vote: democracy with American characteristics. One certainly wonders what perturbations in the system the experience of such elections has. Aspiration has a brand and a sponsor and, at the end of history, the line between Coke and the Party is blurry. For a visitor in China, there’s constant tension between wanting to offer good service and advice to good people and a reluctance to play the wise colonial with something superior on offer. This often results in a familiar cautionary rhetoric: don’t screw up the way we did, slow down with those highways and suburbs, get back to your bike-riding days, stop burning all that coal. Whatever the credibility of its source, it’s good advice.