Bull in China’s Shop

Bull in China’s Shop

The urbanization of China and infusion of Western forms amounts to a second Cultural Revolution.


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.

* * *

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.

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.

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