Exhibition: Unmade in China

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Although China is known for its incredible building production, with ‘a Chicago of skyscrapers’ being realized every year, a lot of architectural proposals never leave the drawing board or the model room. The Shanghai office of Cannon Design decided to dedicate an exhibition to this phenomena and dubbed it ‘Unmade in China‘. They selected ten Western offices to show their – unmade – work in the exhibition, and combined each project with interviews with the architect discussing the question why the projects were not realized. They asked us to write a prologue for the exhibition catalog.

The exhibition runs from 20 April to 20 June, 2012

Team:

Curators: Michael Tunkey, Lukasz Kos, Henrick Borjesson
Interviews: Lukasz Kos
Exhibition Design: Cannon Design
Graphic Design: Yasuo Kishibe
Prologue: Daan Roggeveen
Text editing: Martin Mevius
Communications: Hu Huifang (Cannon), Clarisse Stulp (The Attention Company)

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How the City Moved to…

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Favela, Rio de Janeiro, photo Neville Mars

The New York Times featured an article about the Rio Olympics today, that looks amazingly recognizable: just replace the name ‘Rio’ for ‘Beijing’, and change ‘favela‘ for ‘hutong‘ and you have the story about what happened downtown Beijing between 2002 and 2008:

“The authorities think progress is demolishing our community just so they can host the Olympics for a few weeks,” said Cenira dos Santos, 44, who owns a home in the settlement, which is known as Vila Autódromo. “But we’ve shocked them by resisting.”

For many Brazilians, holding the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament and the 2016 Olympics on Brazilian soil is the ultimate expression of the nation’s elevation on the world stage, and the events are perfect symbols of its newfound economic prowess and international standing.

Sports and evictions is a popular combination: the same happened in South Africa two years ago when people from Townships in Capetown were removed to the ‘relocation area’ of Blikkies Dorp (literally: Tin can Town). The Guardian about this ‘relocation area’:

“It’s a dumping place,” said Jane Roberts, who lives in the sparsely furnished structure known as M49. “They took people from the streets because they don’t want them in the city for the World Cup. Now we are living in a concentration camp.” (..)

Campaigners argue that this bleak place in Delft township shows that Africa’s first World Cup has become a tool to impress wealthy foreigners at the expense of its own impoverished people. Residents say it is worse than the townships created by the white minority government before the end of racial apartheid in 1994.

The same sort of phenomena seems to take place in Rio now:

“These events were supposed to celebrate Brazil’s accomplishments, but the opposite is happening,” said Christopher Gaffney, a professor at Rio’s Fluminense Federal University. “We’re seeing an insidious pattern of trampling on the rights of the poor and cost overruns that are a nightmare.”

Estimations are that in Brazil, 170,000 people face evictions. And the way these evictions take place, are also remarkably recognizable..:

In São José dos Campos, an industrial city, a violent eviction in January of more than 6,000 people captured the nation’s attention when security forces stormed in, clashing with squatters armed with wooden clubs.

Although there are similarities between these huge sports events that are used as a legitimation to remove large residential ares, there are also differences between the examples of Rio and Beijing:

Meanwhile, residents in some of the favelas, or slums, who face eviction are pulling together and standing their ground, in stark contrast to the preparations for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where authorities easily removed hundreds of thousands of families from the city for the Games.

Favela residents are using handheld video cameras and social media to get their messages across. And they are sometimes getting a helping hand from Brazil’s vibrant and crusading news media, arguably the envy of other Latin American countries.

Four more years till the Olympic Torch will be carried into the stadium. To be continued..

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Adam N. Mayer: An Architect’s Guide to Working in China

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Last June we met the American architect Adam Mayer in the city of Chengdu. Adam was educated at USC LA and worked for two years as an architect in Chengdu. Apart from producing architecture in the fastest urbanizing region in the world, Adam also writes on his blog China Urban Development. He reflects in an interesting and profound way on the current spatial developments in China. The piece below is his most recent writing, and we’re very happy to be publishing it as well. Hopefully many more to come..

A few months ago I read a piece from Bloomberg discussing Frank Gehry’s decision to ‘turn to Asia for architecture projects as U.S. growth slows.’ In terms of big name architects from the U.S. and Europe turning to Asia for work, Gehry is late to the party. Nevertheless, it is a very telling sign that Gehry, someone who in the past could be highly selective of his clients, is looking to Asia to keep his office busy.

In the Bloomberg article, Gehry is candid about his desire to work domestically in the U.S. yet lacking the opportunity due to the depressed economic situation. As if another reminder is needed about the sorry state of the industry, Salon published a piece about the dire outlook for the profession last month titled ‘The Architecture Meltdown‘.

So aside from returning to graduate school, designing furniture or leaving the profession completely, most architects in the U.S. and other Western nations have limited options, therefore turning to emerging markets where there is work happening. China is by far the largest of these emerging markets for new buildings.

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Start spreading the news..

Background, Chongqing, Hohhot, Xi'an

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Recently, Oriental Outlook, a Chinese news weekly, published excerpts from three chapters of our book: on Mr Deng in his floating village in Chongqing, on the residential compound in Xi’an, and on ethnic culture in Hohhot. Several Chinese news portals spread the stories. An excerpt of our story on Xi’an was published on amongst others Sohu, one of the biggest news portals in China, 565, a popular BBS on international news; and on the news portals dooland and FGS. News portal JSBBS published an excerpt of our chapter on Hohhot.

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Special Artistic Zone in Asia Literary Review

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Over the past year, we developed the concept of the SAZ, the Special Academic and Art Zone: a concept for the development of cultural life in emerging Chinese megacities. We launched the concept last year in the Global Times, spent time thinking and writing about it and tested it in the Chengdu Biennale last October. We also wrote an essay about it, which is recently published in the winter 2011 issue of Asia Literary Review. You can find an introduction to the essay here:

THE MAKING of ideas follows the same logic as that of laws and sausages: ‘Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion to our knowledge of how they are made’, according to the nineteenth-century American poet John Godfrey Saxe. And contrary to the common notion of a sudden, bright insight, an idea tends to grow gradually, nurtured by reflection and discussion, improved after opposition and setbacks.

Seen in this light it is difficult to reconstruct how the idea for a Special Academic and Art Zone emerged, but I like to think it began on a sunny morning while I was riding my bike to our office in Shanghai. Traffic was chaotic as usual and demanded my constant attention, but my mind kept drifting off. For weeks, one question had been bothering me: would Chinese cities ever become thriving, mind-blowing, cultural hotspots, true metropolises that attract not merely businessmen but artists, entrepreneurs, writers, actors and intellectuals from all over the world?

In 2009 architect Daan Roggeveen and I began the Go West Project, a think tank tracking the development of megacities in China’s hinterland. We travelled to sixteen megacities including Wuhan, Chongqing, Shijiazhuang and Guiyang – fast-growing urban agglomerations with millions of people and impressive skylines comparable to those of London, Hong Kong or Sao Paolo. We were finishing our book, How the City Moved to Mr Sun, which would show the results of our work, and we needed to draw conclusions about everything we had seen.

As I was cycling, I structured my thoughts. All the Chinese cities we had visited seemed prepared for the future: they had promising new business districts, gleaming new airports and endless new residential districts. They were interconnected with high-speed bullet trains that made the American and European railway systems seem like children’s toys from another, bygone age. Judging from their infrastructure and physical appearance, most Chinese megalopolises resembled the world’s biggest, tallest and most modern cities; however, in other aspects of urban life we found Chinese cities lagging behind culturally and intellectually, despite their immense populations.

We were sure this had to change. ‘It’s inevitable that Chinese cities will enter a new phase,’ Daan said. ‘At some moment, their focus will have to shift from physical growth to non-physical growth, from hardware to software.’

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Lecture at TU Delft

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On Tuesday 29 November, Michiel opened a lecture series about China on Delft University of Technology with an introduction on China’s emerging megacities. The university published a stream showing the full lecture that you can watch online.

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“Architecture most important form of art in China”

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Last may, we interviewed architect and Chengdu Biennale curator Liu Yuyang for Dutch magazine De Architect. In the interview, Liu gives an insight in the chaotic and challenging conditions of the Pearl River Delta in the nineties, and the current architectural debate. And we touched upon a thing his work and ours have in common: a journalistic approach. With help of Wim van de Poll, the article is now also available in English:

‘The Chinese real estate market is overheated, and the workload is extreme’, says Liu Yuyang. ‘Most architects hardly have the time to do their day-to-day work, let alone theoretical reflection on their profession.’ The architect is sitting on a terrace in Shanghai and takes a sip from his cappucino.  There are not many architecture critics, says Liu. ‘If a make a list, I get to a number of thirty or forty. But the eagerness to debate is growing.’

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Feature in Shanghai Daily

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Yesterday, we appeared in a feature article in English language newspaper Shanghai Daily. The article discusses the background of Go West, our method of working and our book ‘How the City Moved to Mr Sun’. It addresses the motivation behind our focus on central and western China:

“People need to understand that China is creating the biggest urban society globally,” Roggeveen tells Shanghai Daily. “These cities are developing at a breakneck pace, and can potentially conquer the world.”

Read the full article here or download it: 20110705 go west SH Daily

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Quality in the west

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Picture (Go West Project): Danwei in Lanzhou

The gap between coastal China and the hinterland is still big, as this recent article in South China Morning Post describes. An index, developed by researchers of Beijing Normal University shows the increasing differences:

While Beijing and the eastern affluent province of Jiangsu ranked first and fourth with 0.739 and 0.524 respectively, Guizhou finished at the bottom with 0.2. The maximum possible score is one.

The growing differences not only appear between East and West, but also between rich and poor, and between rural and urban China. Professor Niu Fengrui , of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Urban Development and Environment:

narrowing the income gap was a key target for improving people’s overall well-being, “but loud thunder has induced few raindrops in the reform of income distribution in recent years”.

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Doubts about ambitious plans..

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In March this year, we saw this ambitious graph on China Daily’s front page: the targets of government subsidized housing. The 12th five year plan described the goal to build the number of 36 million social housing units between 2011 and 2015; starting with 10 million this year. But South China Morning Post‘s Ed Zhang reports that the results are lacking behind:

With four months to go, construction has begun on just 30 per cent of the homes – a sign that many local governments are still having trouble securing funding and land for the subsidised homes ordered by Beijing.

Last month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development ordered local governments to report on how many houses work had started on by this week, and the statistics show that the pace is far slower than Beijing wants.

Apparently, only 30 percent of the projected homes are under development right now. The reason? Lack of cooperation, and lack of money. Gu Yunchang , vice-president of the China Real Estate Association:

It remains an old problem of local governments not [being] motivated enough in preparing land and mobilising funds for subsidised housing.

Social housing with Chinese characteristics?

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Architecture of Power

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Architecture and power are very closely related. In China, this relationship is not only visible in the architectural icons that it produces; its relationship is very much apparent in the omnipresent government buildings.

Every Chinese city is constructing and renewing its government buildings, and in especially in the case of new city districts, governments and planners try to create new governmental icons in their cities. Based on the Confucian tradition, these buildings contain certain classic features, like fengshui and yin and yang. Especially the idea of hierarchy is strongly expressed in the architecture of government buildings in China. A horizontal, symmetrical organization, with the building facing south, are some examples.

But there’re more. In general you could say a government building in a new district is part of a collection of buildings: a conference centre, a theatre, a top notch hotel. The building itself is indeed symmetrical, it has a big square in front of it, and it has steps leading up to the central gate. On the symmetry axis there is a flag post with the national flag.

The material used is in general grey stone. The front (south) facade sometimes consists of columns. The architecture is either non-descript, not very much expressive or ‘Euro-style’ – referring to classical Roman architecture or French castles.

In the book ‘Confucian Utopia’, a ten year retrospective on the urban planning practice of Tongji University, the writers call this development the ‘rebuilding of the “Patriarchical” City’.

City governments tried to rebuild the spatial structure of the “Patriarchal” City by establishing the governments’ patriarchal buildings. Such planning well satisfied […] the confidence from the governmental development by taking the city as ‘home’ and taking the governments’ building as ‘parent’.

The results are visible in cities and new districts over China.The book made an analysis of 42 government buildings all over Beijing, and their architectural features, that express this Confucian elements. All of the 42 buildings had a square in front of them, 35 were symmetrical.

We came across some beautiful examples of these architectural expressions of power in Kunming, Yinchuan and Chengdu and other cities. And we’re not the only ones. Recently, Chinese netizens have been collecting pictures of these kind of buildings in their online campaign “Photograph Your Area’s Government Office Building” From ChinaSmack:

Chinese netizen phenomenon “exposes” the government office buildings found in various provinces, counties, cities, and towns throughout China that “cause people to stare in awe”. It is said that these photos reveal that the scale and splendor of government office buildings even in impoverished areas of China’s western interior certainly do not “lose in the slightest” to those in China’s wealthier coastal areas.

These are some of the government buildings we came across over the past two years:

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Hefei

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Yinchuan

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Yinchuan, Communist Party HQ

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Chengdu, City Government (architect: Paul Andreu)

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Chengdu

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Kashgar

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Kunming

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Kunming

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A changing world…

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This is one of the most amazing graphs we’ve come across in a long time. We found it in the United Nations Urbanization Prospect 2007. It shows the distribution of the world’s population in 1950, 2007 and the predictons for 2050.

Take a look at some of the most stunning figures:
1) In 1950, no less than 38% of the world population lived in Europe, and 15% in Northern America. In 2050, that will be 9% and 6%.
2) During the same period, the percentage of the world population living in Asia will rise from 32 to 54%
3) Africa is gaining importance quickly: 4% of the world population in 1950, against 19% in 2050

Some powerfull data to support the importance of the emerging megacities in Central and Western China, we would say…

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Interviewed by the Global Times

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Last week Journalist Ye Jun from the Global Times (no doubt our favourite English language newspaper in China) interviewed us about our project and asked us to give an assesment of China’s developping cities. Yesterday she published her story: a page-long article about Go West in the Shanghai People-section of the newspaper, illustrated with a rock&roll-like picture of Daan, Xinlin and me, standing on top of a pile of rubble of a recently destroyed village near Hefei.

Check that out! You can find a PDF-version of the article here and a link to the web-version here.

At the end of the article we mention an idea that we’ve been talking about quite a lot recently. In the last 30 years, China succesfully introduced the market economy by using the model of Special Economic Zones (SEZ’s), areas with a more liberal economic policy than other parts of the country. Following this model, wouldn’t it be possible for China to create Special Academic & Art Zones (SAZ’s), areas with a more liberal policy towards critical art and academics? We haven’t fully developped the idea yet, but it’s definitely something you’ll be hearing from us about again!

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Go West Went South

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Sometimes, you have to take a break. So where do you go on holidays when your job is already called ‘Go West’? Not west of course. You go south!

The high speed train takes you with almost 250 kilometres/h in 7,5 hours from Shanghai to the nice port city of Xiamen (one of China’s Special Economic Zones). And back of course. In those hours you blast through the economically most developed zone of China – with cities like Hangzhou, Ningbo, Wenzhou and Fuzhou as the stopovers. What kind of landscape do you see during this train ride? In other words: what does China’s most developed area look like? The answer: a highly fragmented landscape, in which the urban and the rural dissolve, in which farmers build small skyscrapers and where you see a clash of top-down and bottom-up planning. A landscape in which man tries to rule over nature by cutting away mountains and where history and concrete meet.

The following  is a random selection of pictures we took every five minutes between Xiamen and Fuzhou, at a speed of 247 km/h. The Chinese landscape with an interval of 20,5 km.

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Taken hostage in a walhalla of construction

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Last month, we were interviewed for Delft University newspaper Delta. The double-interview, together with Dutch architect Dirk Bekkering, got the optimistic headline ‘Taken hostage in a walhalla of construction’. Read the whole interview (in Dutch) here: TU Delta – Achtergrond: Gegijzeld in bouwwalhalla.

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