Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Pritzker and Chinese Urbanism

Great article on some of the politics behind the Pritzker. They seem to be awarding it less to starchitects in recent years and more to quiet auteurs with a decidedly non-commercial bent, for example Glenn Murcutt, Peter Zumthor, and the Japanese duo SANAA. Beautiful work, but quiet. It's a promising sign, and another sign of disgust over how architecture has developed in the age of excess.

I honestly hadn't heard of Wang Shu, but I do like his work. I often wonder, as do other architects I talk to, why China hasn't nurtured more home-grown architectural talent. It seems like China is just a playground for Western firms to build supertall towers and all the crazy shit that no one will pay for in Europe and America. It's like a big experiment- the architect's testing lab. It's too bad - given what we know now, China could have adopted a more sane and humanizing way of urbanization, avoiding the mistakes made over the past two hundred years, and especially the last fifty. Instead, they seem poised to double-down on it, bulldozing their architectural heritage and building anonymous modernist high-rises outside of cities accessible only by car, along with shopping malls pointless museums. They've also turned their building industry into a casino, repeating the mistakes that caused the West's economies to teeter. You would think that of anyone, the socialists would be able to see housing as human need rather than a profit center.

In Wang Shu's Pritzker Prize, a Radical Critique of Chinese Urbanization (Business Times)
From wide streets to skyscrapers, everything about the modern hypertrophic city seems anathema to Wang. He said that in 1950, his adopted hometown of Hangzhou "looked like Paris. Now it looks like Singapore. People are beginning to ask, 'What is the aim of all this development?' " At one point in the talk, he criticized the fact that many Chinese studied abroad and have absorbed "Western templates."

One obvious alternative to the hypertrophic Western model, which has been eagerly adopted throughout the Sinosphere and Southeast Asia, is the low-rise, tightly-packed Japanese urban model. With 35 million people, Tokyo may be far and away the world's largest metropolis, but it's relatively squat compared to towering cities Shanghai or Hong Kong – its tallest skyscraper doesn't even break 250 meters, while Chicago has 12 taller than that.

Though the Japanese government has tried for decades to halt rural decline, it has found little success. Wang's ideal Chinese future, on the other hand, echoes Gandhi, who once said that "the future of India lies in its villages." Wang's critique of urbanization seems to be absolute, and not limited to the hypertrophic city. "Is urbanization," Wang asked on Monday at UCLA, "the only way to development in China?"

It's not hard to see why Wang, and many in China, would adopt such an anti-urban stance. Modern Chinese urbanization is similar in pace to that of the United States around the turn of the last century, but it does not always share the same respect for property rights, which are especially poorly established in the Chinese countryside and on the ever-moving urban frontier. Wang alludes to China's heavy-handed use of what we in the U.S. would call eminent domain, pointing out that his firm refuses to do projects where residents are moved "by force" – something that the Chinese authorities do with far less impunity than American developers one hundred years ago.

And while political pressures and Wang Shu's continued residence in China surely keep him from speaking directly about it, it's not hard to see the politics of his birthplace, Ürümqi, coloring his perspective of urbanization. The city, and ones like it across China's peripheral provinces, are on the front lines of the central government's efforts to weaken the demographic strength of minorities like the Uighurs and Tibetans in their homelands. It does this by diluting the regions with Han (China's dominant ethnicity) newcomers like Wang Shu's parents, who end up clustering in large cities – Xinjiang Province is 45 percent Uighur, while its capital, Ürümqi, is 75 percent Han. The city errupted in deadly ethnic riots in 2009, and tensions continue to this day, with twelve killed in riots in the predominantly Uighur city of Kashgar this morning.

Another ugly side side of Chinese urbanization that Wang has seen first hand is the massive destruction involved in China's catch-up growth. Before the liberalization of the Deng Xiaoping era, Chinese cities hewed to the "socialist city" model, as described by Alain Bertraud and Bertrand Renaud. Administrative planning chose to pile new housing on the urban fringe rather than gradually redevelop the city center, resulting in an awkward "circus tent" shape and an underdeveloped core. Deprived of the opportunity for organic redevelopment during much of the twentieth century, Chinese cities must negotiate between two unappealing extremes: freezing cities as they are, risking Indian-style urban stagnation; and allowing unchecked redevelopment in the core, risking much of China's architectural heritage.

But despite China's problems with urbanization, the movement to cities remains an enduring trend throughout civilization, and not one that Wang Shu, or anything short of catastrophic economic collapse, is going to be able to stop. A retreat from the world of modern city building like the one Wang has embarked on for the last two decades is simply unrealistic for China. Would-be urban migrants are already chafing under the restrictions of the hukou system, which keeps citizens registered in rural areas out of cities (at least legally). Even Indian-style restrictions on vertical urban growth seem unthinkable, and given India's stubborn poverty, it's probably not even desirable.
Nothing short of catastrophic economic collapse, eh? Be careful what you wish for...

See also: A Pritzker Prize With Chinese Characteristics (HuffPo)

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