Re(son)Art. Public Action and conference

Together with artist and IFP collaborator Tianji Zhao, I will participate in a conference on artistic research and public action at Centre for Architecture and Design in Stockholm Sept 9-12. Our contribution to the public actions, 'Hold Your Breath' will be performed in public space during the conference. More about the conference here

On Sept 12th I will also give a presentation about IFP at IASPIS/Konstnärsnämnden.

Looking forward to being back in Stockholm!


Image above from 'Parking Day Phoenix 2012'

New residency programme


Finally, after months of preparation, the Institute for Provocation is launching a new residency programme in collaboration with IASPIS. The 2-month residency is open for Swedish visual artists, architects and designers and starts in August this year. Deadline for applications is May 8, application here.


More information:

Iaspis – the Swedish Arts Grants Committee’s international program for visual art, architecture, design and craft – announces a new residency collaboration with the Institute for Provocation (IFP) in Beijing during 2013-14. The residency is open to applications from visual artists, architects and designers, and is thematically focused on the topic of public space in China.

Residency period: In 2013, two separate residencies of two months each are offered to two candidates, one from August 22 - October 22, and one from October 20 - December 22. Please indicate on the application form which period you are applying for.

Application deadline: 8 May 2013

Application procedure: The Iaspis delegation of the Visual Arts Fund selects a shortlist from the received applications. The final selection of grant holders is made by IFP. Successful applicants are informed by Iaspis on behalf of IFP at the end of June.

Grant: The total sum of the grant is 50 000 SEK per person and residency. This should cover costs for return travel Sweden-Beijing, food, sustenance and eventual production costs over the 2 month residency. As part of the residency, IFP provides shared workspace, accommodation and a part-time assistant. Please see more detailed information below. About Institute for Provocation

The Institute for Provocation (IFP) is a Beijing-based workspace and think tank hosting residencies, research projects, workshops and lectures stretching the borders between visual and performing art, architecture and design. As a workspace, IFP focuses on the thinking process before or even beyond the actual creation of an artifact: the collection of dramaturgical information, the testing of different architectural scenarios, the summarizing of existing artistic vocabularies and realized projects, the experimenting with new media or disciplines, and so on. Space, territory and geography serve as bridges between many disciplines and IFP has a specific interest in research that proposes cross-disciplinary strategies to open up for inquiries into topics related to these notions.

IFP was originally established under the name Theatre in Motion (until 2010) by sinologist and dramaturge Els Silvrants and architect Shuyu Chen and has since 2005 collaborated with artists, architects and performers on a wide range of projects and residencies.

The studio and workspace is located in a 85 sqm renovated courtyard house in the old city of Beijing. The studio is shared with 1-3 other resident artist(s) and IFP staff, has basic facilities such as internet, projector and screen, basic hand tools, shared kitchen. The resident artist will be accommodated close to the studio in a private or shared apartment with private bathroom. About the residency

As a part of an ongoing research project into the conditions for public space in Chinese cities, the Institute for Provocation in collaboration with Iaspis invite artists, architects and designers to apply for a residency based around the topic of public space.

China's economic rise over the past three decades is the result of a conscious strategy in which cities are playing a key role. Urbanization has been and will continue to be the main instrument for bringing the people out of poverty and into a consumption- and service lifestyle. But as the existing cities sprawl out and new ones are built from scratch, little attention is paid to their spatial and social qualities. The massive leap in scale from the ancient architectures to the new forests of highways and high-rises that now dominate the cityscapes create an array of problems related to space, identity, environment and social and economic equity. The juxtaposition of opposites – formal and informal, open and closed space – shapes the syntax in the reading of the Chinese city.

The applicant is intended to form their own interpretation of the theme and eventually find a focal point for his/her research. Responsible for running the programme in Beijing will be Max Gerthel, Swedish architect and IFP collaborator since 2011, and IFP's artistic director Shuyu Chen. We will guide the artist and provide insights into China and Chinese culture, special knowledge about cities and public space as well as local contacts in various fields. The residency will revolve around research as the main activity, without any specific requirements from the host organization regarding output or production by the artists in residence.

The purpose of this thematic residency programme is both to have a close dialogue and exchange between IFP and the artist, as well as to create more continuity, as each artist contributes to a larger body of research. This accumulation of knowledge, observation and interpretation can thus be shared internally, but also to the local community.

As a part of Sessions, IFP's public programme, the artist will have the possibility to present themselves and their work, listen to other practitioners and take part in discussions. There will also be possibilities of collaboration with external institutions for lectures and/or academic exchange. The residency will also be announced through IFP's network and newsletter, further enhancing the artist's visibility in China.

Residents will be provided with a desk space in the shared workspace of IFP's studio, accommodation in the vicinity of the workspace, a part-time art assistant providing interpretation/ translation and other assistance, support and guidance from IFP staff and opportunity to meet other artists in related fields. If the resident wishes to bring their partner/family for the full length of the residency s/he must inform IFP two months in advance. Any extra expense for accommodation of related guests will be carried by the resident.

re-iterate: Dashalar


Later this month, friend and colleague Jordan Kanter will be running a workshop in Beijing together with Gilles Retsin (AA-DRL, Kokkugia). The workshop will be based in Dashalar, one of the most dynamic and well-preserved parts of the historic city of Beijing. Collaborators are CMoDa, a platform for digital art and crafts, fronted by former NOTCH organizer Yang Lei.

More info below:


// Workshop Overview

Ecology of Objects In the course of this 10 day workshop, we will explore new techniques for mapping, cataloguing and intervening in the processes of development of the Chinese city. Working directly in the streets, alleys and buildings of the historic Dashila district in central Beijing, we will trace the particular patterns of inhabitation, use/reuse, production and exchange, documenting the ways these processes are materialized in the physical structures of the site. Working out from this “ecology of objects,” this workshop aims to explore new perspectives for activating, illuminating and informing new meaning to the everyday spaces of the city.

Participatory Mapping // Object Oriented Urbanism This work proceeds in two independent, but increasingly interwoven tracks: on the one hand, the revitalization of the Situationist approach of participatory mapping to unveil the underlying, often hidden dimensions of city identity, formation and logic; on the other hand, the development of a computational platform custom built in the Processing coding language, allowing for the visualization and manipulation of the various objects and elements – both concrete and ephemeral – encountered in the site. This begins an exploratory process into possibilities for reconfiguration, mutation, remediation, logistical reorganization, etc. in the building up of city form that is both historically grounded and radically new.

Exhibition @ CMoDA (Chinese Museum of Digital Art) + Beijing Design Week We will work directly with the agencies responsible for the development of the Dashila district to envision strategies for dynamic, iterative interventions into the fabric of the neighborhood. This will be an intensive, team-based effort with the aim of generating exhibition quality work. We will employ a variety of overlapping media (diagrams, maps, renderings, video, animation, interactive computer scripts, etc.) to communicate the logics, narratives and iterative systems at work. The results of this workshop (and a previous workshop held in Dalian) will be exhibited at the 2012 Beijing Design Week and the GeoCity Smart City exhibition at the China Museum of Digital Art (CMoDA). The workshop is open to architects, landscape architects, urban designers and planners, geographers, artists, filmmakers and anyone interested in the intersection of city development, computation and design. No coding experience required.

// Instructors: Jordan Kanter (SCI_Arc, FuturePlay), Guest Instructors TBD

// Techniques: Processing, Rhino/Vray, Illustrator/Photoshop, Geotracking/Geotagging, Basic Film Editing + Motion Graphics

// Sponsors/Collaborators: CMoDA, Dashila(b), 北京大栅栏投资有限责任公司 Beijing Dashilar Investment Limited, 北京广安控股有限公司及旗下的北京大栅栏投资有限责任公司 Beijing Guang’An Holdings and Beijing Dashilar Investment Limited

// Dates: 2012/08/22  –  2012/08/31

// Location: Beijing Shijingshan Electrical Relay Factory, No. 8 Dawailangying Hutong, Dashila’r  石景山继电器厂分厂8号

// Workshop Fee: 500 rmb

// Apply: send resume + work samples (under 2MB) to

Chinese Public Space Symposium


- A symposium on the possibilities of a New Urban Realm

I am currently in the process of planning a symposium on the possibilities of a future Chinese Public Space. The aim is to start a multidisciplinary discussion about among those involved in the planning, design and realisation of China's future cities; their parks and landscapes. What are the possibilities for designing specifically "civic" spaces, belonging in the realm of society rather than for community or symbolic use?

Public space in China is a topic which crosses over into many other aspects of Chinese society; the political impact of the emerging middle-class, urban planning policies (or lack thereof), social stratification, congestion, urban cultural expressions and the emergence of a ‘virtual public space’ on internet sites, forums and microblogs.

In the Arab Spring and other forms of public mistrust towards political leadership, public spaces play a key role in providing a forum to meet and raise opinion, allowing political movements to gain momentum and eventually cause change. This fact has been, since the 1989 Tiananmen square protests, well noted among Chinese political leaders. As a consequence, urban designs of new Chinese cities often lack the kind of open, accessible squares and public meeting places found in urban centres around the world.

Before 1989, in cities designed during the Mao era, the Big Square typology was often introduced as a part of urban regeneration, to serve as a venue for political gatherings (for example during the Cultural Revolution), along with long and wide boulevards for military parades. In recent years these large squares spaces have often been invaded by commercial interests and become the staging ground for local governments’ self-promotion. At the same time, they have lost their public raison d’être as the urban population has found their place inside air-conditioned shopping malls. The boulevards have become highway-like traffic arteries for the ever-growing number of people moving around in cars, often dividing the city spatially and socially. We can see this development in Chinese cities of all scales and in every part of the country.

According to the German scholar Dieter Hassenpflug, the spaces of Chinese cities not belonging to either of two major institutions Family and Community are considered to be Open Space, which means that they belong to whoever claims them; for example cars, plants, trees, pedestrians, individuals or groups who use the vacancy for temporary activities such as dancing, tai chi, free markets etc. This typology is distinct from Public Space in the sense that its use is always negotiable, and the public - free individuals - have no universal right to it. This configuration is very different from the concepts of public space prevalent in Europe, and yet most of the architects and designers involved in the construction of Chinese cities have very little knowledge of this.

After a long period of negligence towards those spaces which still can be considered public, the growing middle-class is now at least beginning to attach greater importance to the size, design and safety of their urban environment. This is not to say that the space that these urban space are public in the sense of being civic, but instead they are often private spaces that have the appearance of being public (Example: Sanlitun Village, The Place, Jianwai SOHO). We can also see that China’s ageing population, which is increasingly urban, is putting high pressure on public parks, and making use of random open spaces such as memorial squares or generously sized sidewalks for playing music, dancing, playing boardgames and socializing.

This symposium aims to bring together the different stakeholders in the formation of China’s future urban and rural environments: Architects, landscape architects, urbanists, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, cultural theorists and activists, for a discussion and exchange of views.

Questions to be discussed: What new concepts can be formed to describe the different conditions of open space in China? What kind of urban spaces in China fit in to the Western description of Public Space and how? What are the consequences of the shifting of public communication from urban spaces to online social media? What role can designers really play in the reappropriation of the urban realm? Will Landscape Urbanism save Chinese public space?

Organiser: Institute For Provocation (Max Gerthel/Jordan Kanter/Chen Shuyu)

Because Wang Shu


In this recent op-ed in Domus Brendan McGetrick explains his view of why Wang Shu got the Pritzker Prize. Compared with my own hypothesis (which is less elegantly formulated below) it's less about geopolitics and more about the decline of trust in architects following a global financial crisis and consequent recession. Indeed, there is a geopolitical side to the jury recognizing China's rise as a political and cultural power in the world, but Brendan argues that it is Wang Shu's methods and low-tech amateur approach to architecture which carries the most significance in his (modest) oeuvre.

Indeed it is reasonable to engage in such a reading of the event, and I agree with Brendan's arguments. However, I would like to put forward another hypothesis: Contrary to the Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Peace Prize and the recent ascent of Ai Weiwei into superstardom following his 81-day detention, the Pritzker is less of a diplomatic meltdown. It will not create a Norwegian salmon boycott in Zhongnanhai or ignite mass-demonstrations around the art world, but it will shed light into a dark and remote corner of architecture and urbanism in China, one that is rarely highlighted by the regime and enjoys little understanding by the industry.

Mr Wang not explicitly political, but in my mind his works evoke many of the same attitudes as presented by the two dissidents. By working with local materials and craftsmen he is creating his own individual interpretation of Chinese architecture traditions, not a reproduction of a "global" "modern" "style" as so many of his peers who simply reproduce their own and others' work for the weekly submission of some medium-size-city urban planning museum proposals and mixed-use suburban drop-down bombshell. In addition, this is also how Ai Weiwei bagan his career as a builder in the late 1990's, and there are many interesting parallels in their careers and approach to designing.

In this 2008 interview of Wang Shu by Bert de Muynck, he describes some of his own working methods and attitudes towards the contemporary architecture practice:

"This month I have to design three museums, so my studio stops working for one month. Everybody goes home, so I can work on my own. I send them to the countryside for research or give everybody a list of books about traditional Chinese painting, French philosophers, movies or any subject that might be helpful. This is their homework. When they come back, we have a discussion, and then we work again."

He also reveals the need for architects (in China and elsewhere) to be pragmatists and grant the clients their less admirable wishes, albeit with a sense of humour and political irony:

"In the Contemporary Art Museum in Ningbo, for example, we designed two large floors. When we presented our plan, local authorities told me they had the money to build the museum, but no money to operate it. They needed a space they could let out in order to generate money. I told them that, apart from selling fish, they could do whatever they wanted on the ground floor to make money. But art should be on the first floor. When I said this to the mayor I used Marxist theory, explaining that a basement is about economy and an upper floor about art. I hope he got the joke."

All in all, despite his own scepticism of the appointment ("I'm still so young!") I hope that the prize will help shift the focus of China's reconstruction (a lot of it will have to be rebuilt soon again) from large to small, from global to local and from Wang (king) to Shu (book, calligraphy, script).

Read Brendan's text for yourself here.


IFP Workshop lectures

The workshop is starting next week and we are working hard to finalize things. As promised, there will be a series of public lectures in the evenings at 7 pm, and anyone is welcome to join. Here is the list of confirmed lectures with date and time. All lectures will be taking place in the IFP Studio in Heizhima hutong 13, Dongcheng district, Beijing.


Michael Caster (US) is a freelance writer, researcher, and traveler. He has lived and worked in the United States, China, The Netherlands, Turkey, and Tunisia. His research interests touch on symbolic power and the politics of representation in social space, specializing in social semiotic analysis. He is currently involved in an ongoing independent research project examining the socio-political role and affect of street art.

Date & Time: Thursday, February 2 at 7 pm


Benjamin Beller (FR) of BaO Architects first came to China in 2005 where he worked with Beijing architecture studio Atelier 100S+1 while pursuing his own research on rapidly developing Chinese cities. In 2010 set up his own practice BaO as a collaborative platform engaging in China and abroad. The studios he leads concentrate around both urban and rural contexts as a way to challenge their ever-imposed dichotomy and to respond to Chinese urban agenda. Throughout his practice, he's been experimenting extensively with both research and design, with a strong belief that it is through acting and engaging within both grounds simultaneously that architecture becomes constructive.

Date & Time: Monday, February 6 at 7 pm


Hutopolis is a research program run by AQSO Architecture office  and architect Giannantonio Bongiorno that aims to investigate new boundaries for the urban development in China. The study intends to re-use and enhance the existing urban framework and networks as a key idea to generate a new evolution of the city. Meaning an utopic city of Hutongs, Hutopolis (h-uto-polis), is a fictive collage of words coming from radically different backgrounds that reflect the cultural openness of the project.

Date & time: Tuesday February 7 at 7 pm


WAI Architecture Think Tank is an international studio practicing architecture, urbanism and architectural research. Founded in Brussels in 2008 by French architect Nathalie Frankowski and Puerto Rican architect Cruz Garcia WAI is currently based in Beijing. WAI focuses on the understanding and execution of Architecture from a panoramic approach, from theoretical texts to architectural artifacts, narrative architectures, buildings and urban and cultural conditions. WAI strives to make significant contributions to the collective intelligence of architecture, from the conception of intelligent buildings and masterplans to the production of fresh research projects and innovative publications. WAI is a workshop for architecture intelligentsia. WAI asks What About It?

Date & Time: Wednesday, February 8 at 7 pm

Spring Festival workshop 2012

From January 30 to February 12, I will host a workshop in our studio in Beijing together with architect Jordan Kanter. The workshop will investigate the nature of the hutong as a public space through reiterative analytical processes, with the aim of introducing architectural intervention(s) in the city. We will also host a number of lectures during the course of the two weeks.

Below a short introduction:


ITERATE workshop 2012

This workshop aims to create new perspectives for activating, illuminating and informing new meaning to the everyday spaces of the city.  Working in the neighborhoods, streets and hutongs of Beijing, we will identify and define ongoing patterns of use, materializations and micro-topologies as a catalogue of the urban experience.

Using a variety of computational tools, including the KML language in Google Earth and the Processing coding language, we will develop techniques to operationalize this data as dynamic diagrams.  These diagrams, in turn, will guide and inform a series of interventions back into the public space.  The process is inherently iterative, alternating between observation, activation and evaluation of the intervention, constructed with new or reconfigured material on the site.  The computational diagrams function as a mediating framework between these modes of work by charting and informing the interventions as an ongoing emergence. The first part will be a series of exercises familiarizing ourselves with the site and the scripting tools, proceeding to the formulation and execution of rigorously conceived, team-based projects engaging (physically, virtually or both) the public space of Beijing.  It will culminate in a review by an outside jury and a public showing (and possible publication) of the work.  A lecture series exploring the relationship of public space to politics, individual agency, computation, art and architecture will coincide with the workshop.

The workshop is open to architects, artists, planners, geographers, engineers, programmers and students of the above or other disciplines; anyone interested in exploring the intersection between design, computation and public space.

Instructors: Max Gerthel (SE) (KARCH, Tsinghua, HUST) Jordan Kanter (US) (Sci-Arch, Tsinghua)

Lecturers: See the workshop blog

Software: Processing Google Earth KML Rhino/Maya

Date: 2012-01-30 - 2012-02-12 Location: IFP workspace in a Beijing courtyard near Nanluoguxiang Cost: 2000 RMB for students 2500 for professionals

Apply by sending a brief portfolio (max 10 MB) to:

Find more information on the workshop blog

Organizer: Institute For Provocation (Beijing)

Supporter: Huazhong University of Science And Technology (Wuhan)


Final Review

My 2-month Studio in Wuhan Huazhong University of Science and Technology ended on Dec 18th with a final review followed by an exhibition of the students' work in Yangtze River Space in Wuhan, a gallery awkwardly situated in a guarded villa compound in the south part of Wuchang district. The works are by students of myself, Elaine W Ho and Chen Shuyu. Below some photos of the exhibition (which had to be merged with some murals remaining from the previous artist's exhibition). The studio was an interesting experience as a first attempt at understanding the capabilities of the students as well as familiarizing with potential fields of urban investigation. Although I'm perhaps not fully satisfied with the results, the studio forced me to formulate a syllabus and assignments comprehensive enough to be understood by Chinese 4th year students not usually engaged in self-programming and narrative drawing. Working in a diffuse field in between studio/tutoring and research, I will try to strengthen the research part in the future so that a comprehensive goal can be set and reached through the joint body of work.

I'm now back in Sweden, trying to resume my writing and summing-up of the studio, after a week of christmas eating, giving and receiving. Most of all right now I'd like to sink into my gifts: Public Space - An interpretation by George Baird, Issue 2 of Too Much-Magazine of Romantic Geography, Issue 22 of LOG and a beautiful catalogue of Studio Mumbai's exhbition in EPFL Lausanne, but this week needs to be productive as I am also entering a crucial phase of promoting our ITERATE workshop starting on January 30 in Beijing. More on that asap.




Welcome to Wuhan

Almost two months after embarking on a my teaching studio in Wuhan I am slowly starting to get a tiny hold of this city. Having spent most of my day walking around the old city center of Hankou, the township on the opposite shore of the Yangtze River, I was trying to sum up my impressions of Wuhan on the long bus ride back to the university campus. Besides being one of the top ten cities in China in terms of size, Wuhan is somewhat of a dark horse, and it's quite hard to pinpoint its main asset. For all its universities and collages - one out of ten inhabitants is a student at one of them, 1.2 million(!) in all - it's still far away from what I would call a "university town", like Cambridge, Lund, Heidelberg, Leiden or Austin; small, convenient, well-developed, highly academic and full of students. Education in Wuhan, it seems, is more like one of the city's main industrial bases. It's the production of students that is emphasized, not production of new knowledge. And since very few universities in China - Wuhan is no exception - promote studies in the humanities, the output every year is a very large batch of engineers with unspoiled belief in "Scientific Development", i e the extension of which you would call a technocracy.

The riverfront of above mentioned Hankou is lined with night clubs and bars, massage parlours and luxury cars. The buildings are "restored" early 20th century colonial-style buildings turned into a locale where the new rich get their groove on. As a public space it's decent, and I'm sure some of those night clubs are too, but that typology of space is as played-out as the colonial era it originates from. The rest of Wuhan is all about bigness, and it's architectural space as impressive as any one-liner dropped from a helicopter alongside 10-lane motorway strip or wedged in around a roundabout the size of Latvia. The physical dimension of most of this city - I'm sorry to say - is not worth looking at with anything other than fascination - for its brute ugliness and lack of human scale.

Actually, after understanding some of the more underlying messages widely and explicitly published on billboards across the city, I am starting to think that socio-anthropologists could have a field day here in Wuhan. According to my sources, most of the advertisement on buses, billboards, tv and radio revolve around plastic surgery, potency-enhancing medicine, underwear, cars, alcohol and women's hospitals (abortion clinics). In other words, an unsavoury cocktail of emerging-market-induced indulgences.

Or as Wuhan based artist and curator Gong Tian expressed it: Wuhan is a mix of everything cheap, loud and low, plus some anarchism. It's also known as a punk city, a side that I have yet to explore. It all seems so difficult when the city is the size of a European country and there's no subway (yet).

Well I'm not sure the photos below support my story, but at least they are moments from the past two months.







Guanxi, or The Power of the Section

Architecture is never an isolated entity. Regardless of whether or not you work consciously with the context of your building, new relationships will follow as a consequence, so by trying to predict and enhance them will be crucial. The essential knowledge of how to work well as an architect comes down to how to create interesting relationships. There are external relationships: Between the building and its context, the city fabric, the stories of the neighbourhood, the landscape, invisible social territories, between inside and outside, open and closed space, private and public, back of house and front of house etcetera. And there are internal relationships: Between different programmes, vertical levels, light and dark, wet and dry, warm and cool, service areas and served areas, active and passive, public and private etc etc. Out of the typical architectural drawing formats we have at our disposal - plan, section, elevation, site plan, perspective - I believe the most interesting one is always the section, because it is where those relationships become apparent. The plan is very good at showing movement and internal flows, but as a means of inviting the viewer inside to experience the life in the building, it is still too abstract and schematic. In the section though, you can tell compelling stories which not only talk about the building, but of a whole society. Since it cuts through many types of spaces; from the basement, perhaps full of illegal (im)migrant workers, to the rooftop, where affluent investors are entertained by lightly dressed ladies; the section is where our urban way of life become clear and undeniable.

There are a number of significant drawings which exemplify that the architectural section is as good as a novel at telling stories. One of the most striking is a survey of Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, a hyper-dense illegally built housing block now demolished. The section above was carried out by a Japanese team shortly before it was demolished in 1993.

Another classic example is the famous section of the Downtown Athletic Club, featured in Delirious New York with the above section. The building is a materialization of the heyday of N.Y.'s Wall St bankers and lawyers in the 1920's. 38 stories including squash courts, golf course, medical baths, massage parlours, billiard rooms, boxing ring next to an oyster bar, grill, dining halls and roof terraces, plus 111 hotel rooms for the bachelors who were not set on spending their nights uptown with the society clubs. All wrapped up behind an anonymous red brick façade, making sure that the building remains inconspicuous relative to the social "athleticism" taking place inside.

Once in a lecture about late 19th century Paris by a professor at KARCH, Carsten Thau showed a cross-section of a typical Hausmannian house, showing the full spectrum of social strata composing the then-world-leading metropolis. Unfortunately I haven't been able to find it on line, so maybe I'll have to write to my old professor to know who made the drawing. UPDATE: I successfully tracked down the section, and although it actually precedes the Haussmann typology, it still serves well in depicting Parisian society in the 1850's.

Also please enjoy this slightly more beaux-arts water colour section by Steven Holl depicting MIT Simmons Hall, one of the projects finished in the early 2000's catapulting Mr Holl into stardom.


For the design studio I am teaching in Wuhan starting next Monday I will be focusing in on the architectural section as a driver for the design process. The students will embark on a journey by examining a cross-section of their own city, a section they will have to draw. A precise recording of a complex of relations in a city infamous for its chaotic urban composition which will hopefully become an interesting tool in understanding the city. One of the reasons why I find it most interesting to examine the section here in China, is that I have discovered a lack of interest in developing architecture based on relationships. Too often the designs here tend to form isolated objects or enclaves without a dynamic relationship to their surroundings. Perhaps it is understandable since most projects here are conceived as UIMs (Urban Integrated Megaproject) and often on virgin land lacking any previous urban condition. Nevertheless, with a better understanding of the possibilities offered by designing in the section, one can create and nurture new relationship, at least within the same project.


Wuhan Studio

From Oct 24 I will be leading a studio in Huazhong University in Wuhan, China. Wuhan is one of China's 2nd-tier cities, a monster growing at fast and steady speed and most presumably governed by crooks (one evidence of which is that they sold one one third of the city's biggest and most famous lake to a real estate developer, so that in the future, the public will not have access to it. Fortunately, the water is anyway too polluted for bathing. I went to Wuhan on a weekend-trip three years ago and I assume the monster has grown by a few hundred square kilometers since then. It'll be great to explore it, now that I am more adapt to the scale and logic of Chinese cities. Until I have more recent photos, here are few from last time in June 2008.

Join the cleanup

After passing more than one year in China and getting engaged in the local market for independent architectural services, I feel that it is time to start adapting my educational background and its preconceived notions of site, programme and regulation to the specific context of working in China.

As far as I can conclude, the context within which I am working is one where the concepts of tradition and modernity are still in conflict. By this I mean that the vast majority of Chinese live in a weave of systems that were developed in the west (although I object to this notion of  longitudinal quasi-cultural polarization), during a post-enlightened era of rapid industrialization, but nevertheless alongside a emerging democracy and increasing political pluralism. These systems, commonly known as socialism (in the political realm) and modernism (in the urban realm), have been imported and consequently distorted by a Chinese mono-cultural totalitarian regime. The same regime that is currently running this country (or at while bearing the same name) has also, in a perverse, twisted travesty of a political conflict, rejected its own culture and historical values, leaving the current generation with no other choice than to adopt a new global culture: Consumerism.

For the past thirty years, China's cities have become the main stage for a socio-economic upgrade on an unprecedented scale. But since these are essentially the same processes the developed countries in the west went through about 80-50 years ago, we are left to look at the incongruities; an authoritarian political system (Socialism with Chinese characteristics) and a vast population (almost twice the size of Europe). The third dimension which is much more difficult to approach, is what you could call Culture. There are many indicators that the business culture in China is the child of a marriage between socialism and confucianism.

Politics aside, it is time for me to find my own purpose. The only way to change things is to do things as good as you can yourself and hopefully inspire others to do so as well. Not that there aren't any good Chinese architects, it's rather an issue with the current Chinese Zeitgeist. Most people here are simply not ready to embrace new and different ideas about how to build. Admittedly, there are many new cities being built in China, but for the most part they look, work and smell the same. For all its image as being a place for experimentation, very few politicians or developers in China go out of their way to fully realize the high ambitions of planners and architects. And there are many examples to back this up.

So what can we do? Hope for the real estate bubble to burst so we eventually get a more balanced and mature market? Well, since this will happen eventually, we can either sit around and wait until the shit hits the fan, or we can try to act now, through small but ambitious projects that might draw a direct line between the verbs locate, design and build. Meaning, we need to realize that there will come a time when architects also in China will have to deal with small-scale projects, renovations and additions. Actually, the prospects for architects working in the "cleanup"-phase of China's future development are indeed looking bright.

So where to start? Bottom-up, unsolicited architecture. Ambitious, sure, but more and more people are doing it, also in China. For example, my previous tutor Li Xiaodong, professor in Tsinghua, built schools in remote villages in China together with his students, and eventually gained international recognition (which led to big commissions for commercial projects which led to a certain loss of credibility).

Nevertheless, during the Studio workshop in Wuhan I aim to locate a community, a local client of some sort, for whom to build in locally sourced materials using our competence as architect builders. Now I don't think this will be easy to realize in the first attempt, but hopefully with time we'll be ably to establish credibilty and enough local connections to carry out more of these projects.

Megacities and the City

Came across this article in Financial Times about the emerging 2nd and 3rd tier cities that will output 40% of global growth in the coming 15 years. In Asia, this growth will come mainly from construction of the cities themselves, which is of course something to question: Why this obsession with this kind of  growth, when the already existing cities in China essentially looks like this:

And the new cities like this:

Which is pretty much exactly like the suburbs built in Europe (mainly) during the heyday of cheap state loans and increasingly poor building quality. The only difference is, back then it was social housing, now they are built with speculation in mind and a large percentage of them are empty empty, in some cases entire new cities without residents. Most of the apartments are already sold, but the rents the owners is not enough to pay back their investment, which means that the investment is based on the presumption that the price will keep rising, which is quite unlikely, in areas that have been proven to be unpopular. After all, people move to cities based on their outlook of finding jobs there, but how many jobs can be found in an empty city?

The best part of the FT article is its concluding point: "(...) according to an Ipsos/Mori poll, Mumbai, a city with 55 per cent of its population living in slums and 65 per cent of its population working in the informal economy, is the “happiest” city in the world, its residents the most satisfied with their quality of life. London, just as astonishingly, comes in at number two."

Cities, like any other man-made products, need to evoke feelings of desire, creativity and joy, otherwise they just become devices for people-storage. Hmm, that sounds vaguely like a cynisist reintepreting Marx.

More on ghost cities here.

City of Absolute Power

After spending a few days in the south part of China - Suzhou, Shanghai and Hong Kong consecutively - I returned to Beijing late last night. The wind is strong and the air it carries is dry and dusty, the taxi driver is (unusually) reckless and by the time I arrive in the apartment, I am very aware of which city I am in. This change of location (and mood) immediately invoked some thoughts about what kind of city Beijing is, and perhaps more importantly, since its influence as an urban planning model throughout the country, how to define the Modern Chinese City. The three cities mentioned above serve as prominent examples of how cities in China which have a history and legacy that make them unique, but where in the new developments they are slowly becoming more and more alike.

Moving through Beijing by bicycle should be a very natural experience. Until about 15 years ago, everyone in the city were getting around by bicycle. the narrow hutongs which are nowadays almost crammed with cars, making it difficult for us on bike to get past the slow-moving, clumsy chunks of metal driven by new drivers who seem to think everything else should adapt to their new investment. Not to speak of the impossibility of anyone stopping or even slowing down at a pedestrian crossing. In Beijing in general, and in other Modern Chinese Cities I have experienced, most power is always given to those who already have it. Personally, I am reluctant to accept this kind of disrespect for fellow citizens, and as I move through the city, by bicycle or public transportation, but my fellow commuters seem to have acquired the in Japan so admired stoicism. So I start to speculate into where this silent acceptance might originate. Why are the foot soldiers of China's cities, its real flesh and blood, its blue- and white collar workers, so tolerant to this apparent and unjust stratification?

If Shanghai and Hong Kong are hyper modern post-colonial metropoles, where money equals power equals money, then Beijing is the city of Absolute Power. Ever since the city was planned and built as Dadu by Kublai Khan in the Yuan dynasty to serve as a the Chinese capital of his vast Mongolian empire has its inhabitants lived and worked to serve the emperor. As a planned entity with a rigid square shape and ethnic subdivision through layers and layers of walls, it was never really subject to market driven capitalism until the early 1980's. One thousand years of history are not abolished in 30 years and so now when Beijing is subject to the forces of free movement of capital and people, its

One of the most striking features of Beijing is its brutality. Yes, the old city and its hutongs are very charming but if you look closely, and open the city up to all your senses, you'd realise that some of the scenery are vaguely resembling medieval cities in Europe under the feudal era. The smell from open latrines (now called public toilets), the open kitchens with walls and equipment covered in years of accumulated grease, the piles of rubbish and construction material, the ubiquitous sheds and their ephemeral roof mendings using plastic sheet and bricks...I could go on for a while. The scenery is that of a place deprived of - no, not wealth, but the softer values - dignity and integrity.

In a simple comparison with Shanghai or Hong Kong, Beijing every time comes up as the fat privileged cousin from the country, who never had to do anything else than to decide for others. Because Beijing and its current emperor, the Communist Politburo, doesn't need to comply to the market (the current regime is notorious for manipulating the value of its currency, banning labour unions, subsidizing petrol and imposing high duties on imported goods, among other things), its inhabitants are not used to the real-world situation of equal competition and because of the lack of knowledge and understanding of refined products and services, the city exists almost in a vacuum, where we, the citizens of Beijing, become numb and silently accepting of the low-quality situation. The result is that people stop caring - about hygiene, about traffic, about other people. And I am no exception.

Is this why the government of Beijing consistently deprives its citizens of the comfort of a well-functioning public transport network? Even with the current planned subway lines, only a fraction of the city's population will fall within Shanghai's ambitious 10-30-60 goal (maximum 10 minutes to walk to the subway, 30 minutes to ride and a total maximum 60 minutes door to door commute). Why shouldn't Beijing be the most ambitious city for public transport - in the world? The city already has the world's biggest square and the worlds tallest looped double-skyscraper, why settle with this?

The answer is simple. The reason why the ring roads and expressways have been given top priority is because the city's VIP's, the government officials, travel by car. One car in particular: A black Audi A6 L with tinted windows. We see them everywhere since public transport is not considered safe and comfortable enough. Thus, the subway becomes the domain of the sub-pressed, the desperate white-collars and migrant workers. Conclusively, the reason why the city government has so little interest in the fate of the rest of the population is that they are without vote, and will stay so in the foreseeable future. And if people don't like it, they can move somewhere else, Beijing is anyway too big and new people are moving in every year. In the current situation, Beijing lives on its status as the city of Absolute Power, meaning, whatever works for the people in power and makes them feel good about themselves, the rest of us simply have to accept. End of story.