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)

Best of 2011

It's still a bit early to list the 10 best albums of 2011 as there's still a chance to release something brilliant, but I reserve the right to  shuffle things around before the year is over. In general, this year was a better year than most recent, and I made a few discoveries, as can be concluded from the list. There are quite a few newcomers, which pushed new releases by some of (previous?) favourites off the chart. Björk, Junior Boys and Jay-Jay Johanson all released new stuff this year, but their efforts never really took off and left me quite a bit disappointed. My all-time most frequently played artists list will be hard to budge though, since I tend to get tired of an album after just 10-15 plays, thus not allowing new artists to rise very high. I often find myself looking for the next big thing 3-4 plays down the line of an album I really like. Maybe also because I don't want to get tired of it so soon, and need to balance with something more difficult. Another sad thing is that I didn't go to ANY live show this year. Visits by big (and medium and small) artists remain scarce and the last show I saw was The Whitest Boy Alive in late 2011. There are a few venues for electronic music though, and occasionally some interesting names fly by for gigs. Come to think of it, didn't I see The Field in Dos Colegas? Nope, that was also last year...

Anyway, here's the list:

1. Planningtorock - W (DFA) This is definitely this year's biggest and most overwhelming musical experience. As a big fan of The Knife I was already sort of adapted to the dark twisted world of pseudo-gamelords and masked kidnappers with crow-bar nose jobs, but this shemale opened the door to a parallel universe, seemingly governed by a strange ageless dictator whose androgynous tunes stroked me just the right way. The songs just seem to come from a place I'm carrying around inside myself, but never been confronted with before. Extremely well composed and endlessly beautiful. Most raved-to song: Manifesto

Since I cannot make up the ranking order of my other most listened-to albums this year, I'll just list them and you can imagine which ones I like better. As if it mattered. But they're all not as excellent as Planningtorock.

Jay-Z + Kanye West - Watch The Throne

Nicolas Jaar - Space Is Only Noise

Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes

Radiohead - The King Of Limbs

James Blake - James Blake

M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming

Kate Bush - Director's Cut


Crystal Fighters - Star Of Love


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.

Revisited Mutations

Zhuhai - A city in the Pearl River Delta with "air so clean that it could be bottled and sold to other countries"

This afternoon when rereading Rem Koolhaas' text on the Pearl River Delta I was taken aback by this impressionist statement of the late 20th century (Originally from 1997, the text was published in Mutations (Actar, 2001)). What always strikes me about Rem's texts is their frankness; ultimately his ability to address an urban situation with the clarity of an overseas correspondent condensing a complex domestic situation into a three-minute recorded monologue. Explicitly, it is about finding keywords; in the case of his PRD Project on The City research, seventy-five of them.

Below are some of my favourite extracts:

"As a city, it represents nothing more or less than the coexistence of a number of apparently unconnected buildings which, by the simple fact of sharing a certain proximity, form an urban condition and which is inhabited without apparent anxiety."

"In China, curtain wall is sometimes pronounced "curtain war", and this has become one of our copyrighted terms: "The competition between architectures using the maximum variety that the glass-panel allows".

"Between the design of Central Park and our image of it, at least a hundred years went by. In Shenzhen, it only took seven."

"What does it mean to become Singapore? Here, above all, it has meant clearing unbelievable sections of ground in an orgy of tabula rasa where it seems as if the act of clearing becomes an act of faith. There is an apparently sacred pleasure in creating void spaces where tabula rasa is no longer an anticipation, but almost an autonomous condition."

"If China is destined to become a market economy, today it is only speculative and addressed to the rich. It is unthinkable that in the foreseeable future it will adopt certain things that we traditionally associate with the market economy, the first of which is profit. Here it is only a matter of speculation in terms of a future condition, linked perhaps to the incredible speculative energy of a communist system that always explained and amnestied the present with regard to an ideal future condition."

I cannot help but wonder what conclusions would be made if Rem and his research team returned to PRD ten years after (at least) these clear-cut statements and readdressed the situation. What predictions were correct? My impression is that most of the observations still are spot-on, while leaving a few of his comments on the speculative nature of the Chinese economy without further comment.

Field of interest

While my dirty laundry is getting new life at the Vascomat down the street here in Islands Brygge Copenhagen, I am taking this half hour (although I'm expecting it to be extended after the laundry is done) to review what I have produced in the past three weeks and sum up what the project is about. The fact that I haven't taken the time to reflect, instead carrying on like a streamlined bulldozer producing mostly drawings, diagrams and a few models in various scales, might be my most serious mistake. Evidence of this came up in the rather exhaustive crit session yesterday. My biggest challenge as an architect (and as a person?) is and has always been to locate a specific field of interest and to investigate its possibilities as far as possible without losing interest after one or two trials. Basically, I have an underlying fear to lose touch with the bigger picture if I indulge myself in something seemingly small an insignificant. That the big pictures, the grand gestures and utopian political statements are more compelling than the small steps and informal inventions that really move society forward, albeit inconspicuously. Which is about as far from true as could possibly be. The problem is, of course, that I am better at this retrospective self-evaluation than actually changing my way of thinking. It is inexplicably difficult to radically shift focus as a designer, from abstract concepts of axes, points, slabs and junctions to non-architectural elements like blood cells, 1967 Cadillacs and Emmental cheese. How do I know that my specific point of interest has the potential to tell a bigger story? How does a park pavilion change the world? The last question is very close to what my project should be. The problem is, I did not formulate that question until now. The question so far has been: How do I turn a steelworks and dried-out river in Beijing into a productive and recreational space and dwellings using an axis? Needless to say, the answer to that question is probably not a doorknob or even Emmental cheese. But perhaps this juxtaposition is my best bid for finding the key to this project. So far, I've been trying to solve all the problems (cleaning of polluted soil, laying out of agricultural plots, legitimization and transformation of existing industrial structures, finding strategic principles for the development of the village, finding suitable plants for the almost dry riverbed etc) individually through a sort of composition, each problem relying on the other but without strong conceptual guidelines. The result is a heavy pile of drawings that compose without being specific and speculate without being consequential. In short, I am lost inside my project.

Until now, perhaps. As I am writing this, I am getting inspired to sketch down the outlines of my project in a different way. Using familiar concepts and excluding my seemingly unnecessary investigations of 'site-specific morphology', I am kind of back to square one. Everything that I wrote in my programme is still extremely valid and surprisingly solid as a framework. The problem is that the most logic approach should have been to use parametric tools, not by building an explicitly analogue drawing table that produces compelling photo prints. Especially since I'm not really using it according to my original intent.

So, again by breaking my programme down into two categories; Bottom-up and Top-down, I can start to understand where I can get the most juice out of my expertise as a designer and planner respectively. Basically, Bottom-up is a generic framework within which things can take place, informally and without the involvement of the designer. In the case of building matrixes, a general FAR and height is specified. Top-down is the layout and design of the specific functions that support and stimulate occupation of the generic.

My first reaction to the text above was the conclusion that I had to go back to square one and build a Chinese version of Parc de la Villette; Tschumi's proposal, which was built and works by distributing programme in the follies, liberating the surfaces to be more generic, essentially an updated version of the classical French Garden. The buildings are the main carrier of meaning while the fields produce the “event space” in between where anything can happen. Koolhaas' proposal was more radical and urban. By being much more specific in the treatment of the fields, he wanted to create a condensed social environment. Moving through the park across the 'strips' would be like taking the elevator through a skyscraper. Moving along the strips would thus be equivalent to staying on one floor. It's rather a shame that Tschumi won with his rather classical distribution strategy. Instead, we missed the chance to see how Koolhaas would perform as landscape architect.

In my first analysis of these two proposals, I concluded that Tschumi's generic element was the follies, while Koolhaas' was the strips. In fact, I am now beginning to realize that it is the other way around. The follies are, at least in practice, rather rigid in their programmatic content. Today, almost all the follies have a fixed specific function, disabling their ability to change over time. The same goes for the theme gardens. The surfaces remain generic, being open green lawns, pretty much as we know them from your typical 19th century urban park.

In the proposal that OMA submitted to the second competition phase, the strips were clearly specified, creating a compact barcode of different vegetations and social functions. As Koolhaas describes in his book: “In the first submission we explained how it works. Now we will show how it looks”. And the pictures of the giant model that filled up a whole room in the office, leaves no doubt that there was a high level of specificity in their final proposal.

Returning to my own trials and tribulations, I can conclude that I have spent a lot of time designing the fields, how they work and develop over time. They are thus not any more generic than my buildings, which remain rather undeveloped. So maybe this project will be better off following Koolhaas' Villette strategy; By being extremely specific about the landscape, I can let the buildings remain as supporters of that landscape. This is essentially much more interesting as a critique of Chinese planning and architecture. The experience of moving through the urban landscape is far more interesting than the individual buildings that make up it.