Chinese Public Space Symposium

PROJECTING THE FUTURE FOR A CHINESE PUBLIC SPACE

- 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)

Timelapse

Yesterday, after an unveiling discussion with my guest advisor Anders Abraham, I suddenly knew, clearly, what this project is about. As it had been hidden in a veil of lines, points, concepts, images and information (which, by chance, evokes an interesting picture in itself), the main issue that I want to address is the same as the man above. Or perhaps transformation, as the architect who insists in using a form(al) language would rather call it.

So how do we address the issue of change? How do we, as architects, address the full lifespan of our creations and not just the moment when the scaffolding has been taken down and the tenants start moving in? I am not talking about taking the building's use into account when designing, that is intrinsic. Instead we should plan for a greater contingency, a kind of programming, a long-term performance where the architecture becomes the stage set, transforming from one scene to the next. And we are the actors. Or You. I am just the set designer.

Best case scenario, my project will begin to speculate about the possibilities of controlling the architecture long-term, perhaps centuries. One could of course begin to interrogate to the advantages of such an idea, but strangely we do not question the reasons why our parks are maintained and preserved over centuries. Once built, the parks are in themselves representations of the 'nature' we miss in our urban jungles, a nature that is in constant change and over which lack control (although we are trying our best to overcome it). The scale of the park admits a great amount of control to be exercised over such a vast territory, while the city around it morphs into new shapes and heights over the decades. We are also reluctant to let parks transform by themselves. Sure, there is an inherent change in the physical environment; trees, shrubs, plants grow and need to be cut, but we would be outraged if the maintenance of our parks failed and we would see weed taking over the lawns and the cubist hedges become shabby shrubberies.

central square

Few parks actually make use of the transformations we would normally find in nature. However, I recently found some interesting examples in the Ruhr area presented by Jörg Dettmar in Landscape Architecture in Mutation, a collection of essays on the conditions of landscape architecture and planning in the post-industrial landscapes of Central Europe. Mr Dettmar refers to a number of pilot projects where different strategies to the growing problem of derelict sites in need of maintenance, without aiming for complete redesign. In the example of Duisburg North Landscape Park, I found many similarities with my own project, with a number of programmes that make use of common industrial building structures like gasometers and blast furnaces. The main difference is the conditions in Germany compared with China in terms of land use. While Germany witnesses shrinking cities and suburban sprawl with much in-between space in the following, China faces the opposite; extreme density and shortage of land for development. Thus, my project will have to deal with a similar issue - what to do with former heavy industrial complexes - but from a point of view that the city wants to move in rather than move out. So the next question could be; How do we deal with this pressure? How do we sustain the potentials of the site (and its symbolic location) while maintaining economic feasibility?