Defining the City The construction of a city involves how is it defined, understood and experienced. These processes and definitions diverge wildly depending upon one’s location: East or West. Heretofore, western architects have subjected analysis of “The City” in China, indeed all of Asia, to a set of western-privileging universals for both physical and epistemological constructions.
More after the break.
For one, cities in the western context are understood and conceived as continuities, grounded in specific historical notions of civilization and progress towards a western-defined “modernity”. The city was therefore evidence of a particular kind of progress, the real-ization of that progress, the “real.” Buildings and streets provides critical evidence of an advanced civilization; it is the summary proof of superiority and mastery over nature. Cities thus define the logical, scientific culmination of civilization’s advance and the inevitable teleological development of western culture (1).
We must understand, however, that experiences of Western cities have emerged from radically different historical circumstances that are both defined by and juxtaposed with the current “pre-modernity” of China and Asia (2). For Westerners apprehending the rapid changes in the built city, it is difficult to reconcile a “premodern, ancient, grand China” with the contemporary Chinese city of endless permutations, of mirrored curtain walls and fiber optics. In the language of Rem Koolhaas, Chinese cities are “Cities of Exacerbated Difference” or COED (3). This condition is characterized by growth that causes cities to seemingly explode into zones of radical difference. In this scenario, one area neither resembles nor carries the territorial logic of its neighbor.
This assessment presumes that planning cannot keep apace with the processes of building, demolition and re-building that have marked the post-Mao Open Door era. Moreover, the implicit critique, almost a lament, is that Chinese cities were once unified totalities, devoid of internal difference and anchored architecturally by a predominant “traditional” style of building. The current paradigm has scarred the “pure” territory of the city with “imported” styles (4). The logical end of this argument is that the “true” identity of the Chinese city should remain rooted in the past; only the West can define modernity and progress.
Another view, that of Dutch architect Neville Mars, asserts that China has erased its past (5). Again, this assessment fails to recognize that Chinese cities have not erased their past. Rather, the past is fully integrated with the present: it is thus mutable. The signs of the past are internalized rather than built as fixed monuments (6). In essence, the built environment is not the primary conduit to or indication of history. Instead, material culture provides merely one element to mark progression. The true signifier of historical continuity is not material but rather, is written—in dynastic histories, edicts, philosophical tracts and commentary. In short, Chinese language, not buildings, is the primary marker of culture.
Defining Progress Western frameworks for interpreting China’s architecture as it signifies cultural progress have not evolved far beyond the knowledge generated during those first dramatic encounters in the era of clipper ship trade, roughly 1400-1800 (7). Sinology is selectively farmed for ideas that support decontextualized critiques of contemporary China (8). In a material sense, much of the drama in China-as-contemporary-progress-run-amok is grounded in the mis-perception of China as a rural-based culture. Historical evidence points to the contrary: China, for most of it’s history, was comprised of urban networks.
Western observers understand China today often as projections of their own culturally grounded notions of progress and material culture—beliefs that have remained largely stable and persistent since the 18th century (9). These are rooted in 18th century Enlightenment concepts in which China perpetually occupies the space of the past, a supposed antithesis of western progress that assumes (and proves) western superiority in those aspects of culture deemed most valuable (10). The orientalist articulation and calibration of the ”other” places the other in the position of inferiority and requires accuracy and legitimacy to be conferred by western intellectuals (11).
Yet the notion of “pre-modernity” not only privileges a particular type of physical and concomitant intellectual development, but it also presumes the West as the standard (12). Such labeling assumes that all “pre-modern” societies desire identical teleological processes towards modernity modeled on Europe and the U.S. Measuring China according to Western ideas of progress privileges the West which produces a history by the West for and about China (13). China as a philosophical construction, or category, in the West serves as a formulation of antithetical, pre-modern “other” that proves the superiority of western modernity (14).
This in turn positions Western, modern cities as the pinnacle and maintains their superiority. Moreover, because western cities will always occupy successful modernity, pre-modern societies will necessarily be suspect in their advancement towards a derived modernization. In essence, this is the continuation of colonialism’s conception of center and periphery with all that implies.
And indeed, China’s cities have been thus sensationalized as “catching up” (largely pejoratively),viewed as pre-modern, and always lacking. The message: “look at how they are ruining their once beautiful traditional cities by incorrectly deploying what we’ve taught them about Progress”—this being the orientalist fantasy of China as exotic specter on the verge of catastrophe.
But there is a third choice of progress: a hybrid modernity (15). This questions whether or not all modernities contain varying degrees of hybridization. China, like many societies, shops for those technologies which suit their material progress. Those are combined with indigenous principles and philosophies, producing a result that does not reaffirm the singular Western timeline from pre-modern to modernity.
Moreover, the assumption that the Chinese are destroying their culture and wrecking their once beautiful “traditional” cities might also be viewed as the re-emergence of our own cultural memories of Manifest Destiny and other violent paroxysms of modernity. China has brought our own skeletons out of the closet. Western observers can displace onto China their own fears about the dark side of established, western forms of progress and what this might entail for their own cities (16). Instead, we must acknowledge that new forms of progress can and do emerge from the new conditions in urban China.
Summary How the discipline of architecture filters and distorts the non-west through “theory” and narratives of development plays into the West’s textual tradition of Orientalism. The architectural discourse on China, for example, is a glaring example of the continuation of old modes of coming to terms with the Other. In order for architecture to grasp China’s present it must shift its narratives away from tendencies which “traditionalize” China’s unique modernity.
1. The western concept of the city has been to large degree informed by the philosophy of progress as described by Hegel, in which he describes the trajectory of western history, in terms of progress, as inevitably leading to the advance of civilization. Hegel’s notion of progress places the West, as a metaphysical category, in opposition to the East, or the Oriental world. The West’s ability to form a globe-spanning imperium is evidence of its superiority. Hegel’s philosophy was also informed by a Protestant belief in progress as evidence of God’s will. (Hegel, G.W.F. (Rauch, Leo, tr.) Introduction to the Philosophy of History). 2. This progress, read linearly, culminates necessarily in the West as the apex of development, wherein all other cultures occupy an anterior time, a time “out of history” that marks them as “pre-modern” rather than having made a choice to be non-modern as defined by Western thought (see McClintock on anterior time, 1995). 3. A term first copyrighted by Koolhass, et al in Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, 2001. 4. For a discussion of style in the Chinese city see Peter G. Rowe, 2002. 5. The Chinese Dream: A Society Under Transformation (forthcoming). Again, what is most important about such texts is that they stand apart and at a great distance from China. This is the crux of orientalism. What the text says, in fact, has more to do with the author than with China’s urban condition. It is important to note that the discipline of architecture in the west has constructed its own version of China and that this is in large part informed by very conservative and out of date views. While the humanities has recently adjusted its approach to how it formulates and conceptualizes China, the intellectual discourse of architecture has lagged behind, having not yet caught up theoretically. It is in a sense, riding the coattails of the “China phenomenon” to produce special effects, a spectacle that in fact more reflects the obsessions and concerns of distant witnesses. This is the second China that has always stood apart from the first. The appendage that China cannot shed because western commentary insists that this stand-in is the real thing. In this sense, China is compelled to be like the Siamese twins, Chang and Eng. If we look at the city in literature, for example, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities exhibits a city as a multiplicity of mental constructs that all coexist. This heterogeneous nature is in essence the very marker of what a city is, the gathering place of multiple existences and states of being. Ironically, however, Chinese cities have been denied this multiple aspect by much of western urban discourse and are often leveled into simplistic depictions of physical and political turmoil in opposition to tranquil traditionalism. More nuanced depictions of Chinese cities are to be found in contemporary Chinese literature and film (add examples). 6. Part of reason for this misunderstanding is based on the fact that the specialized and popular knowledge base of orientalism has rendered cities like Beijing as fixed in the past and therefore their monuments are foregrounded above all else. Monuments, then, come to embody the city. The past-located exotic foreign capital is based on monuments while the forward moving post-modern city of the west is determined by an ethos of material and social progress. 7. See Frank, Andre Gunder, Re-Orient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (1998). 8. Holmgren, 1981. 9. Stoler, 1994; McClintock, 1995; Ware, 1992; Narayan & Harding, 2000. 10. Prakash, 1990. 11. Shih, 2001,371-377. 12. Ibid. 13. See Chakrabarty 1992. 14. As described by Shih (2001) the Orientalizing of China as exotic other was a crucial element in the formation of modernity and in fact made modernity possible. This came about by means of an aesthetic and scientific appropriation of China for the purposes of consumption in the west. In this sense, the commodification of culture Jameson speaks of as a defining element of western postmodern culture had already taken place in reference to China as category, or fetish. Chinese culture as image, object, exotic subject was employed as an energizing agent for western cultural transformation. 15. For more on the concept of the non-modern see Prakash, 1992, 1994, 1995, 1996. This rejects a linear progression through history from pre-modern to modern as typified by the west. It also rejects what McClintock (1995) calls historical progress as geography, wherein the farther “west” you travel the further up the modernity chain you travel (progress not merely as time but as spatial construct.) 16. A case in point is the horror over the Three Gorges Dam project in which western critiques of China’s dam policies stand in as a post-horror of the destruction wrought by the TVA and in which hundreds of dams were erected and irreversibly transformed the North American landscape. See Reisner, 1986.