In cities around the globe, change happens almost instantly. Buildings rise, buildings disappear, and skylines morph before one’s eyes. There is no better example of this, of course, than China. From Ordos to Shanghai, Chinese cities are in a constant state of flux, as the Chinese people willfully abandon signs of the past and embrace the new.
Of course, it’s one thing to know this fact; it’s quite another to witness it firsthand, to experience this urgent impetus to demolish and demolish in order to build, build, build, and build. In the face of such large-scale, exponential urban development, it’s easy to feel powerless to suggest another path.
However, in publishing Anatomy of a Chinese City, that is exactly what two young architects have done. By taking the time to observe the “urban artifacts” that make a Chinese city unique, compiling over 100 drawings of everything from buildings to bicycles, Thomas Batzenschlager and Clémence Pybaro have preserved a piece of Chinese history that is quickly going extinct.
In a world where, in the race for progress, quotidian realities are erased unthinkingly, Anatomy of a Chinese City is not just a resource, but a call-to-action, reminding us to slow down and observe the very human context that surrounds us.
Read more about Anatomy of a Chinese City, after the break...
When Thomas Batzenschlager and Clémence Pybaro graduated from their Western University and decided to head to Beijing, the pair soon discovered what is means to be a fish out of water. While their Chinese counterparts took for granted their urban environment, finding their city (frankly) ugly, Batzenschlager and Pybaro found their new home’s strange idiosyncrasies and constant points of difference fascinating.
Above all, Batzenschlager (who worked at Open Architecture) and Pybaro (who worked at T.A.O) were struck by the unfathomable speed at which China operates. Batzenschlager told me that there is so much need, and so much money, that firms almost have a carte blanche to design any kind of architecture they desire (the stuff Western architects only dream of). And they do it extraordinarily quickly (for example, a Youth Center he worked on went from initial sketch to completed project in only eight months).
What’s more, the pair found that Chinese architects, many educated in the West, ascribe to a globalized, rather conceptual aesthetic. A style that is sophisticated and modern, but barely referential to context. In fact, Batzenschlager confided, the pace of work is so rapid that most architects never make it to the site at all - and, frankly, they don’t really need nor want to. As Austin Williams, an architect living outside of Shanghai, noted in “India’s evolution vs. China’s revolution”: “China’s tabula rasa attitude to urban development is due, in part, to the fact that it’s true: politically and socially they believe that they have a clean slate.” And so buildings across China emerge, as if from a tabula rasa.
Of course, as Batzenschlager and Pybaro are well aware, this is far from true.
Recognizing that the Chinese city, as we know it, is on the point of extinction, and inspired by the work of George Perec and Atelier Bow-Wow’s Made in Tokyo, Batzenschlager and Pybaro decided to use their foreign eyes to observe and record everything about their new home that they possibly could.
What they ended up with was a kind of visual dictionary: a "non-exhaustive but significant inventory" of all the things that make Beijing Beijing, presented without judgment and, indeed, with very little description. They decided that the book could only include items that repeated themselves throughout other Chinese cities, and thus were ubiquitous; that it must include a variety of scales, both large and small; and, most importantly, that it must show a human element, encompassing not just architecture, but objects and items used in everyday life.
As Batzenschlager explained: “The idea is to give a view of the city, not some sort of Modernist, birds-eye-view, or an abstract city plan, but to show an image of the city on a human scale.”
Pybaro hopes that the book will inspire architects in China to take the time to delve into human context, to examine how the Chinese people interact with and shape their built environment. Indeed, a major theme of the book is the phenomenon of self-construction, as the Chinese people are constantly "modifying the buildings that belong to them as they see fit." If, for example, the resource makes architects notice that almost every Chinese citizen adds an extension to his/her window (hanging bird cages, tea pots, plants, etc.), perhaps in the future architects will adjust their designs to better incorporate that need.
And, in the long-term, both hope that Anatomy of a Chinese City will inspire others around the world to follow their lead. They’ve already moved on to their next fast-developing urban center (Santiago, Chile), but they’d love to see the project extend beyond their capabilities. Batzenschlager told me that a future goal is to have many more “Anatomies” that apply the same neutral, objective eye to more stereotypically “developed” cities as well.
It’s an ambitious goal - but a worthy one. As our world becomes urbanized at an exponential rate, our cities, as they exist today, are endangered. Anatomy of A Chinese City, in its own quiet way, hopes to preserve them, on both the grandest and tiniest human scales, and to use the "authentic, chaotic and complex context as a source of inspiration." It's an inspiration we'll surely need in the years to come.
You can access Anatomy of A Chinese City in its digital form at cathartique.org