In 1978, 18% of the population in China lived in urban areas. Since then the number of inhabitants in cities has increased approximately 1% per annum and currently makes up 60% of the total population. New infrastructures and settlements have gradually modified the landscape, transformed property rights, swept away administrative boundaries, and “gobbled up” rural spaces and villages.
The rapid, disruptive process of Chinese urbanisation unfolds before our eyes. Understanding it is not easy. Existing categories and models are useless. If we believe Chinese urbanisation to simply be an exaggeration and a flaw, we are effectively ignoring the fact it constitutes an epochal change, one which redefines roles and relationships not only from a geo-economic and geopolitical point of view, but also from the point of view of culture, imagination and possibilities. A change that the current pandemia makes ever more deep and hard.
China Goes Urban proposes to change viewpoint, to look at reality rather than pigeonhole it in predefined categories and models. It is an invitation to explore the world by travelling through the city and architecture of today and tomorrow and circumnavigating the concept of city: although we all think we are familiar with and understand this seemingly simple concept, it shatters in the multiplicity of the contemporary urban.
Tongzhou, Zhaoqing, Zhengdong e Lanzhou are the new towns where we start to explore and where the exhibition begins.
TWO LOGICAL ITINERARIES
The exhibition can be viewed following two logical itineraries.
The first itinerary gradually deconstructs the idea that Chinese urbanisation is exceptional. Visitors are “welcomed” in an exhibition hall, one of the “urban materials” typical of the specificity of the new settlements in China in which developers and public administrations “stage” the city, either in order to market the new settlements, or to illustrate how local administrations have helped to achieve the objectives established by the central government, whether they be an increase in GDP, teaching modern urban living to those who move from the countryside to the city, or the pursuit of “modern” lifestyles by the emergent middle class. This point of departure reassures visitors who in the first hall find the diversity and exoticism normally associated with Chinese cities. A reassurance that we gradually chip away at by showing videos, images, and installations and providing explanations that make new Chinese urbanisations recognisable, and therefore more “familiar”. In fact, life in the new settlements is like any ordinary everyday life, made up of small gestures and movements (riding a bike, eating, working, walking...) - all activities everyone does all over the world.
The first itinerary also helps visitors understand the scale changes involved in “city making”: from the individual “urban material” to the ensemble of fragments that make up Chinese new towns, but also the hybrid spaces that are not yet city but no longer countryside and then, on a more broader scale, the network of relationships, flows, and exchanges that embrace the whole world. This is how urbanisation processes in China have become part of the economic and urban development model that has taken root over the centuries, a model with limits and contradictions that are particularly evident in the current period of uncertainty due to the current health emergency and its economic and social effects.
The second logical itinerary is conceptually the opposite. In this case the initial impact is confusing: the first spaces are empty, distant, and lifeless. Gradually, however, these spaces become more animated: the photographs and videos narrow the gap between the visitors and the persons portrayed, their faces, gestures and movements. So similar to our faces and movements.
The exhibition has two main objectives. The first is to dispute mainstream view that considers Chinese urbanisation as an “exception”. An interpretation that feeds on prejudice and “distance” (on other than self and elsewhere) and is extensively found in reports by international institutions and organisations and the press. To debunk this interpretation and contradict this perception, we formal alter the videos. Non-linear montage triggers a new focus in visitors; it invites them to pause, question, modify their perspective, and constantly change their viewpoint.
The second objective is to increase knowledge about the city and, as a result, about the world. In fact the exhibition has been designed so that visitors observe and question the urbanisation process underway in China, its positive features (e.g., rapid decrease in infant mortality rate and drastic reduction in the poverty rate) and negative features (e.g., increase in urban and regional inequality, ecological problems, the huge increase in the number of urban inhabitants, and the sprawling enlargement of settlements). Our goal is to give visitors the knowledge they need to understand the contemporary cities and urbanisation processes, in China and elsewhere.
The exhibition pursues these two objectives throughout the aforementioned logical itineraries, in brief using (i) photographs and videos which, by gradually zooming in on the spaces and persons, make the current transformation process “normal” and (ii) installations, data and infographics that deconstruct the Chinese exception by inserting it in the planetary urbanisation.
The main topics of China Goes Urban – urbanisation processes, urban fragments, infrastructure and urban/rural divide – drive visitors to explore Chinese urbanization and question the features of the contemporary city.
The statistics and speed of urbanisation in China could be defined as ‘exceptional’ and ‘unprecedented’. The 2014 report on urban China by the World Bank is more than eloquent. Every year over 16 million people move to urban areas; between 1980 and 2010 the number of inhabitants in cities, especially big cities, increased by 500 million units; another 300 million people living in rural areas will relocate to urban areas before 2025.
In the early twentieth century the rate of Chinese urbanisation, i.e., the percentage of the urban population compared to the total population, was barely 10 per cent. This figure remained modest until 1978 when Deng Xiaoping began to implement economic reforms. Since then the rate of urbanisation has increased rapidly and is currently almost 60 per cent. In a little over 40 years this rapid transformation has radically changed China from a rural country to a country that is the symbol of so-called megacities, i.e., cities with over 10 million inhabitants; from a poor, backward country to one of the key players in current global economics dynamics.
These concise statistics tell us that the numbers involved in the current urbanisation process in China are staggering, as is the relentless development of infrastructures and settlements. The physical expansion is so violent and pervasive that in his book published in 2009 Jianfei Zhu wrote that China is currently the biggest worksite in the world.
And yet the fact Chinese urbanisation is exceptional, albeit exceptional in absolute terms, is much less exceptional if we put it into perspective, if we look at it carefully and try and disassemble and reassemble what lies behind the numbers and figures. In China everything is bigger, but if we change our lenses we still see the same things. The advent of the so-called ‘Urban Age’ in a country with 1.4 billion people defies categories and certainties; it requires us to shift our gaze, to change our viewpoint, to go backwards and forwards in time and space, to focus on China but also to look beyond China. For example, the urbanisation rate in Europe is approximately 75 per cent, while in the United States the percentage of the urban population is 82 per cent. These figures were recorded in the twentieth century, in particular during the period of intense economic growth in the second half of that century. Not surprisingly the trend was described by Eric J. Hobsbawm in his book The Short Century as ‘extraordinary economic growth and social transformation which probably modified human society more profoundly than any other similarly short period’.
If the relationship between economic growth and urban development is one of the constants of urban history worldwide, this relationship is also busily at work in China. Since 1978 pro-capite GDP has risen by roughly 10 per cent per annum; the increase in China’s GDP always remains decidedly above the global average, even in recent years when slow growth became the ‘new normal’. In addition, economic growth and urbanisation sparked changes in the lives of many people: they caused a decisive drop in infant mortality and an increase in the population living in houses with facilities such as a drinking water network, multiple household appliances, and private transportation.
However, Chinese urbanisation is not without its problems and contradictions. While the environmental issue cannot be ascribed (or even less attributed solely) to on-going changes in China, the building boom — not only in the megacities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, but also in other cities different in size and political role — is scarring the country with railways, dams, bridges, motorways, gated communities, skyscrapers, and shopping malls, like a dystopian nightmare in an imaginary land very similar to that of Blade Runner.
On a macro-regional scale, the age-old gap between eastern seaboard settlements (that have grown to incorporate some of the most populous and economically dynamic cities on the planet including Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen) and those in the western part of the country (with some of the poorest provinces in China) has gradually widened even further. At local level the traditional distinctions between urban and rural have intensified and changed vis-à-vis institutional organisation, land ownership, and the living conditions of the population. Even in cities, the differences between the urban population de jure and the urban population de facto, triggered by the 1958 registration system of the population, has led to a sharp increase in inequalities and divisions within urban spaces.
‘Urban park around a lake, a railway station for high-speed trains as a way to trigger urban expansion, a housing complex for the up and coming middle class, an industrial cluster, a cultural centre, an urban village inhabited by migrants, a museum designed by archistars’. At the first glance, Chinese new towns could ostensibly be described as a long list of heterogeneous and discontinuous urban materials. Like Borges’ taxonomies in the first few pages of The Order of Things, it would appear that the only place where they can meet lies in the voice that pronounces them, in the pages that transcribe them, or in the space of this exhibition where they are represented. Chinese new towns can be considered as cities of fragments, as close-knit spaces and moments, without a clearly defined relationship; an ensemble that cannot be inscribed within just one description or interpretative hypothesis.
However, this intrinsic idea of fragmentation is not typical of Chinese new towns. Fragments do not make these new Chinese settlements special, exceptional or unique. On the contrary, in an apparent paradox, fragmentation helps us understand Chinese cities in the ‘city’, and in the discourse about the city. As far back as the early twentieth century scholars at the School of Chicago described the city as a mosaic: every fragment was considered a tessera which, when placed with others, would spark an urbanity that was as extraordinary as it was variegated. However not until recently was it possible to overcome the nostalgia and dangerous twentieth-century illusions of recomposing in a unicum what was not a unicum. In the wake of these observations, over twenty years ago the architect and critic Oswald Mathias Ungers pointed out how contemporary cities could not be treated as unique and unitary entities. More than ever before, cities were never, and are never, just one place, but multiple places. This vision contrasts radically with the dictates of part of the discourse of architecture and urban planning which, inspired by the idea of a city as an art object, or the idea of an alleged authenticity of the past lost in the transition to an industrial city, has often considered cities in terms of units, continuity and system. Michel Foucault’s ‘heterotopia’ reminds us of the discontinuity of urban space, its multiplicities and pluralities in which physical proximity is not synonymous with morphological, economic and social proximity.
After all, Chinese new towns prove that to observe the contemporary city we must confront the vastness and dilation of its boundaries, and the fact we are unable to identify its increasingly blurred limits. We’re not talking here of a change of scale, but of the size of the parts that make up the urban fabric that dilates exponentially until it turns these monads into microcosms. Planning and building cities in big blocks first started in the United States and reached its peak in the construction of Asian cities. After this people shifted their attention towards what George Baird defined a form of inward-looking urbanism where streets could be considered as waste spaces or merely tracks employed to accommodate different transportation modes. Recent residential developments in Chinese new towns are a case in point: although often externally gated, inside they contain not only multiple places and functions to satisfy the needs of urban communities, but also all major public buildings. One excellent example is the brand new museum in Changjiang, designed by the Vector Architects studio. Externally it is an imposing, closed and compact mass, while inside its spaces vary like those of a small city.
Finally, although authors like the architectural critic Colin Rowe have taken the time to try and find a way to confront the fragments and rearrange them into a unitary image, their attempts have been unsuccessful. This exhibition illustrates many different kinds of urban materials; it accepts their contradictions and reveals new spatial forms and social practices. Accepting the fragment does not mean resigning oneself to a sort of ‘end to the city’, instead it means studying a picture where the main aspects and facets of urbanity are internalised in each single part; it means studying the relationships dynamically established between places. Because, deep down, however different these urban materials are, they assume a meaning that always differs if they are considered as parts of a continuously evolving system.
A traveller in China will probably use his eyes, as well its camera, to linger, absorb and record big infrastructures such as viaducts, airports, railway stations and train tracks — transportation networks that snake across the vast lands of China where the most important transformation processes are taking place. These bulky objects are not just signs, visible physical footprints resting on a territory in continuous transformation, instead they represent the materialisation of the virtual network of exchanges, flows and interactions that accompanies, guides, directs and enables multiscalar processes of urbanisation and territorial rearrangement. Take the new high speed railway, for example. In the last ten years 29,000 kilometres of railway track have been laid, undoubtedly facilitating the political objective specified in the 2006 and 2011 Five Year Plans to link the inland areas of China which up until a few years ago were partially excluded from rapid urbanisation processes. This huge infrastructure plan affects both national scale and individual localities. At the local level, the pros and cons of these large-scale infrastructure initiatives have polarised the expansion of cities and established more or less strict boundaries between the lots earmarked for urban development and the land that was to remain agricultural.
Urban infrastructures are not just transport infrastructures, not just the very flashy, enormous, some would say ‘disfiguring’ infrastructures we see turn into bridges, viaducts and railways. The term infrastructure also includes a hidden sub-strata of the city that Bruno Latour and Emilie Hermant dubbed ‘ville invisible’: an underground network of pipes, cables, ducts and so forth, that sometimes break through the surface of spaces, enter houses, and reduce the boundaries between public and private. They become what Matthew Gandy defined as ‘interconnected systems’ supporting human life. Although this ‘vast underground kingdom of urban services’ — thus defined by Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift — is often kept as concealed as possible, it is imbued with a strong symbolic value especially in new urbanisation areas where infrastructural engineering works are displayed, exhibited and enhanced to attract investors and encourage the realization of any form of innovation, wellbeing and modernity.
In the twenty-first century, however, other kinds of equally invisible, lightweight and immaterial infrastructures are being developed. Another sub-strata of urban growth, not only in China, but the world over. In fact urban infrastructures currently include all the satellite systems, communications networks, sensors and microwaves that use the object-symbols of our age as their hub: smartphones. China is emblematic in this regard. 90 per cent of users in China use a smartphone to access the internet and navigate in WeChat, the famous Chinese application that last year registered 1.2 billion accounts, making it a fundamental digital infrastructure to not only remotely connect to one’s contact list, but also to perform key financial transactions, access augmented reality contents, and perform many other functions that facilitate everyday life in our cities, from paying a taxi to booking a showing at the cinema or a table at a restaurant.
All the infrastructures that breathe life into new towns in China, or in all the other urbanised areas of the world, are not just technological, material and digital objects and devices. They are also, and above all, political, economic and social structures. Take for example the legislative and financial infrastructure that makes it possible to establish and promote many of the new urban areas in China as ‘special zones’, the famous Special Economic Zones that facilitated the market economy of the 1980s, or the new special development areas that are part of the ambitious twenty-first century ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. Obviously these special zones were not invented in China and their geography goes well beyond China. Data provided by the United Nations Industrial Development Organisations (UNIDO) show that rapid growth in the ‘special zones’ began in the 1970s. So much so that these areas — characterised by strong investment incentives, availability of a low-cost workforce, very little protection of workers’ rights and safeguard of the environment — became the norm recommended by international organisations and institutions to promote development in the Global South. A typically Chinese example is the political and social infrastructure of the hukou, the famous system of household registration classifying every individual based on a series of parameters assigned to him or her at birth. While the relationships between the city and the countryside are increasingly blurred and nuanced from a physical and settlement point of view, the hukou still provides a clear distinction between what, or perhaps better still who, is ‘urban’ and who is ‘rural’. Hukou system seems to be a good example of Keller Easterling’ statement, i.e. the infrastructure as the ensemble of ‘rules governing the space of everyday life’.
Infrastructures are either very visible or hidden, material or immaterial, physical or virtual. They are not however exclusively technical, but rather a composite ensemble of technique, society and politics. Infrastructures are the basis of urbanity even if we sometimes take them for granted and only realise the role they play in our lives when they are unavailable, do not function, or do not satisfy our needs. As stated by Fran Tonkiss, without them we could not talk about the city.
The city and the countryside. It would appear easy to identify them and understand where the city ends and the countryside begins. The city is lights, skyscrapers, roads, traffic, teeming with people... the countryside is farmers, tractors, sown fields, and a rarefied and suspended atmosphere.
The relationship between the city and the countryside is one of the most debated topics in urban studies and, at the same time, one of the topics least suited to simple, dichotomous interpretations. It is often considered as a juxtaposition between two worlds, urban and rural, inevitably in conflict. An uneven or unequal relationship, because the city ‘‘wins’ over the countryside. The city is the ‘monster’ devouring all that is authentic and real in the countryside — from forms of living to the creation of lifestyles.
The roots of this perspective are to be found in western thought, one that continues to fuel a nostalgic, regressive image towards an alleged lost past and towards a presumed ‘naturalness’ of the countryside, juxtaposed against the totally artificial urban environment. Almost as if the city were still surrounded by walls and the countryside was still characterised by a farmer with a hoe over his shoulder whistling his way on foot to tend to his kitchen garden. A perspective that denies the evidence, as clear-cut as it is disturbing, that even we, as human beings, are natural beings, and that we are the most infesting beings on the planet. Far worse than weeds, locusts, viruses and bacteria. When Mike Davis examined the ‘city of quartz’ in the California desert, with ill-disguised irony he wrote that we are infesting beings running God knows where, sheathed in our ridiculous runner outfits and watched by baffled pumas.
In China, city and countryside, urban areas and rural areas, have undoubtedly very little to do with the forms and characteristics of settlements. City and countryside, urban areas and rural areas are first and foremost categories established by the State that decides what, legislatively speaking, is urban and what is rural: there are two land regimes (urban land is public property; rural land is collective property) and two categories of citizens (according to the so-called hukou which since 1958 has divided Chinese individuals into urban or rural citizens). However this regulatory ‘pigeon-holing’ does not help us understand what we see; it doesn’t help us understand whether there truly is a distinction between city and countryside, between urban and rural areas.
The small villas and small squares in the new towns built along the Yellow River in Henan Province are ill-suited for tractors or threshing floors to dry corn. ‘Urban villages’ are expanses of countryside literally surrounded by skyscrapers, Central Business Districts, motorways and high speed train stations. We can instantly understand there is no separation between the urban and rural area by observing the city of Zhengzhou and its linear urbanisation towards Kaifeng, the sprawling urbanisation of Beijing or in the Pearl River Delta. Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift wrote that the city is everywhere and in everything. These cities/non-cities and these countrysides/non-countrysides, whether in China or elsewhere, seem to be increasingly chameleonic. According to Ananya Roy, urban chameleons either hide or camouflage themselves, advance and withdraw, appear where you least expect them.
Perhaps it is only in our minds that the division between city and countryside, urban areas and rural areas, is clear-cut. But it is a distinction that shatters as soon as we try and look at reality. Any reality. For example the ‘urban sprawl’ in the high plains at the foot of the Lombardy hills or the linear urbanisation along Via Emilia... Because even in Italy, the country of the ‘one hundred cities’ and ‘small metropolises’, the dividing line between city and countryside, urban areas and rural areas, is increasingly blurred.
Suburbia lies between the city and the countryside: that seemingly endless expansion of small villas and warehouses, intersecting motorways connecting shopping malls, productive activities and residential compounds. The sprawl, the image of a city that ‘stretches’ over or in the countryside, that covers it, snaking like a ‘tentacled being’ and spreading like wildfire. Are we surprised? Do we long for a clear-cut, distinct separation between city and countryside, between rural areas and urban areas? And what is suburbia if not a little mix of everything, an indigestible combination often considered as proof that trying to regulate space is destined to fail? Are we sure we need to delimit, to establish limits and boundaries, or is this a vice, a vice of our minds accustomed to pigeon-holing the world so that we don’t lose ourselves in its complexity? Establishing boundaries means cataloguing and distinguishing. It involves applying Michael Foucault’s disciplinary power in which programmed division and delimitation allows us to assign a clear, precise and pre-established role to every small piece of space, and to every individual within that space. In the words of Georges Canguilhem, whoever tries to escape those roles, or whatever cannot be contained in this predefined delimitation, is pathological. Notwithstanding, urban life is hidden in the relationship between city and countryside, and in the obviously increasing difficulty, not to say impossibility, of distinguishing and separating. And the life wins over any diagram of power, any attempt at delimitation, and any apparent pathology or normality.
As far back as 1921 Max Weber told us that to understand anything about the city we needed to look beyond the city. Weber studied medieval European urbanism to define the characteristics of the city during his age. One of the many beautiful and important things he wrote in 1921 was that to understand the city we must look beyond the city, towards the countryside, because the city and the countryside are indissolubly linked. And this indissolubility is perhaps what makes us backtrack and think that maybe there is no need to pigeon-hole, but instead study relationships, understand where people sleep and work, and comprehend where everyday objects come from. The lithium batteries that power our computers, tablets and smartphones, the food we eat, the clothes we wear: what is their story? What geographies do they convey? Certainly not geographies of distinctions, but geographies of intersections and superimpositions, exchanges and flows. Follow the things: by following things we realise that if in the Middle Ages the hinterland of a city was the immediate countryside around a city, it has gradually grown and potentially includes the whole world. City and hinterland are a single entity; not two opposing entities but part of an ‘urban situation’ that has gradually grown to include, in the words of Neil Brenner, the whole planet.
A project by:
Politecnico di Torino
In partnership with:
Fondazione Torino Musei
MAO Museo d’Arte Orientale di Torino
Michele Bonino and Francesca Governa (Politecnico di Torino)
with the collaboration of Angelo Sampieri
Samuele Pellecchia (Prospekt)
with the collaboration of Francesco Merlini
Francesco Carota (Politecnico di Torino)
with the collaboration of Maria Paola Repellino
Liu Jian (Tsinghua University)
with the collaboration of Zhang Li, Fan Lu
Coordination and organization:
Photos and videos:
Samuele Pellecchia (Prospekt)
Maria Paola Repellino