The Chinese Century

For 16 days in August, the world was treated to a kind of architectural fantasia. This summer’s Olym­­pic Games, in Beijing, were more than a global sporting event; they were a coming-out party. But the National Stadium (a.k.a. the Bird’s Nest), the National Aquatics Center, and the plethora of other glittering venues were merely symbols, stand-ins for a much bigger story: the urban transformation of China.

The fierce, feverish modernization there is a work in progress. Thomas J. Campanella’s new book, The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and What It Means for the World (Princeton Architectural Press), does a masterful job of synthesizing what might otherwise have been a gargantuan tome (each of its 11 chapters could be a book unto itself). An associate professor of urban planning and design at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Campanella has been traveling to China since 1992, a crucial moment when the country’s development kicked into overdrive. Recently, executive editor Martin C. Pedersen spoke to him about the book, the ethical responsibility of Western architects, and the future of this massive urban experiment.

Is what we’re seeing in China unprecedented?
Very much so. We’ve never seen anything like this in terms of the sheer amount of stuff being built. But we’ve also never seen so much destroyed in order to build. You know the old maxim “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs”? Robert Moses was very fond of that saying. Well, China has busted a lot of eggs to make this great big omelet. The amount of urban fabric that’s been razed to make way for all this new construction is unprecedented in the peacetime history of world cities. In fact, the only comparable thing we have—and I don’t want to make too much of this because in China it’s reconstruction—is the wartime bombings of cities like Dresden and Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Are they reinventing the city or using largely discredited Western planning principles in a uniquely Chinese context?
They’re definitely doing the latter. But we’re already beginning to get to the end of that phase. The early phase was “copy the West.”

It was almost “copy the West from 1974.”
Yes, you’re right. But, in a very short amount of time, it’s gotten more sophisticated. Even during the early copying stage, it was also being churned through a cultural machine that injected something very Chinese. These suburban sub­divisions are the best example of that. Years ago I thought, China is basically building McMansions. And they are doing that. But it’s also infused with a whole Chinese tradition. So when you see these gated communities that look like American-style McMansions, they are that on one level, but they’re also a contemporary manifestation of an ancient tradition of gatedness and enclosure that runs through Chinese urbanism from way back: the imperial compounds like the Forbidden City, the gated wall, the traditional courtyard house.

How do you think this development is going to play out over time?
When talking about the scale of building in China, speed is the other amazing piece of the story. We have these long time frames in America when it comes to urban planning. I’ve served on the town-planning board in Hillsborough, North Carolina, for several years, and there’s this little river-walk project that we have been trying to get built for about six years—coddling, wheedling, nurturing, and arguing with the landholders to convince them to give an easement; trying to get funding for it; writing grants. In the seven months that I was in Nanjing, the local government built this incredible world-class trails system around the lake and mountain there. I remember looking at it, thinking, The happy medium is somewhere between these two poles. In the U.S. we have what I call an “excess of gavel”—too much participatory democracy. Anybody can come out of the woodwork. It doesn’t take more than a couple noisy people to bring a project to its knees for a long time. The problem in China: they have the opposite set of issues. They have no gavel. They have nothing but a sledgehammer. I’ve argued that we could use a little bit more sledgehammer here, and China could use a little bit more gavel.

Do Western planning and architecture firms working in China have some sort of responsibility to speak out about human-rights violations there?
Western firms doing work in China are in a very odd position. They’re almost in a bit of a vacuum, because they cannot actually be the architectural designer of record. They can only consult, really. They have to hook up with a local firm, which is usually referred to as a design institute. It’s a quasi-governmental entity that has the official sanctioning power actually to sign the documents, be the architect of record. The foreign architects are in a kind of rarified space. And they’ve been especially so in the last few years because they’ve been brought in as gurus coming from the West, here to show China the way. This is, of course, changing. But, still, you have the superstars going there, and the red carpet is rolled out for them. So already there is a certain removal from reality.

Architects like Rem Koolhaas argue that engaging with China will have a democratizing effect.
Koolhaas has argued that? Well, I would have to see exactly how he constructed that argument. But it seems unlikely to me that the CCTV building is going to have a democratizing effect. I’m not so sure that the presence and activity of these Western design firms are going to have an effect of bringing in the kind of political institutions that we’re familiar with here, number one being democracy. And I don’t know how to answer the question as to whether firms have a responsibility. China would certainly say no. The Chinese view has always been not to mess with another country’s political system. And I do think that if any of these firms took a particularly noisy stance on that, they simply wouldn’t get work anymore. Folks who work in China in this regard quickly become savvy to their place, their role, and the limits therein.

Why were the Olympics so important to China?
It was largely framed by the government as a kind of official sanctioning from the global community. Although they wouldn’t say it publicly, a lot of people were fed up with the amount of money—their tax money—that had been channeled toward this grand party. Many people were not happy about that at all. But China has just awed the world with its sheer moxie, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. It’s created so much new wealth. It’s become the workshop of the world. China is like the newly rich industrialist who has been admitted to the country club, and now he’s going to show them all he’s ten times worthy of that gesture.

China is a country of stark contradictions. Sketch out for me a best-case and worst-case scenario.
Worst-case scenario is that China is making all the mistakes we made. They’ve already begun to make a lot of these: this explosive sprawl on the edges of cities, for example. If you look at satellite photos of almost any city, but especially the big ones along the coast, it’s like a supernova, like an explosion across the landscape. And what’s happening is that a lot of arable land has been churned up for development—something on the order of 44,000 square miles. Roughly the area of New England has been lost in arable land. This has enormous repercussions for the country. For the first time in history, China is now a net importer of food, whereas before it was always able to sustain itself. China is actually looking to Latin America, even Cuba, for leasable farmland to begin tilling for its own food needs.

There’s also their passionate embrace of the automobile. They will have the biggest national highway system in the world by about 2020. In addition, a McKinsey study predicts that China will be building something like 431 billion square feet of new construction over the next seventeen years. We’re talking about a staggering and historic amount of material need: cement, minerals, timber. China is already scouring the globe for this stuff. One interesting issue is this weird, neocolonial era that Africa is in now. China has been pouring billions of dollars into development oriented toward whisking away Africa’s natural resources. And, frankly, they don’t care that much about the Africans. The endgame in that picture is not pretty. So, worst-case scenario, China goes down the same oil-slicked path that we’ve been on.

And the best-case scenario?
There are lots of signs that China may well become a model for a more sustainable way of urban development. Now, I’m being optimistic here, because every time I get excited about these sorts of things, there will be ten things that sober me. But there are several indications that China is already heading in the right direction. The government understands that the continued growth of the economy and the happiness of the people are predicated on reversing the terrible pollution in China’s cities and putting a stop to the environmental degradation. Going green is not a lifestyle option for them. It’s a matter of survival. The government has passed a lot of legislation to stop pollution. Now, the enforcement of that is a whole other story. There’s a lot of corruption, a lot of turning a blind eye. But China has the world’s number one installed base of solar heating, solar electricity, and wind power. These are areas where China is already ahead of the rest of the world. And, if they could apply the economies of scale—just the sheer ambition and ability to manufacture on a large scale—to making solar, photoelectric cells, then that really could change things.

The twentieth century was the American century. Are we in the Chinese century?
I think so. The rise of China will be one of the great stories of this century. I see a lot of historic parallels. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Henry James had spent about twenty years away from the United States. They were critical years: the industrial revolution, large-scale immigration. And then he came back around 1904, and he wrote about seeing those towers in Lower Manhattan for the first time. The tone that he writes with, regarding these buildings, had that same mix of awe and fear, envy and admiration and befuddlement, that I’ve felt myself and seen in others writing about rising skyscrapers in Pudong, Shanghai, or Shenzhen. Chicago, New York, and San Francisco were the Shen­zhen and the Guangzhou of one hundred years ago. I feel that we now look to China in a way that’s remarkably similar to the way old-world Europeans felt about us. We have become the Old World. Now, I’m not saying we’re finished. But, as far as urban ambition, we are, I think, finished. With the exception of sustainability and green design, we have done almost nothing truly innovative in the last thirty years in the U.S. in terms of architecture and urbanism. So the muse of future urbanism has moved to China. And that notion we used to have here—that “make no little plans” kind of passion, to quote Daniel Burnham—is long gone. Even in a Guinness Book of World Records way, China has beaten us on all the points: the biggest bridges, the longest tunnels, the tallest buildings. You could just go through the list. They now hold all the trophies.

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