My experience in Shanghai has been a humbling experience of sorts. I’ll be the first to admit that before the trip, I had negative pre-conceptions of China as still being largely third world, despite the endless news reports of its quick economic development. If you asked me what my expectations of China were prior to leaving on this trip exactly three and a half months ago, I’d quite simply say:
“Well, it’s probably going to be smelly, dirty, and gloomy”.
Now, while I would say most of that is generally still true, I cannot doubt the fact that I am genuinely appalled and afraid of where China is and fast becoming in the global community. A plethora of high-speed rail developments, no shortage of planned economic zones, heavily invested by leading international businesses, epicenter of global events, and did I mention the growing population of 1.4 billion?
If that’s not enough to strike fear in your adversaries, then I don’t know what will.
But it’s not just China. Our initial drive through Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong provided a small (personally, I wish we spent MUCH more time there) glimpse into true “urbanism” as we call it. Layered densities both horizontal and vertical, hybridity of programmatic elements, successfully integration of infrastructural systems; all these are characteristics of what we saw, felt, experienced. In short, we experienced an everydayness that was foreign to us, and yet at the same time intriguing and exciting because, quite simply, it worked.
But what does that all mean for us now, especially post-trip while we’re safely back within the completely different world of America? If anything, this trip has opened my eyes to the deficiencies that plague a stagnant America that is utterly stuck in its tracks. Of course, we do enjoy many freedoms unparalleled in most countries, but America is far from its glory days. If the 20th century was about America, then the 21st century is increasingly becoming about China. Friedman’s “From WikiChina” article, albeit humorous, provides an insightful look into perhaps how the world is continuing to view us. Friedman states, “ The Americans have replaced working to exceptional with talking about how exceptional they still are. They don’t seem to understand that you can’t declare yourself ‘exceptional’, only others can bestow that adjective upon you”. Ouch, but so true. I mean, what’s so exceptional about American infrastructure? We have 10 lane freeway expansion projects in LA that stretches for miles, but the only exceptional thing about that is perhaps the iconic smog generated from all the car traffic. We can’t even agree to pass a bill to install a network of high speed rail transit systems that will even go over 90 miles per hour. The realization of such an infrastructural revolution within America is a lesson that can be taken from Asia, where high speed is a necessity of most people’s transportation. Like cities such as Los Angeles, it’s becoming increasingly impossible to move from point A to point B without taking hours in traffic congestion. Also, the mobility of the individual becomes increased tremendously, allowing a greater opportunity for distributed intra-national economic growth. But no, industries that include airlines have lobbied hard against it in an effort to erase the competition; this along with many other political/economic factors have ubiquitously hindered any real change in our infrastructure.
Friedman is right when he says, “…the Americans are polarized over all the wrong things”. We are often so entrenched in our ideological beliefs that we live in a black and white world. This is that, this is not and cannot be that. Lefebvre touches upon this “situation” as he calls it: “ A modern object clearly states what it is, its role and its place.” Americans often view society and place in the same manner: a mall is just a mall; a train station is where people get on and off a train, etc. But there’s so much more to that, the possibilities of experience and juxtaposition of program and space are endless and intriguing if only we operated in the grey area. Tokyo Midtown was not just an office building complex, it was a subway station, mall, hotel, private residences, outdoor park all interweaved and layered to create a different kind of urban environment that was continuously engaging the public at different levels. We saw, in Hong Kong, the IFC mall turned into an airport terminus with an express rail line that directly linked the airport to the subterranean level. The airport then became more than itself, it was a transportation hub and also a lifestyle center, complete with cultural amenities, retail shops, restaurants, cafes, etc; the phenomenon of “infratecture”.
Lefebvre states: “Today we see a worldwide tendency to uniformity”. But beyond that, the tendency is also towards a sense of complacency. Complacency for how things are, how comfortable things can get. If given the same opportunity to see/experience the things I have in these last 15 weeks, there are people I know who would be unwilling, simply because their life back home is all too comfortable. Therein lies the greatest danger, and unfortunately America has become lost in its own complacency. If we do not stimulate ourselves with curiosity and intrigue, what good is replicating what has already been done before? How can we affect the world around us if all we know how to do and think is through mimicry? Asia, specifically China, is the new frontier, pioneering the world into the 21st century through technology, infrastructure, and most importantly urbanism. It’s about time America woke up from its dreams of what once was and realize we are losing the race in a world has long since moved on.
So when I return, upon being bombarded with “What did you see?” or “How was Asia?”, I’ll simply reply:
Wow, you wouldn’t even believe me if I told you…
Friedman, Thomas, “From WikiChina” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/01/opinion/01friedman.html?src=twrhp
Filed under: America, China, Infrastructure, Japan, Korea, Lefebvre, Psyche, Urbanism