USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Producing the City

China has proposed to build a multitude of cities during the present decade. The process for the vast majority of all those cities has been relatively similar. A slick video is usually created at Tongji University showing a multitude of buildings rising out of beautiful green fields. These videos are usually used to gain foreign direct investment with are displayed next to extraordinary growth figures and flashy power point presentations. Once investment is gathered the cities are built at an incredibly rapid pace. Architectural models are mass produced in factory like settings where even the model makers are becoming tired of the repetition of their work.  The resulting cities are usually successful for the developers. However, their final appearance greatly differs from the initial renderings. The new cities often stand in stark juxtaposition to their surroundings. Sometimes the juxtaposition is a set of pink tombstone apartment buildings next to agrarian villages. Other times the new cities appear as European style villas with factory smokestacks looming as their backdrop. Sometimes the cities evolve into vibrant communities driving business, and culture. Other times the new cities lay empty, although fully purchased, and slowly disintegrate into China’s postindustrial landscape.

A group of residential towers under construction near Shanghai

The mass production of the urban space in China raises questions about its impact. French philosopher Henri Lefebvre critiqued the creation of urban space saying that, “space is a product […] the space thus produced also serves as a tool of thought and of action […] in addition to being a means of production it is also a means of control, and hence of domination of power.” This critique begs to ask the questions who are the producers and user of urban space in China, and how will it benefit the greatest amount of people? Ultimately the answer to that question may be presently unclear, and will probably not be fully answered until the new Chinese cities can be studied a few generations in the future. However, certain elements of this city making can be analyzed in the present.

One crucial aspect of Chinese Urbanization has been the villagers, who most often become the end users of the development. Rural villagers receive considerable compensation for their land that is developed into a modern apartment block or shiny office campus. The villager compensation system is sometimes a rag to riches story. A family that previously had relatively nothing could receive housing and income in the form of rental payments through compensation. This income contains the potential to support several generations. Other times the compensation received by the villagers is of little value when compared to the destruction of their home and business that they had worked to develop from the ground up. While the villagers may be the final end user of the urban space, they are often disconnected from the producers.

If the production of space is thought of a product it becomes essential to understand who is responsible for the production of that product. Initially foreign architects held a large amount of influence over architecture in China. Iconic projects such the National Theatre, National Stadium, and Beijing International Airport were all designed by foreign architects. Xintiandi, a Shanghai development that has created a model for adaptive reuse of existing architecture was also developed by foreign architects and has been reproduced throughout China. However, Chinese architects are increasingly playing a role in the creation of cities within their own country. URBANUS, a Shenzhen based architectural practice has designed many urban areas around China and functions at a highly critical and analytical level. The practice of city making in China also gains increased importance as Chinese developers seek out opportunities around the world. Developer China Vanke has developments in Hong Kong, Singapore, and America, while Dalian Wanda has begun to develop in International cities such as London.

All of these factors build upon one another to spread insight into the nature of Chinese urbanization. While the users and producers of Chinese Urbanization functions as two very different groups, they have the potential to work together to create effective space. Only time will tell if the production of urban space China acts more as a tool of control, or of opportunity.


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The views and opinions contained in this blog are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the views and opinions of the University of Southern California or any of its officers or trustees.



AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Andrew Liang
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu