Peter Rowe: The Chinese City [2008]

An interview with prof. Peter G. Rowe, Harvard University

by Dan Handel

“Man’s present metropolitan environment has two characteristic features. In the first place, it is an expanding environment. (…) In the second place, the modern metropolis has consequently expanded out of all proportion to man’s natural powers of locomotion.”

Arnold Joseph Toynbee, Has Man’s Metropolitan Environment Any Precedents?

How does today’s development of the Asian city respond to these two characteristic features? In an interview by Dan Handel, Professor Peter G. Rowe (Harvard University) elaborates on his study of the contemporary city in the Asian context and its position within the global development of ongoing research, understanding, communication and analysis of the metropolitan environments. The interview took place in Professor Rowe’s office at the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, on the 29th of October.

Professor Peter Rowe | FUIUF Conference | Shanghai, November 2006
Professor Peter Rowe | FUIUF Conference | Shanghai, November 2006

In the interview Professor Peter G. Rowe gives an insight in his attitude towards the use and relevance of statistics in urban research and how this potentially distorts our perception of metropolitan reality. Next to explaining the position of the “Chinese City” within the larger East Asian urban development, he illustrates some of its characteristics while breaking away from some popular notions on it. The second half of the interview is directed towards understanding the mechanisms, and their value, of urban development that stem out of the Asian expanding metropolitan environment, thereby questioning the notion of east-west and import-export relations in the field of architecture and urbanism. He reflects upon the urban development of Shanghai, an emerging new form of engagement amongst Chinese architects (Wang Shu, Ma Qingyun) with the city, the importance of “the temporal dimension” and how this would affect our practice.

Jakarta, October 2008
Jakarta, October 2008

The Chinese City in the East Asian Context

Dan Handel: During the past years, the 50/50 urban rural divide became a dogma tic part of the global and local agenda’s of urban policy makers, researches and exhibition designers. This has lead to a situation where the contemporary city is made comprehensible through a suffocating strategy of visualizing data and organizing quotes, mixed with ‘the stereotypical image of the megacity’, one fusing the formal with the informal, the destruction with the construction. The growth of the city and analysis of the contemporary city has been an important aspect of your work and started in times before this explosion. What is your opinion on the use of data as means to represent cities, and even generate planning? Do you think it’s useful? Is it being overused in urban research?

Peter Rowe: I believe that when you are presenting data about cities, it has to be organized and communicated into the framework of a coherent story. I mean, we talk about lies, damn lies or statistics right? You can find an overload of statistics and references, from multiple points on the subject you are dealing with. To me the question is how to organize statistical information in a manner that sheds light on some broader urban concepts and/or stories. In that regard, I think it can be quite powerful. It is true that in the architectural realm of thinking this method has lately been used more frequently. Talking about this as an explosion is probably true, as we see a rising amount of these type of references used in work, but we must acknowledge that the empirical and numerical studies of cities have been around for a very long time. If we look at other disciplinary areas in planning it is very well developed. In my own work, I try to not to indulge in it, but to use it in the benefit of making points or describing differences in magnitude. To me it is important to connect these with a broader conceptual understanding of the ways by which cities are moving forward and not as simply a crutch to lean on.

DH: So in a way it should be used to support a narrative?

PR: Yes. Sometimes when I’m doing work I come across series of numbers and data and say “wait a minute, I am wrong” (laughs). Empirical information can be a sobering device in a research project. Often you go along with some preconceived notion about the way things work and then come upon some data that seem to point in the opposite direction. There is an interesting process of rethinking involved in that. One of my favorite examples of this, is the huge claim that Chinese cities are enormous on scales of magnitude larger than anywhere else in the world and its growing tremendously rapidly. But when you actually go through the data we have and analyze it, neither of these two claims hold any particularly truth. Indeed the growth rates have been high, but they are not unprecedented, if you consider the migrations in Italy or the reshuffling in the US, during the post WW2 period on a normalized basis. What is unusual about China is that the period of growth is longer. The numbers don’t suggest it is unprecedented in any way except in sheer magnitude. Which makes sense in a nation of 1.3 billion people.

Shenyang, July 2006
Shenyang, July 2006

DH: How do you position the development of “the Chinese City” within the larger context of an urbanizing East Asian context? Should we see it as an exception, latecomer or follower?

PR: It seems to me that the East Asian cities have conformed themselves to a certain level of generality regarding some of the notions we have about urban development processes. First of all, people leave the countryside, go into factories and cities, where industrial production is gradually being replaced by service industry, and the formation of cities occur as a part of that. The ways in which this is being done – in terms of the various tactics being used in order to boost economic development and the resulting urbanization – seem to conform to a general discourse about development in emerging countries. All cities in East Asia conform fairly well to this model. That said, one distinguishing feature that these cities share – not necessarily in contrast with other places in the world, but definitely unlike the US – is that the majority of this development occurred in nations where fairly authoritarian regimes are in power. It is usually a strong, top down, model which exists in East Asia that leads to a double scenario. On the one hand, during times of rapid growth, and in order to sustain that growth, you have to put plans and strategies rapidly in place, resulting in a wide adoption of internationally available concepts for shaping the city, which have the tendency to make urban environments somewhat more homogeneous. On the other hand, in most of these East Asian circumstances, there is also a strong cultural and historical underlay in the cities that gets mixed in.

Lately, as some of the developments in these areas calmed down a bit, people are beginning to look around and are taking care of some of the problems resulting from this first round of urban development. Examples can be found in the amelioration of space based on issues of identity and historical awareness. Suddenly they are concerned about the environment and their amenities, so then it becomes referential back to the place itself. Of course, in a detailed examination every city is different…

Seoul, June 2008
Seoul, June 2008

DH: But would you say Chinese cities are not different in that context?

PR: In that regard, I think you might also ask what about the differences between northern and southern China? I know China well enough to know that city formation, history and so forth vary across its territory. While some cities, like Beijing, developed very much along the lines of canonical forms of the classical imperial city, other cities, like Shanghai, never were of that status. One answer to your question stems from the level you are looking at it: East vs. west, Japan vs. China, and in what flavor: is it about pure morphology, building type and so forth. The Chinese city can be analyzed from different perspectives, from something quite similar to what we know in the West up to something that is absolutely unique. My own point of view is that when you look at the middle level, there are probably enough distinguishing features suggesting outcomes that are East Asian in their complexion but not necessarily Chinese. But of course there are numerous exceptions to that.

Shenzhen, January 2008
Shenzhen, January 2008

DH: A lot of urban theories and methods of analyzing cities have been developed according to the growth of the American and European city. Is it from your perspective possible to transplant some of these ideas into the Chinese or larger East Asian context? What should one know when attempting to do so, what are the dangers and what are the opportunities in doing so?

PR: At the end of the day, I believe it’s more correct to use a sort of a hybrid approach to this. In my work, I have been spending a lot of time describing what the traditional city was like in a particular context, what was the manner in which it was appreciated and seen. This often stems from a strong epistemological point of view. It doesn’t mean that we should apply that completely to contemporary context. The importation in contemporary times of Western rooted ideas, concepts and technologies has occurred and to some extent, they collide with what’s in place. As far as I know, we don’t have a 100,000 spectator traditional Chinese sports stadium or office space. In other words, traditional vernacular concepts about the shape and form of cities are useful when you are dealing with the same things, at the same scale. Usually it’s residential community development and so forth. Beyond that, they are not going to offer much advice at all, so the model gets adopted from somewhere else.

Now, in the adoption of a model you have various diffusion techniques. Often, like during the Meji restoration in Japan, they had the tendency to simply borrow the thing and put it down. And so it went through a process of imitation, reaction to imitation and than indigenization. My experience in China is that they tend to take on many of the models from elsewhere in the world, adapting these with the Chinese characteristics that need to be assigned, both in institutional and urban development examples. But there is as well a complication here coming from western practitioners who often bring in their own ideas, trying to please their clients by acting more oriental than the orientals. For the people there the key question is whether you define yourself as a modern person that happens to be Chinese or the other way around.

Harbin, July 2006
Harbin, July 2006

DH: Do you think we are going to see a change in the near future? Will the east west axis turn and we will learn from China’s urban development? In other words, can we interpret certain elements of the Chinese city and implement these in western built environments?

PR: There are a lot of things in Chinese cities that I personally find fabulous, for example the whole concept of lane life. I don’t mean a fascination rendered in the poverty stricken, slum-like way you see in its modern manifestation but rather in the notion of having a low rise, high-density, urban development well integrated with respect to services, and living environments. These places posses the, almost magical, qualities of village life while also being a part of urban circumstances. I think that’s pretty good! It becomes interesting when looking at the numbers involved here, by adding up a few more stories to what they have now, you can get high density, and a sense of community and serenity which are enviable. Also, in some ways, we talk a lot about the FengShui, a design and organizational strategy going back to the canons and the whole relationship to nature which always lurks behind most of the buildings from the past and to some extents coming back to what is happening now. FengShui is actually common sensical, and it doesn’t distance you from nature and natural circumstances. It has an interesting potential to bring you back to a conceptually harmonious balance, definitely something we should pay attention to.

DH: Do you see these concepts survive the current development tide?

PR: Well, in respect to lane life, the Lilongs and Hutongs tended to be conserved with reasonable aggression.

DH: Although through turning these into high profile developments in certain cases…

PR: Yes, but some of them are put to use in a very good way. I think that the municipal governments, both in Beijing and Shanghai, certainly understand the issues and do what they can. The problem is that these are located in some of the districts where rents are high, so they have a lot of economic pressures to deal with. I cannot imagine that one would undermine the whole Hutong environment in Beijing as that would put the Forbidden City in danger since it has to be seen and appreciated in a context which is essentially low rise. But anyway, if we were to move the model to a context where the economic pressure is not that high, it can be applied in modern terms. I don’t see anything wrong in going back to certain parts of Beijing or Shanghai and doing modern interpretations. In my view there are three alternatives: one is that you totally preserve, brick by brick, the structure and change its use, the other is that you apply a conservation strategy keeping an evolving culture more or less in place, or thirdly it is replaced by something which is a reinterpretation of many spatial principles, but not necessarily with the exact appearance.

If history stops tomorrow, we will certainly remember China, and Shanghai in particular, as giving rise to a sort of hyper modernism, while looking back in a certain nostalgia in wanting things to be the way they were! And you got these two currents, hypermoderism and hyperhistory, moving along together. But I want to come back to another point you made, I think we went through a period of ten to fifteen years in which most of the projects have been driven by the desire for a hyper modern architectural and urban image delivered by foreign architects. This movement certainly has slowed down by now. There is a mood of change in China which you can see if you look at the terminology of the current national plans, it is quite different than former ones: what they are saying about “harmonious society” and the “five balances” suggests a much more modest inclination compared with “celebrating identity and the state”. So this change is clearly directed from the top. Sometimes however, the people on the ground don’t get this. So while I am interested in seeing these developments, I think its days are numbered, especially when you think of the young Chinese architects.

Shanghai, November 2006
Shanghai, November 2006

DH: How have you seen the debate and topics of interest changing in the Chinese scene and where, if you would be able to speculate about this, will this be leading to in the future?

PR: I wrote a piece for a Spanish atlas by “Arquitectura Viva” about architecture in China, and by looking at a broad range of work, one of the conclusions I came to is that the younger Chinese generation is paying a lot more attention to indigenous local circumstances. They tend to be much more modest, although no less brilliant. In the sorts of expressive languages or “moves” as you say in architecture, there is a very strong affinity with material and its recycling.

DH: Who would you think of as examples for this new approach?

PR: Wang Shu (Amateur Architecture Studio) for example, who made the campus in of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Hangzhou, as well Ma Qingyun (MADA s.p.a.m.), who is a fine architect. There are a few more. Now, I guess you could say the work they were commissioned was more modest, but I think its less coincidental than that. It seems to me that contemporary architecture in China has a certain key to it, with a different sense of representational program, trying to get out a different materiality, fitness with natural circumstances, and high quality.

Central Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou | Amateur Architecture Studio
Central Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou | Amateur Architecture Studio

DH: And what about theory? Do you see signs of Chinese architects thinking and theorizing their own cities?

PR: That’s hard to know. The architectural theory we talk about in the west is characterized by a very specific set of things in philosophical terms. It’s usually a continental, post structural, criticism oriented line of thought which is used to think about societies and urban architectural production systems. But even here in the GSD we have understood that not everything can be theorized in that way. So it raises the question whether a Chinese based theory would actually have an entirely different inclination. And I have to say, dealing with a number of schools in China and Japan, they seem to have a difficult time in doing theory the way we do it and part of it I think have to do with the fact that its very foreign. It is actually sometimes foreign to us also. I am not saying you should not theorize architecture, but not necessarily in that narrow sense.

DH: So you don’t see this type of theory evolving there?

PR: I don’t think so, no.

QingPu Thumb Island near Shanghai | MADA s.p.a.m.
QingPu Thumb Island near Shanghai | MADA s.p.a.m.

DH: The last thing I want to ask you is what are, in your opinion, the topics our young emerging generation of urban researchers should focus on?

PR: That is a big question. I started as a student in a time in which we were interested in systems and environmental suitability, went through the business about typologies, history and so forth, leading into the present framework which seems to deal a lot with questions of scale and scaling. One aspect of the urban phenomena we still don’t handle well is the space-time. We have a very sparse understanding of the temporal dynamics of the ways things have occurred or might occur and what sorts of dynamic process might be put into play, from the strategic and tactical point of view. It is hard stuff to model and to think about but I always find it interesting. When we talk of an urban development that had occurred over a certain time period we have a tendency to conceptualize the last stage, the first stage and a little bit in between which is incredibly unrealistic and rather naïve. The temporal dimension is a very important one and new ways of thinking about it that would affect our practice. Given that architecture lasts for a long time and takes quite a while to develop, and that we are talking about urban dynamics which are by definition temporal, we would definitely have to explore some techniques to describe that. I think there’s a very rich future for that kind of engagement. We more or less figured the form so let’s look at the tempo!

– – — – –


Prof. Peter G. Rowe interviewed by Dan Handel
Harvard University | October 29, 2008

Dan Handel. Architect, research coordinator at City/State Unit, Bezalel Academy of Art and Architecture, Jerusalem. He is currently studying at the Architecture department, Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

Pictures by MovingCities, Lev (Qingpu Thumb Island) and Amateur Architecture Studio (CAFA Hangzhou)

Further Reading
Peter G. Rowe  “Urbanization in the East Asian Region” and “Modern Architecture and Urbanism in China.
Architect in China | Interview with Ma Qingyun (MADA s.p.am.) | VOLUME#8, Sept 2006.
Xin Tian Di (Shanghai) | Interview with Benjamin Wood | CRE#3, Dec 2006.
The New Urban Ecology | Interview with Kyong Park | Domuschina #12, July 2007.
Making Minced Meat of Memory | MUDOT, May, 2008.
“What can we learn from China?” | City/State Unit Workshop, Bezalel Academy of Art and Architecture, Jerusalem | February 2008
“CHINA ACCORDING TO CHINA” | 0300TV | documentary | October 2008

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