Emergent Architectural Territories | book review

Emergent Architectural Territories in East Asian Cities | Birkhäuser, 2011
Emergent Architectural Territories in East Asian Cities | Birkhäuser, 2011

MovingCities received a copy of ‘Emergent Architectural Territories in East Asian Cities[Birkhäuser, 2011] by prof. Peter G. Rowe [Harvard University]. The 200-page publication maps and describes the large development areas in big cities in China, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, as they are striking out into new territories. Both as an introduction to or overview of a multitude of large-scale projects in the East Asian region, the book clearly categorizes and discusses the emergence of large-scale urban constructs in the region.
A book review.

A short blurb from the publisher explains the background and objective of the book:

Combining a typology of public architecture with an account of the composition of urban elements, the author establishes a much-needed link between urban planning issues and the architectural agenda. […] The presentation provides a rich view regarding the co-mingling of global and local influences in non-Western settings. The vast territories under development are shown in spectacular, highly detailed bird’s-eye views drawn especially for this book. With its systematic approach, this study by a leading expert in the field is a work of reference on a subject that shapes the world of building. […] In contrast to earlier, heavily top-down and production-oriented phases of modern urbanization, many East Asian cities are now becoming functionally more diversified, more inclusive of life-style opportunities and improved with regard to environmental amenity and material standards of living. Such ‘turning points’, as they have been described, began occuring during the past fifteen or so years and have resulted in the creation of new territories for urban-architectural development, often with spectacular arrays of contemporary projects. Six kinds of such territories will be described and discussed using examples from a dozen or more cities in East Asia. Observations will also be made with regard to both exceptional and conventional aspects of this recent architectural production.

In this book, prof. Peter G. Rowe [Raymond Garbe Professor of Architecture and Urban Design, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor] introduces the development of Asian Cities in eight chapters: Territories and turning points, The two axes of Beijing, From Puxi to Pudong in Shanghai, Flying in and out of town, Reclaiming and remaking territories, Keeping and re-using, Streets and fashion on display and Territories, geographies and discourses.

Each chapter follows a similar formula: there is a clear and concise opening gambit explaining the territorial issues at hand (oftentimes by placing these in a historic, social and cultural context), followed by a detailled and in-depth description of relevant architectural projects and concluded with an insight in the relevance of these projects for future development. Especially the introductions and conclusions of each chapter are note-worthy read and the ones where prof. Peter G. Rowe’s voice is clearly communicated.

But the book could have been as well arranged along a different perspective as the first two chapters clearly deal with Chinese urban and architectural developments (mainly in Beijing and Shanghai, but makes in a later chapter also side-steps to Chengdu). The third and fourth chapter deals with mobility (airports, harbors, train stations) related to man-made land reclamations. The final two chapter deal with re-inventing and repositioning large-scale cultural project within the discussed Asian cities (amongst others a clear history of Tokyo’s Ginza fashion district). The blurb that states that “the vast territories under development are shown in spectacular, highly detailed bird’s-eye views drawn especially for this book,” [drawings by Michael Sypkens] is a bit of an overstatement, as it is unclear to us how and why these images add value to the book.

In 2008, Dan Handel [currently Project and research coordinator at Bezalel Academy of Art & Design, Department of Architecture & curator for the Israeli Pavilion at 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale] interviewed prof. Peter G. Rowe for MovingCities – read The Chinese City in the East Asian Context in which Rowe stated:

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. […] 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. […] There are a lot of things in Chinese cities that I personally find fabulous, for example the whole concept of lane life. […] 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.

Shanghai | Skyline Scan | [click for more]
Shanghai | repetitive research | [click for more]

Emergent Architectural Territories in East Asian Cities‘ discusses a broad range of large-scale projects constructed in East Asian during the past two decades: CCTV (Rem Koolhaas & Ole Scheeren / OMA), Beijing National Stadium (Herzog & de Meuron), Shanghai Pudong Airport (Paul Andreu), Incheon Ground Transportation Center (TFP Farrells), Roppongi Hills (Mori Building Company), Cheonggyecheon Cultural Center (Junglim Architects),… as such bringing the reader in a journey along cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo, Singapore, Incheon, Chengdu, Hong Kong and Taipei. The selection of projects and histories is insightfull but, as the author writes in his conclusion, “by no means, however, has it been a full account in the sense of a braod survey and subsequent categorization of building activity in the region. […] In addition, little attempt was made towards national characterizations of architectural production, even as the subject of expressive identity cropped up, in the belief that the cities and local circumstances themselves with their particular situational logics carried more weight.

Besides this, the book manages not to force upon the reader an idea that certain projects in the Asian region are similar to each other or generic spin-offs of related urban and architectural programs. What prof. Peter G. Rowe manages to do is to find correspondences by identifying those architectural and urban programs that have emerged in the region: construction of new airports, land reclamation projects, new central business districts, preservation projects, mixed-use urban environments,…. By presenting these projects one after the other and telling their story from conception to completion, the reader is slowly and carefully introduced to a selection of projects that have been emblematic for a new East Asian urban development.

Although is each case is presented and written down in a convincing way, there is in almost every chapter a great disconnect between the text and images. Quite often the maps, drawings, plans and photographs presented do not correspond with the text that is either at the left or right-hand side of them. It forces the reader to either flip back or forward while reading, and in few cases – despite the eloquent writing – decent illustrations are simply absent.

Shanghai – Guangzhou | [click for more]
Beijing – Shanghai | [click for more]
Seoul snapshots | [click for more]
Hong Kong | City of Corridors | [click for more]

Rather than retro-actively rewriting the agenda for these emergent architectural territories, prof. Peter G. Rowe describes and distinguishes in several chapters the mode and scale of their development, their relation with their surrounding city, their influence, in terms of design, of western ways of creating architecture. The chapter called ‘Reclaiming and remaking territories’ is probably the most unique one in this context, as it is the one where a new strategy is applied to the development of the city. Prof. Peter G. Rowe writes:

At least within the East Asian context, the large and sudden infusion of new urban space, typically at the single project level of 500,000 square meters or so of new floor area, has been significantly larger than prior development increments. […] One notable aspect of almost all these large-scale projects is the consistent involvement of western design and planning firms, as well as business models, even if the sponsors behind the developments are almost entirely local. […] The other form of siphoning off at work, is delibearta appropriation of functions from elsewhere in a city, in order to somehow enhance the mix and diversity of activities involved in the project. […] Also at work among the projects under discussion here, is a hubris factor. One might well ask, for instance, if the concentraion of floor space at Taipei 101 is really necessary of justifiable outside of the excuse to build, for a time, the talles building in the world. Similar skepticism might also be aimed elsewhere, for instance, at the ‘frists’ racked up at Marina Bay. If nothing else in cases like these, if not throughout this whole discussion, there seems to be a solid belief that the pitch and tone of urban-architectural environments do matter.

Hong Kong snapshots | part I | by MovingCities
Rory McGowan: Learning from CCTV [2009] | [click for more]

Emergent Architectural Territories in East Asian Cities‘ is a welcome academic refreshment dealing with new types of architectural and urban developments in East Asia with case-studies presented in a clear and convincing manner. It speaks to the advantage of the publication that the projects discussed were all conceived during the past three decades and thus benefit from the first-hand research prof. Peter G. Rowe has undertaken during this time. It does not see these projects as a form of exception, neither as evidence of a generic attitude towards creating architectural environments, but manages to point out the logic behind them while clearly labelling them as ’emerging’. It will be interesting to read this again in a few decades from now and understand how they manage to shift from emerging to evolving.


Emergent Architectural Territories in East Asian Cities by Peter G. Rowe, Basel 2011 [pp. 200, € 59.90 / $ 79.95] Birkhäuser


The Chinese City in the East Asian Context interview prof. Peter G. Rowe by Dan Handel [October, 2008]


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