Jiang Jun: City/State [2008]

Editor-in-Chief of Urban China Magazine

Jiang Jun, designer and critic, has been working on urban research and experimental study, exploring the interrelationship between design phenomenon and urban dynamic. He founded Underline Office in Guangzhou in 2003, and has been the editor-in-chief of Urban China Magazine since the end of 2004. He is the translator of Tony Godfrey’s Conceptual Art, and Rem Koolhaas’ Bigness and Junkspace. Born in Hubei in 1974, Jiang Jun got his bachelor’s degree in Tongji University in Shanghai and master’s degree in Tsinghua University in Beijing, now also teaching in Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts.

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What can we learn from China? During the past decades Chinese cities developed rather exceptionally, especially for a developing country, a development which is driven by acceleration and illegal forms of urbanism. Confronted with the question What can we learn from China? we try to understand the mechanism that drive this urban development. How would you respond to this question?

Jiang Jun: The development of the Chinese city is inscribed in the logic of a planned market economy, of planned capitalism. Inside this macro framework of planning a laissez-faire attitude rules. The efficiency underlying the planning is due to system of ownership, as even the central government gets money through this system. Real estate developers manage the usage of the land. When building new cities or district they have to invest in infrastructure and sometimes in building the new administrative new city for the government. When more developers are attracted to these places, they inscribe themselves in the logic of this basic model. Which is actually the model that first has been developed in Shenzhen and later, and now, is moving to other Chinese cities. This is fastest mechanism to push the development of a city forward. This development through infrastructure, road development, is in first instance very rough, in the second stage we see a system of redevelopment and regeneration in a very efficient and sustainable way. At the othe hand a lot of investment comes from outside of China. Take for example the case of Shenzhen where there is almost no investment from the central government, only 500 million RMB, compared to the 15,3 billion RMB, investment from the outside; from place like Hong Kong, Taiwan or the US. The case of Shanghai is more balanced where money comes from both ways, both domestic and foreign.

Does this creates a conflicts in vision on urban development? In some developed countries a city makes a plan and investors follow that plan. Is here another situation happening?

JJ: Here we make a plan and then the laissez-faire, the free capitalism infiltrates the plan. So plans have to be adjusted day by day, time by time, this to follow the reality. The plan always has to catch up with change, with the free economy. These plans are primary controlled within the overall balance and development of the country, like in the development of the Yangtze River Delta, Pearl River Delta, and Bohai Sea region. So first we developed the East of the country and are now pulling this into the underdeveloped Western region of the county. This development would be impossible in a complete free market economy. In essence China’s urban development is not solely target to individual cities, but ties in more with an overall vision on this country. A vision where there is the need for a balance of the space. In the past we have seen this in the government’s policy to create special economic zones . Now this evolution is moved more towards the market and development of the regional economies. The initial development was very unbalanced, based on the idea, especially in the Pearl River Delta, to allow a small few groups of people to get rich first. Now China is creating a harmonious society, dealing with this balance-unbalance situation. I am talking here about a modernization process, in which urbanizing is the typical way of modernization. This modernization is materialized in every specific way in the city and relates to the country’s history. In a case like Beijing where the city enormously expanded we can see that this expansion mirrors the macro-change. With Urban China Magazine we are studying these diversifying changes and find ways to unite those.

From a visual point of view China’s cities deal in diverse with densities and size of buildings. It gives the impression that whatever is possible. How does the size of the plot relates to the volume and size of the building sitting on it?

JJ: One can’t forget that planning and the architectural outcome is about the rules that are set up. For example in Beijing the rules lead to a more wider organization, while in Guangzhou the plots are very narrow but density is much higher. The development of Beijing is still largely determined by the danwei system, a system inherited from military history. This leads to superblocks that are enclosed with inside them space for government buildings, public space, public buildings. During the last decade we see a more specific way of planning, Central Business Districts are much more condensed and complex. You see that in developments like SOHO (small office, home office) where the rules are set up to combine offices with housing.

Is the Chinese city ready to sustain and reflect the desires of the growing middle class?

JJ: Of course. In the future the middle class will become more and more the force that supports the power of the country. The middle class will be those citizens that make the visions for the government and as such become a more self-organizing society that is responsible for the regulated development. Cities should represent the middle class, because the upper class is a small class and the objective for the ‘no class’ is to improve their quality of life into middle class. Every developing country is like this. The problem is that people have difficulties in thinking about the future, as they only care about today, but for creative industries, and architecture is just a small part of the creative industries, I hope that in the coming twenty years we will make a great leap forward and architecture could be part of that. By then we should have more vision and money to do some proper development. But few understand that it is actually now is the time to think how to make that qualitative and qualified development.

How do you think this will change architecture?

JJ: I believe architecture should be more concerned with combining function, content and context. Architecture is both self sustained and related to the context, good architecture should combine those. The context relates to the environment, and the superstructure it inscribes itself in. I don’t think tabula rasa is a nice thing because that is a strategy to to kill diversity. Also the context is not what we find in hutong areas, that is very popular in the current discourse on Beijing and to all of the country. But for the local society and people there should be diversity with much more opportunities, one which one could call the real New Urbanism. Chinese cities should keep and aspire this kind of diversity. Architecture is about function, program and possibilites. If architecture will change in this country it should be driven by forging, creating and thinking about new combination between those. As such it could reinvent itself. Like a SOHO kind of re-invention. Recently I saw the design for Onix TV in Beijing, which combines media offices, public parks and commercial shopping streets. The public shopping street and the park are designed so that you can look through the window in the media room. The biggest change of the Chinese city is that the gradual transformation from a production into a consumption oriented city. This gives also a new direction especially for the media, the offices, where there is a new possibility for you to consume. This possibility will make them become more attractive. This is also what the central government wants to do in the next phaze to bypass the domestic demand. The domestic demand is the way for China to deal with the global economy, as the global economy can be sometimes very frustrating as we witness now with the impact of the American stock onto the Chinese market. Mao stirred this country in a direction of independence, so the global crisis would never affects the country. Now the situation changed and we experience now more and more the impact. China is very big, it is a world in itself. Now there is a great potential inside of domestic China to be developed. People only know about the coast line, but China’s urban development has more depth.

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Jiang Jun interviewed by Bert de Muynck
Beijing, China | February 4, 2008

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