Peter Rowe | interview part I

Shanghai, November 2006

In his second dispatch, architect Dan Handel interviews Professor Peter G. Rowe.
By providing insight into his study of the contemporary city in the Asian context Professor Rowe reflects on today’s development of research, understanding, communication and analysis of the metropolitan environment. 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

In the first part of the interview (below) Dan Handel asks Peter Rowe about his attitude towards the use and relevance of statistics in urban research and how this potentially distorts our perception of metropolitan reality. Rowe then explains the position of the “Chinese City” within the larger East Asian urban development, illustrates some of its characteristics while breaking away from some popular notions on it.

Part two (in upcoming post) 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 with the city, the importance of “the temporal dimension” and how this would affect our practice. Or as Professor Rowe states:

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.

Jakarta, October 2008

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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

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…

Shanghai, November 2006

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.

– – — – –

Prof. Peter G. Rowe interviewed by Dan Handel (to be continued)

Pictures by MovingCities

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.

Peter G. Rowe

Peter G. Rowe is the Raymond Garbe Professor of Architecture and Urban Design and University Distinguished Service Professor at the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, where he has taught since 1985. Between 1992 and 2004 he served as Dean of the Faculty of Design, following appointments as Chairman of the Department of Urban Planning and Design (1988-1992) and Director of the Urban Design Programs (1985-1990). Author and editor of book publications such as “Shanghai: Architecture and Urbanism for Modern China” (Prestel Publishing, 2004), “Architectural Encounters with Essence and Form in Modern China” (with Seng Kuan, MIT Press, 2002) and “East Asia Modern: Shaping the Contemporary City” (Reaktion Books, 2005); Peter Rowe’s courses include “Urbanization in the East Asian Region” and “Modern Architecture and Urbanism in China.

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