The Chinese Dream surveys scenarios of possible Chinese urban development over the dozen years to 2020. Using graphics and text, the book explores the urban implications of current plans, population migration and the consumerist aspirations of Chinese society. The title is reminiscent of Victor Quinaz‘ 2004 award-winning film of the same name about a dishwasher in China who longs for the glamour of New York. The format is the image-rich architecture book, in the style of Koolhas and Mau’s S M L XL. The architects’ approach to books is as a built object, not an extended argument, nor a visual communication design. While it is innovative in its provision of endnotes and authorities in the form of urls, free layout of blocks of text, mixing of Chinese characters and roman text, and in its provison of visual glossaries of urban design ideas, as a whole it hard to read as a linear narrative. Take a look . An ironic magazine from 2020 is even bound into the closing sections of book to explain the culture that the authors expect to emerge. 17 chapters consider changing urban design and architecture in China, including the imported idea of ‘creative neighbourhoods’, green suburbs, and new retail and consumer environments.
The book contributes to, but otherwise sits outside of the academic literature on framented urban form and suburbanization. A scale from actual to dream bleeds off the lower right corner of the pages grounding each of 17 chapter-scenarios. Mapping these regional development trents onto urban and rural China, the book presents a stark picture of the implications of the hyper-urban development of China. Shanghai with its central highrise Pudong district, is one well known form in which China’s cities are developing. However, at a broader scale of whole cities and urban regions, this book shows the significance of Chinese growing cities. Where one sees most often the idea of 400 one-million population cities, the book argues that China is headed in the direction of a single Northeastern megalopolis of 400 million.
What if you built the whole mass of Western Europe in 20 years? What if 400 Million Farmers then moved in? What if it happened between now and 2020?What woudl it look like? How whould it work?…. Would there be jobs? Would it be dense? Green? Would you be able to go to sleep at night? And if you did, would you dream of somewhere else?
If one accepts the premise that China is a society under construction, this book attempts to map aspirations and dreams into urban landscapes. While the book attempts to alert all to the challenges and risks of a future megalopolitan China, it glosses the human rights history of China’s development to date as ‘the most successful humanitarian project ever to have taken place’, and in a non sequitur, advances economic evidence to support this claim (these are very different categories). However it does provide critical nuance elsewhere such as the details of the lack of popular benefit from current growth. This is a symptom of the global neglect of critical and cultural discipline to architects’ and urbanists’ education. Reflecting the small business status of the architect and developer, economics is privileged, politics gets in the way, while culture is reduced to the history of architecture with scant attention to beliefs, social interaction, ritual and memory, or to issues such as cross-cultural communication. Hence there are few countertendencies to the ability of authoritarian planners to resculpt entire cities whenever thought necessary. Other art and architectural reviewers also mention this but lack the critical insight to see that this is a pivotal issue. In general my impression is that ‘desire’ is rendered as consumeristic in this text, but the harder to quantify desire for community seems not to figure in any way. Surely Chinese citizens are not so one-dimensional? In short, there are many more aspects of the emotional repertoire which guarantee that Chinese society will evolve less deterministically than this books suggests.
Super Brand Mall, Pudong, Shanghai. Photo: Rob Shields
While the creators conclude by offering an offshore website www.BURB.tv ’seeded’ with ideas from the book but welcoming communal contributions within its pre-set information architecture. My sense is that rather than computer-mediated expression, sociology can predict that authorities will not be able to forestall such large masses in high density cities will repeat the political awakening (although not necessarily the outcomes) of nineteenth century British industrial cities, as documented by Simmel, Weber and Engels.
Shanghai neighbourhood. Photo: Rob Shields
At the same time, from where I sit in the wheat, potash and oil rich northern Canadian prairie, I read this book as a warning. It surmises that as wealth increases and families demand more commodious apartments, the per capita footprint of Chinese cities expands. Laid out on page after page of maps and graphs, it presents a design to preserve arable land by creating more compact city forms that will still be able to accommodate the projected 930 million Chinese living in cities by 2030. To paraphrase, this means:
1 new Beijing every year for 35 years… = 2 X the total built volume of China… driven by population growth… rural-to-urban migration… China becomes an urban society.
…Movement into the cities is mostly temporary ‘Leaving the Land not the Village’ (1980s slogan). Rollover migration leads to sprawl clusters and city form becomes scattered and discontinuous.
…There is a specific region in the East where this development is in all forms taking place…PUC People’s Urbanity of China: 96% of China’s population…GDP…migration flows…arable land. Area 3,302,997 Km sq. Population 2004: 1.263 Billion, urban population 2004: 530 million, density 2005: 382 persons/km sq. Population 2020: 1.488 Billion, urban population 2020: 893 million, density 2020: 451 persons/km sq.
About one third the size of the USA, only India will be comparable in its population density. This will put extreme pressure on arable land, requiring China to outsource much of its food supply, with enormous impacts on global markets and the global ecology. This urban-region, stretching from Beijing in the north to Shanghai in the south. Zhangzhou in the west and the eastern coast, will define the future of China itself. An S-shaped metropolis stretching across the region is proposed to preserve at least some land near in Qingdao and Zhangzhou.
Reviewed by Rob Shields, University of Alberta, Canada.