Thursday, January 26, 2012


Shanghai Magazine / Planning Group 
Has New Finger on the Pulse of China's Future

Special Report for Kyoto Journal
Whoever controls the wrecking ball usually wins land rights battles, but not necessarily in China anymore. In 2007, for the first time in its history, China had in place legislation that offered equal protection for state and private entities which was quickly put to the test by a growing number of protagonists coined by the media as “nail families”, (ding zi hu). The residents of these households, of no set number of folks, primarily in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, refuse, even to the point of committing suicide, to move from their dwellings to make way for “progress”. There is one report of demolition company thugs pulling a 54 year old man out of his home and beating him to death.

In addition to challenging the establishment at every level, the plight of these 21st Century folk "heroes" have also captured the imagination of the international media and academic community due in no small part to the striking photographs of remnant buildings crowning Brancusi-like pinnacles in the midst of deep construction canyons.
After years of resistance, putting up with condemnation of their buildings, cutting off water and power, and developers’ early offers of financial compensation, most families finally vacate in exchange for significantly larger pay-outs, new residences and additional land to earn a living. One family succumbed by taking a sum equivalent to 1600% of their original purchase price, upwards of $2.7 million! Not every nail family has caved in, however. In Beijing, for example, a six-lane highway completely surrounds the Zhang family’s home. A four-lane highway isolates another holdout family in Shanghai. (Japan and even the USA has "nail families"; farmlands remain within the perimeter of Tokyo's Narita Airport.)

According to Global Times, at the end of January 2011, due to pressure from lawyers, China’s Legislative Affairs Office of the State Council and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a joint statement about new legislation that attempts to mitigate disputes over house expropriation and demolition. It strives to give equal consideration to both public interests and property owners' individual rights, and to create a more transparent, level, non-lethal process. It defines the basis for claims of eminent domain; it also rules-out land developers' involvement in the demolition and relocation procedures, outlaws the use of violence means of coercion,  and promotes more equitable financial compensation basis on par with the region.

Mirage Games
When looking at these images from a Western perspective, it’s easy to jump to a conclusion that it's another case of the little guy against the bureaucracy and greedy developers. It is not only tempting to play that duality game, but according to The Wall Street Journal, it is also possible! “Fighting Eviction: the Videogame” is a digital time-killer that pits feisty homesteaders against demo goons hired by property developers, government guards and the ever-present gangsters. As noted in “China Realtime Report”, player avatars include “a woman in curlers who throws sandals at encroaching attackers, a pot-bellied man who drops dynamite from the roof, and an old man with a shotgun. When you win a level, the woman appears, pointing a finger at the Forbidden City, the symbolic center of the government’s power. When you lose, the house collapses in a cloud of dust.” A related blog post points out that film critic Li Chengpeng drew attention for his piece, “Avatar: An Epic Nail House Textbook,” in which he compares the plight of James Cameron’s Na’vi to the people who live in “nail houses”.

Urban China Covers from Facebook
Business Not As Usual

The continuing saga of Mr. and Mrs. Nail and their Little Tack (remember China’s one-child per family!) is not just about rampant development for progress’ sake. Rather, under the bleary eyes of the Internet-glued world, China is taking pains to learn about itself, its huge and massively growing self ... on its own terms.

In the past Chinese people had little agency to petition for a better life than to offer a bundle of smoking sticks of incense and few burning wads of Bank of Hell paper money to offer to a deceased ancestor. Maybe one of them might bribe an official in a dream and affect a more desirable outcome of some terrestrial problem. Even courtiers and bureaucrats sought out auspicious signs and assessed news from “above”.

China's renowned city planning formalities have been emulated by other East Asian population centers. From capital cities to villages geomancy has been highly regarded in societies ruled by emperors, kings, warlords and more "modern" revolutionary dictators. But will principles from Tao to Mao hold up today in support of the world's fastest process of urbanization in recorded history? 

Unlike their predecessors, today’s elected officials, are slowly learning to listen to news from “below”, to observe and understand the ways of the people, not just respond to the needs of the Party. In his introduction to  "The Mystified Boat: Postmodern Stories from China, [1] Manoa Co-Editor Frank Stewart has noted that China’s street-level reality today is fraught with "shifting points of view, characters who misunderstand each other in ways that have direct consequences, unreliable narrators who address readers in order to tell them what to think, events that are improbable or impossible in life outside the story -- these are some of the startling elements possible in life outside the story.”

We can continue to expect great things from the people who brought us  fen shui and Traditional Oriental Medicine; there is a precedent for diagnosing the character of a disharmony -- whether economic or corporeal, and to reinstate its systemic balance by economic readjustment. It's just a matter of scale.

With China's current population around 1.35 billion, capturing the diversity of  opinions and experiences, providing appropriate ways to analyze the information, recognizing trends and taking action is understandably a daunting task, but one that is essential to that big dream of progress. 

A New Finger on the Pulse of China's Urban Future

"It is very difficult to find another civilization in history like China’s, which has been extremely meticulous about control for thousands of years," observed Jiang Jun, Editor-in-Chief of Urban China, in an essay, "Informal China". "This control is not only on political and ideological levels, but is also present in material and spatial realms: from macro-scale urban planning, meso-scale traditional construction rules, to countless micro-scale details of daily life."

Since 2005 Urban China城市中国, has been the only magazine published both in, about and for China devoted to issues of urbanism [2][3]. Jun describes the UC mission as a means to “challenge the way we see this world and, in so doing, re-imagine what the world can be.” 

Urban China’s slogan is “Urban Wisdom Advancing with China”, and its content is at once technical and theoretical, presenting statistical data and analytical considerations. It functions as a research network, think tank, documentary archive, and a tool for artistic production and urban activism.

 A product of its socialist society, Urban China's contents are deeply scrutinized by the Party’s regulatory machinery to assess compliance with the status quo. Nonetheless, its mission is to demystify that same governmental machine; the publication also informs upper echelons of power about the impact of public policy in real time. Unlike American and European sleek architecture and planning publications, it is less a fanzine for the elite aesthete; its contents are directed to both official and informal operatives who are looking for trends and opportunities.
Urban China incorporates frameworks ranging from ecology, anthropology, media, technology and architecture to demography, political science, geography and sociology to clash and merge in nonlinear ways. The editorial team has at its disposal a vast archive of documentary images, statistics and anecdotal commentary to create what is at once a vehicle of artistic expression and tool for urban activism. UC’s graphic design presents almost a tongue-in-cheek impression that accentuates the incidental, every-day elemental material icons of one’s existence.

Through rigorous research and creative considerations of outcomes, UC has documented how Chinese urban dwellers – like nail families -- create innovative solutions to the problems of daily existence in the 21st Century. They account for the material and ephemeral, the practical and the practically impossible. For example, one issue showed how a basketball produced for export was repurposed as a water bucket by the same factory workers who made it. Some how it is all going to make sense, on a huge scale.

While China is its focus, the UC process indirectly encourages all earthlings to try to come up with new ways to address change and its partner “uncertainty”, to document existence, and to create strategic systems by which to make sense of everyday life. This is possible, it offers, through “dialogues, collections, classifications, explorations and networks”. Even for those who cannot read Chinese, the images themselves provoke consideration about one’s own quality and quantitative measures of life.

There is not doubt that the best laid plans for China's cities of the future -- even those with the "benefit" of input of internationally recognized "green" urban planners and architects -- have to be sensitive to the realities of how  local people do live. For example a widely publicized green city project destined to be a show-piece during the 2010 Shanghai World Expo was never accomplished. In fact, according to Yale University's environment 360 online journal, "Although the project was widely publicized internationally, most locals knew little about it. The political leaders who championed the project were ousted in a corruption scandal, and their successors have allowed construction permits to lapse."

Each issue of Urban China has a theme, such as “Migrating China”, “Chinatown”,  “Urban Graffiti” or “Informal China” and blends the past with the present through graphic details such as archives of historic maps juxtaposed with those of new planning charts. For example, traditional Chinese paradigms, such as feng shui, are mixed together with diagrams and photographs of current development projects.

In another issue there is an image entitled “Labor–Insurance -- Gloves Coat”, depicting a pair of thick wool work gloves positioned next to a child’s coat knit from the same material”. The caption notes that housewives unravel the yarn from unused extra gloves and repurpose the raw material for more useful commodities. Images of street markets are next to new high-rise towers; personal laundry hangs on public telephone wires. We may take them for granted, but in officially formal China, any informality or unofficial enterprise that permeates these membranes, emerges at an unprecedented scale. The implications are becoming more universal for populations outside China, particularly those with large populations and cities utilizing upon traditional Chinese principles, such as those in Japan and Korea.

In 2010 a consortium of three American museums collaborated to present a major exhibition devoted to the UC oeuvre, “Urban China: Informal Cities”: New York’s New Museum, UCLA’s Hammer Museum and the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. According to New York City’s New Museum Curatorial Associate and UC exhibition Curator Benjamin Godsill, issues are “brilliant and strange, intellectual and graphic cornucopias that track the rapid development and flux that are the hallmarks of China today.”

During one of the "Conversations" at the Hammer Museum (see below for links), Jiang explained a common urban planning process based on industrial development needs. For example in a region where shoes are manufactured, the government planning department may situate a new town and factory to make shoelaces adjacent to one that makes innersoles. 
The only Urban China online English language presence is a Facebook page. As mentioned, the magazine is published in Chinese, but Brendan McGetrick has compiled a few issue samples with English translation as a beautifully produced print volume, Urban China: Work in Progress.

Urban China reminds me of the early publishing efforts of Richard Saul Wurman, an American architect by training, whose Man-made Philadelphia and Access© guides deconstructed elements of urban life in a number of major cities world wide. Through the use of analytical tools and orderly graphic design, he made the city observable and arguable more accessible. His latest project is 19.20.21, the title being a reference to 19 cities (includes Beijing, Shenzhen, and Shanghai, Tokyo and Osaka-Kobe, Jakarta, Singapore, Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi, Karachi in Asia alone), each with populations of 20 million people in the 21st Century. Over half the population of the world now lives in cities; the globe is web of cities rather than nation-states. He postulates that denser populations will not only improve the quality of life but may actively result in better environmental solutions.

What next for China? What's next for the new democracies of the Middle East and of the seemingly worn-out socio-economic realities known as Europe and the USA? Stay tuned!

(Note: None of these graphic images are the property of the blogger, nor is this blog intended for commercial purposes. it is purely for public information. The images will be removed when requested by the copyright owners. Thank you in advance.)


Links to Archives of Urban China 
@ UCLA’s Hammer Museum 2009

7/1/09 -- Jiang Jun, editor of Urban China magazine, and curator Benjamin Godsill of the New Museum introduce a dynamic multimedia presentation on the history of Urban China as well as the exhibition Urban China: Informal Cities. Godsill and Jiang will discuss the rapidly changing nature of Chinese cities and what these alterations of space mean for forms of social control and organization in contemporary China. Never before seen photographs, maps, and diagrams from Urban China's extensive collection will accompany the talk. Co-presented with the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House Urban Future Initiative. (Run Time: 1 hour, 41 min.)

5/19/09 -- An art critic and international curator, Hou Hanru is also the director of exhibitions and public programs at the San Francisco Art Institute. Recent curatorial projects include the 10th Istanbul Biennial and Trans(ient) City, 2007. Qingyun Ma is principal of the Shanghai-based design firm s.p.a.m., established in 1996. Since 2007 Ma has also served as dean of the USC School of Architecture, where he has enhanced the program by developing a number of global initiatives. Conversations on Urban China was co-organized and moderated by Sylvia Lavin, Director of Critical Studies and MA/PhD programs in UCLA's Department of Architecture and Urban Design. Professor Lavin is a leading figure in current debates, known for her scholarship in contemporary architecture and design. She has published in leading journals of the field, and her book Form Follows Libido: Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture was published in 2005. (Run Time: 1 hour, 29 min., 39 sec.) 

4/29/09 -- Widely known for innovative installations such as Sleepwalkers, presented at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2007, Doug Aitken utilizes a wide array of media and artistic approaches, leading us into a world where time, space, and memory are fluid concepts. Catherine Opie is engaged in issues of documentary photography and in how aspects of identity and collective behaviors are shaped by architecture. A Professor of Photography at UCLA, Opie was featured in a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2008. Conversations on Urban China was co-organized and moderated by Sylvia Lavin, Director of Critical Studies and MA/PhD programs in UCLA's Department of Architecture and Urban Design. Professor Lavin is a leading figure in current debates, known for her scholarship in contemporary architecture and design. She has published in leading journals of the field, and her book Form Follows Libido: Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture was published in 2005. (Run Time: 1 hour, 20 min.)

[1] Stewart, Frank and Batt, Herbert J., eds., Winter 2003, Volume 15, Number 2,  University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu
[2] The magazine's website (Chinese only) is  Not supported by all browsers. 
[3] There is a "fan" page on Facebook, the source of the covers in this report.