- Changing Chinese Cities: The Potentials of Field Urbanism by Renee Y. Chow
Contemporary urbanism of China has been a fascinating subject matter for western architects, planners and scholars. The incredible speed in rapid urbanization comes with sprouting modern urban skylines, mega infrastructure [End Page 113] construction, massive immigration flows from rural to urban areas, and widespread urban pollution. More scholarly works have been published since John Friedman's China's Urban Transition in 2005 which offers comprehensive understanding of China's urbanization. China is no longer an urbanist frontier as it had been since the 1990s. Knowledge has been accumulated over practices, educational exchanges, and pervasive information through media. There is a much greater familiarity about China's urban phenomena today than two to three decades ago.
The book Changing Chinese Cities, however, is a beautiful piece of work that provides a different lens with which to decipher the interwoven textures of Chinese urban landscape over its dramatic changes. The book is structured by a narrative that is composed of three themes, starting from traditional Chinese urban settlement as an "In Built Field," going through a radical transition of "Fragmenting Chinese Urbanism," and concluding with a proposition of reconstruction through a "Field Urbanism."
The first theme "In Built Field" introduces settlement forms of Beijing's Hutong, a water town Zhujiajiao, and Shanghai's Lilong. The vernacular spaces were described and represented through spectacular images and sketches showing their unique quality that are not quite designable by approaches of modern designs and construction. Instead of taking a position of conservation, the author clearly advocates a constant move and adaptation to future alternatives due to inevitable social changes. We can learn from patterns of those urban settlements that are intricate and complex. They were organized as continuous "fields" that connected internal to exterior spaces, in which "the rich variations and inter-compound relations" could be found in the urban fabrics that aggregated into "highly legible neighborhoods." The organizational principles behind those settlement forms contained particular social relationships and cultural constructs that were produced over historical processes and were grounded on geographic contexts.
The second theme, "Fragmenting Chinese Urbanism," is a criticism of the remaking of Chinese cities by governmental officials, developers, planners, and architects. Five chapters of the second part are briefly summarized as "the rush to develop," having projects that tend to be "super-sizing," overwhelmingly homogenized by rules and regulations such as "facing south," and normally resulting in obsolete public open spaces when "being outside" of the city. They model how the Chinese envisioned a country to become a new modern urban world leading to the twenty-first century that was to a certain degree, disastrous. "New Chinese urbanism is figured and fragmented," as the "unique legibility within Chinese cities" such as those in Hutong, water town and Lilong is quickly eroding as the relational, field conditions of urban fabrics are erased and are replaced by "object-oriented design and development" everywhere. Reading the second part of the book provides a clear picture and [End Page 114] critical problems of the subject. The author chose an introductory approach, as reading it is like having a Chinese Urban Development 101 class for those readers without much background in China's modern history or urban experiences. Some insights from the author are invaluable. Practitioners from other parts of the world such as the United States who also had years of practice in China would strongly agree with her comments and probably share the same frustration that there is normally no time for process. Design time is often too short to consider users and site contexts.
The final theme combines essays and three design projects to speculate an idea called "Field Urbanism," in which the built environment is seen as a continuous field that "spans between buildings, between inside and out, as well as between public, collective, and private realms." The author argues for this approach to be an "alternative architectural and urban design paradigm" that provides...