“The skyscraper establishes the block, the block creates the street, the street offers itself to man.” – Roland Barthes

One of Corbusier’s main critiques for New York was that the skyscrapers and the size of the blocks were much too small. In order to envision the city of the future, one had to think along the lines of the monumental while respecting the Pythagorean notion that ‘man is the measure of all things’. To build the city of the future was to organize the grid in a module dedicated to the car rather than the horse drawn carriage (city for the modern man, not the middle ages). The blocks he designed were the equivalent of eight New York blocks! So how is the pedestrian to survive in this car-focused environment? The in-between green space and the skyscraper is for the human life.

Coming from Paris, where the Corbusian style of housing fails so miserably in the suburbs, I was struck coming to Shanghai to discover a never-ending landscape of copy and pasted sixty story apartment blocks with generic facades, each identical to the next. It can be noticed before even landing. The view from the air of the new developments outside of Shanghai, but also any other city in China, speaks heaps about their approach to urban growth. Many cruciform planned towers are scattered in clusters in a way that is reminiscent of the Ville Contemporaine, which Corbusier envisioned in 1922. This was his dream for the future city for three million inhabitants: geometrical shapes, extruded vertically, steel structure, glass curtain wall envelopes showing no humanizing characteristics, each volume separated by vast open space. The in-between green space was a major component of the Ville Contemporaine for it was meant to provide the city with a vast breathing organ rather than suffocating in extreme density. The building occupies only 15% of the allocated site and a variety of commercial and office programs are contained in its verticality. His plans were criticized for their disconnect to human scale and for the amount of erasure of the city’s memory is implied, especially in his Plan Voisin scheme for Paris he conceived in 1929. There have been attempts to materialize his schemes in Europe: council flats in London, government subsidized apartment blocks of Seine St Denis failing for the social stigma and general living conditions within the clusters. So why is it that the Corbusian model was poorly received as a practical model in the continent it was conceived for but it so widely embraced in Asian cities?

The need for “a City for Three Million” has never been more relevant than in China. With a global population of 1.3 billion and a predicted urban population of one billion no wonder are sixty to eighty story skyscrapers blossoming like spring daisies on the outskirts of large established cities to house migrating workers. Whereas Corbusier’s skyscrapers were to house office and commercial program and residential program was assigned to smaller ‘villa’ blocks, the barefaced generic towers in China are usually for residential use. It is not uncommon for a couple of new satellite towns to be conceptualized around large metropolis’ every year, towns which from a western perspective correspond to a city of over a million people. The anonymous looking residential tower-building model works in this situation. They are fast to design, fast to build and flexible in the social standing of their inhabitants. These towers in Shanghai for instance could on one-hand house migrant workers and on the other, temporary international expatriates. Even if the towns are built and not filled immediately, real estate developers rely on the concept that “if you build it, they will come”. The generic city is developed, flexible in it’s potential program, adaptable to social classes and theoretically connected to the neighboring megalopolis. (I say theoretically because some new developments are sold with the promise of a high-speed rail connection in the (hopefully) not too distant future.) Furthermore, there is an experimental dimension to urban development in China that does not exist to the same extent in Europe. The new towns are developed from scratch on government owned land, empty land that does not bear the memory or history of an existing town. Because there is no land-ownership, the sentimentality and nostalgia we have in Europe does not exist on the same level in China. People move to cities for jobs, often alone, leaving their families at the village, sending money home and visiting sometimes as rarely as once a year. Buildings only really need to provide shelter for humans and in the dense modern cities of China, anonymity and functionality are key.

Posted by Caroline Duncan / 5.8 years ago / 1435 hits