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A masterplan for China, XJTLU University Suzhou

Speakers from over 20 countries contributed to an exciting, critical and unfettered debate about the future of development in China

Even the process of travelling to the Masterplanning the Future conference proved to be enlightening. Taking place in October at XJTLU University in Suzhou, China, the final leg of my journey was by bullet train from west Shanghai’s new Hongqiao terminus. Now Asia’s largest station, this impressive piece of infrastructure was built in just two years and sits alongside an expanded regional airport to create a new transport hub. Even more remarkable is the masterplan for Hongqiao: by 2020 a new CBD the size of Glasgow will double the current population of 600,000. Departing from the UK, where sluggishness over infrastructural advance is matched by inertia in housebuilding, the contrast between East and West is striking.

Yet while we can be impressed by the sheer scale and speed of development, what about the qualitative aspects, both actual and potential? Reflecting on the devastation caused by recent floods in his adopted home city of Beijing, Masterplanning speaker James Palmer noted that in government-sanctioned social housing, the bricks in load-bearing walls are often as hollow as the builders’ words. This, he says, is the ‘half-finished modernity’ of a country in which the craftsmanship of the premodern world has been destroyed, but without yet realising the promise of orderly technical talent.

So, if China’s rush to urbanisation is predicated on technocratic planning, the demolition of historic buildings rushed through to pre-empt their preservation, and design quality that comes a poor second to meeting targets in The Plan, is it time to slow down? Would embracing the organic forms of bottom-up development now celebrated in the West be a better option? Are conservationists right to argue that heritage is not the past but essential to the future? And, is it possible − or even sensible − to seek to address common problems of a global urban condition? These are just some of the questions that were posed (and rejected) during this ambitious conference featuring speakers from over 20 countries. Public and academic strands brought practitioners, researchers and cultural commentators together with representatives of business and public institutions.

In the session ‘Demolish or Defend?’, Anu Leinonen, senior architect for OMA’s CCTV HQ, spoke of the growing movement to preserve the Beijing hutongs. (Jonathan Glancey once called the CCTV building ‘the most dramatic of hutong-gobblers’). Such are the paradoxes of the transition to modernity. In a fascinating presentation on China’s quest to create a ‘new tradition’, XJTLU teacher Christiane M Herr argued that modernising and maintaining tradition are not contradictory impulses. Unlike the Western promotion of heritage − emblematic of stagnation − in the emerging cities of the East, the continuation or reinvention of tradition accompanies efforts to modernise.

Amid the efforts to draw out differences between East and West, it was apparent that they share the struggle to create an active imagination of the future. In the West, birthplace of the Enlightenment and the attendant material advancement of modernisation, progress has become a dirty word, while experimentation and the social freedoms of the urban sphere are viewed suspiciously. Hence, in the eco-cities session, Arup’s Chris Twinn was distressed at the prospect of Chinese people acquiring the living standards and freedoms of the Western middle classes.

China, on the other hand, takes risks as it modernises via economic dynamism. Yet a technocrat-led process of growth, where state rarely meets citizen, means that the energy and aspirations of the people may be present but urban society lacks access to the discussion over the future. Those who spoke of their alienation in ‘characterless’ megacities and advocated instead more rural development betrayed that the age-old uncertainties thrown up by modernity are today keenly felt. Yet it’s people rather than buildings or places that have identity. The embrace of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage, with its lists of ‘traditional practices’ compiled by bureaucrats, suggests a belief in both East and West that identity can be handed down. But as Pascal Hartmann from logon architects pointed out, identity is not passively ‘revealed’ but forged through contemporary experiences that are based on participation and exploration.

It is this that makes the city so compelling. From technocratic masterplanning to poor public space design, the problems of rapid growth shouldn’t be downplayed. But whereas the village offers the deadening prospect of isolation, the city is a space of potential: of new work, connections, freedoms, for asking questions, being critical, gaining personal autonomy. Ultimately, as conference organiser Austin Williams concluded, we ended up with ‘more questions than answers’. But this event opened up a number of important new lines of enquiry.

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