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The global village: building a future countryside

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No longer bucolic backwaters but networked centres for e-commerce, Chinese Taobao Villages are shaping the post-human landscape

Cities have always been shaped by their moving parts: the invention of the lift changed New York City forever, ‘the loop’ of elevated railway tracks still defines central Chicago, while Los Angeles unsentimentally sliced through low-income communities to make way for freeways. Global conurbations are inescapably shaped by these incursions. As an enthusiastic advocate of transport technology, Le Corbusier remarked that the designs of cities no longer had to conform to the meanderings of a donkey, but could follow the straight lines of men. But with streets increasingly used by machines as well as humans, what form might they take?

‘Connecting people, places and things, Taobao is far removed from Le Corbusier’s dream of an idealised future of simple straight lines, yet it is genuinely transformatory’

In China and elsewhere, huge investments in infrastructure are linking formerly detached areas to their urban counterparts. China alone has built 140,000 kilometres of rail lines and 150,000 kilometres of highways in the last 35 years. This is not a recent phenomenon. Rahul Mehrotra studied the swathe of land between Delhi and Calcutta, which has long exemplified a mix of highly linked, dense rural conditions. In Europe, the ‘blue banana’, a zone arching from Milan to London, has long been dotted with productive rural communities linked to a regional and ultimately global network. Today, these established trends of conventional infrastructures, mixed with decades of industrialising landscapes, are amplified by the increased spread of machine and digital technologies.

Fah2tc

Fah2tc

Source: XINHUA / ALAMY

In preparation for the selling season of the Chinese New Year, workers load goods into a freight truck in Qingyanliu, a thriving Taobao Village devoted to e-commerce. Logos of e-commerce brands adorn the buildings of the villages

The implications for expanding rural peripheries are unprecedented, as exemplified by the boom in Chinese ‘Taobao Villages’. Taobao is China’s online customer to customer (C2C) marketplace platform with around two billion users. The ‘original’ Taobao village is in Shaji, in Jiangsu Province. The village is proud of the story of its origins, when three local men, who had worked in factories in Shenzhen, saw a new Ikea store opening in Shanghai. They had just started to use the Taobao platform and quickly persuaded local carpenters, who previously specialised in making coffins, to devise a series of simple flat-pack tables and chairs to sell online. From there, things quickly took off.

Within the village itself, it’s still possible to see the original farm houses in which the carpenters began using their barns for manufacturing furniture. To accommodate expanding machinery, a structure was built to link the barn to the house, then a factory was constructed where the farm used to be. Now, all major Chinese shipping companies have facilities in the area, a new port is being built by the government, and a series of automated warehouse districts are up and running. All of this has taken place over the last 10 years.

 

Gettyimages 89047776

Gettyimages 89047776

Source: CHINA PHOTOS / GETTY IMAGES

Vignettes of life in Shaji, the original Taobao village; the Liu Xiaolin family monitor the progress of their e-shopping business

Today’s rural landscapes are not disconnected bucolic idylls, detached from global development realities. In remote parts of Africa and Asia, where terrain is difficult, packages are being delivered and agriculture is managed via drones. And if these enclaves no longer need roads to deliver goods, large power grids for electricity, pipes for water/sewage, and are linked to the world by satellite networks, why do they need public space at all? And taking another leap forward, if they can form their own collective networks globally, then why do they even need local governments? In such new self-sustaining realities, the role and nature of common spaces will be radically redefined. Much of what affects the development of human habitats today is non-spatial and often non-human. Areas that were once historically tied together by the flow of spices, porcelain and silk are now relinked with wires, data and the exchange of household products. China’s Belt and Road initiative is a strategy for developing countries to obtain funds and services to upgrade their infrastructure.

Gettyimages 89047770

Gettyimages 89047770

Source: CHINA PHOTOS / GETTY IMAGES

Children processing online orders

Public attention usually tends to focus on the visible conventional networks of ports, pipes, railways and highways linking China to Western Europe, through Central Asian countries and ports along the Indian Ocean. Concerns have been raised about a new form of ‘neo-colonialism’ or Marshall Plan, with the Chinese bankrolling ambitious infrastructure plans abroad. Less attention has been paid to the equally important invisible high-speed data systems lining sea floors and cables stretching across vast deserts. These link previously cut-off areas to the rapidly expanding online platforms, information streams and logistical networks of China.

Gettyimages 89047783

Gettyimages 89047783

Source: CHINA PHOTOS / GETTY IMAGES

Liu Xiaolin used to be a security guard but is now an entrepreneur

Gettyimages 89047805

Gettyimages 89047805

Source: CHINA PHOTOS / GETTY IMAGES

Zhou Sumei works for an e-business as a cosmetics saleswoman, promoting goods from her home

Previously, infrastructure was solely owned, operated and delivered by the state. Now, many of us ‘own’ a piece of infrastructure, on the side of our houses in the form of a satellite dish, or even in our pockets, in the form of a mobile phone. Over time, corporations became more involved, originally power companies and cable television. Now, internet sources are often delivered via companies in partnership with governments. The meaning and scale of infrastructure has been redefined by the development of communications technology, mobile phones, photovoltaics and drones.

Connecting people, places and things it is far removed from Le Corbusier’s dream of an idealised future of simple straight lines. Yet it is genuinely transformatory, with profound implications for the form and quality of cities, culture and daily life. In a rapidly accelerating entanglement between human and non-human, what will the post-human landscape look like? And, ultimately, who will shape it?

Lead image: An idealised representation of a Taobao Village as a ‘small acre city’, created by Drawing Architecture Studio for ‘Building a Future Countryside’ at the Chinese Pavilion of the 2018 Venice Biennale

This piece is featured in the AR May 2019 issue on Periphery – click here to purchase your copy today