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EDITORIAL

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THE TWO TOWNS: A TRANSFORMATION OF TOWNSCAPE IN MODERN CHINA
Peteris Ratas

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TEAM

The two towns:
a transformation of townscape
in modern China

The townscape – an image of a modern day Chinese cities, towns and villages is shaped by rapid social changes in the country. The changes are indeed so fast that we can not even talk about any kind of single static image. What matters most is the transformation itself – forces and dynamics of this change, which had produced endless variations of urban environments. It is like in a giant laboratory, where commercial energy is mixed with creative (and sometimes childish) experimentation. As a result the townscape is bursting with contrasts between beauty and ugliness, poor and rich, old and new, authentic and fake, etc.

The following is a comparison between two small and humble towns. Hardly anyone knows about them. There are thousands of analogous towns across China, but I choose these as I had personal encounter with them. They are similar in size and are populated by people who speak one language, adhere to the same customs, political authority, and cuisine. But they are very different at the same time. One is inhabited by working class and the other is a home to rich urban middle class. They both were built in a short time and were designed by architects. They are like snapshots representing design thinking of each particular moment and can give us a glimpse at the scale of the transformation and growing contrasts.

Weidong

The first example – Weidong is a nondescript working class town built in 1960-ties. The town is located in Hubei province near Xiangfan city, surrounded by farming villages, bamboo forests, and hills. It was built along with a secret military factory to provide housing for about 3000 factory workers and their families. My wife was born there too. Her parents were sent there during the Cultural Revolution. Since then the town has evolved along with the factory. It has a very authentic image. It does not pretend to have any aesthetic qualities or style. There is nothing outside its practical purpose. You can see bare bricks, grey concrete walls, purely functional shapes, flat roofs, chimneys, pipes, small huts and asphalt. The public spaces, buildings, and streets are shaped by their utility. A sign on the factory gate is the only shiny object in the town. Over time the buildings and streets have been covered with thick layer of rust and dust.

Weidong

In the days when the town was built, the social order was different. The factory was like a focus of life for all inhabitants. There was a school, a hospital, a kindergarten, a public assembly house and even an outdoor cinema to feed masses with multimedia propaganda. Everything was provided by the factory. The town was kept clean and repaired. It was a very tight community where everyone knew everyone. Now things have changed. The factory was privatized 15 years ago and a social balance in the town started to erode. The hospital was abandoned, the school is in disrepair, buildings dilapidated, and open spaces are overgrown with weed and litter. This makes grayness and utilitarianism to become so obvious.

On the other hand, the town is full of life and old community is still there. Streets are busy with people attending daily chores, kids playing games, older people passing time with mahjong, vendors selling food, cutting hair, or fixing shoes, etc. A simple everyday life is keeping this place interesting. You can see it also in the architecture of buildings, where every window is transformed to correspond with functional needs of each family by adding chimney, canopy, bird cage, or storage box. It looks cluttered and shabby, but it is authentic, functional, and relevant to the people.

Thames Town

Thames Town

The second example – Thames Town is a new urban development completed in 2006, 40 years after Weidong. There are many other new towns, but Thames Town is special. It was designed as a copy of an old English town and embodies dreams of rich middle class Chinese. It is located in suburbs of Shanghai – a mega city where I live together with a 17-million population. The town was planned for approximately 8000 residents. It has about 300 villas, 2500 apartments, offices, a school, a sports center, an art museum, a supermarket, two hotels, and an artificial lake. It was built in just three years by two developers. This town is a replica of another physical place. It has a limestone-clad church, a town hall, small shops and pubs. Prototypes of actual buildings and streetscapes from places like Bristol or Bath are copied and pasted here. There are classic red phone booths, cobblestone paved streets, and replica signs with typical English street names – Kent St., Victoria St., Oxford St. etc. The local community school is called Harry public school (this name is possibly inspired from a popular J. K. Rowling’s book series). This place was designed for the emerging rich middle class – a social group that perhaps wants to break away from its cultural past. An imported image of a town suits perfectly for their purpose.

When walking in the streets of Thames Town, there is a strange surreal sensation in the air. The physical replica of an English town was done meticulously down to the smallest details. It deceives and for a moment one really feels like strolling, for example, in Bath. But the copy misses contents of urban space: community life, traditions, and people. Here residents are driving in luxury cars. The streets are virtually deserted. During the whole afternoon visit I met only a security guard dressed in red uniform and a stray dog. You are surrounded with physical attributes of townscape, which lack their original purpose. It feels like in a museum or in a movie set. The big church is hollow inside, just a decoration. Nevertheless, it has become a popular place for taking wedding photos and the square in the front of it is called Love Square. The town and its theme-park architecture is a popular travel destination – “Little Britain”. Busloads of curious visitors flock here in the summer season. This place is becoming also a model for similar developments across China that replicate foreign architectural style clichés, such as French, Spanish, Italian, and German themes.

The difference between the two towns reveals social transformation of last decades that spills over to urban environment. Old, grey, and shabby towns, which people want to escape, still prove to be authentic and functioning urban spaces. At the same time there is an accelerating rush to modernize, appear new, and break away from the past heritage. This drives an endless change and architectural experimentation in China. Thames Town is just one of many radical examples of theme-park architecture that attempt to copy a European city and its architectural styles.

Peteris Ratas
Architect
Shanghai & Riga
January 16, 2009

 

Photos: Peteris Ratas