Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Taking Over Space (Feb. 15)

Ben says that people manipulating their balconies is sheer stupidity and that they just have too much stuff, so that they need to find a way to make their apartment bigger. The way in which they adapted it may very well have been stupid, but the act of doing (means) has much more significance to me. The response to this kind of approach has been to outlaw the process which leads to a certain kind of aesthetic (ends), which has typically been looked down upon by policy makers, planners, and designers. It is precisely the process that holds the power that offers the most significant hope for development of future cities and spaces. While I reserve judgement as to whether the end result is stupid, there is a great potential for designers and planners to help set some of the rules that which people engage the process, thereby maybe changing the end result and potential aesthetic. Most of the other housing being built in Shanghai controls the process and is fully dictated by the planners, designers, and developers, and thereby dictating the aesthetic. The question of standards seems frequently to have direct relationship with aesthetics. But, in the end, it shouldn’t be a question about aesthetics. It is a question about participation.

Yet, in many ways, it is precisely this aesthetic, which draws me and many others to it. It is an aesthetic of difference, of something foreign and alluring. It is easy to focus on the aesthetics, because it is this physical manifestation and embodiment of space that I am trained to understand and look at. Many refer to this as an “aestheticization of poverty.” What impact does this realm precisely have on housing and the capacity of that individual to really adjust or find their space or even improve their lives? What exactly are they doing in this context that they can’t otherwise? Is it just lower income people of those of lesser means that will commandeer their space and surrounding in such a context?

There are, of course, many dangers of focusing on the aesthetics of issues. This sort of aestheticization is very much what has driven the nature of the Xintiandi project. It basically removed everyone from a life and community, while retaining the physical structure and materials of the house. While many may consider this preservation, the only thing that is preserved is the physical structure. In fact, I would argue that there is even less preservation there due to the ramifications that it is having on the entire neighborhood and other communities of Shikumen housing nearby, driving up the property values through gentrification. It is very difficult to talk about preservation without talking about the people inhabiting those structures. On the flip side, if one was serious about preservation, I would argue that more effective approach would be to tear down or renovate (many feel full upgrading of shikumen is prohibitively expensive, as most don’t even have bathrooms) and build new housing for the people that are living there in the first place. In much of my research leading up to this journey, location (access to community and jobs) were equally if not more important than the actual size or type of home, to a certain extent obviously. Yet, it seems as if most people in Shanghai are much more willing to upgrade to new places, even if much further away. I am curious to see the extent that this is true in other cities.

As for preservation, that very much gets to the core of what has been most on my mind in Shanghai. Or more precisely, just the opposite: change. It is becoming increasingly difficult for ways and traditions to remain unchanged. It is a reality of the new world. Those who try and stand in the way to preserve a way of life will probably never be satisfied. The most famous cities of the world have always embodied change, in fact, they have been the catalyst for change within entire countries as well as the world. Change is happening, in a way unlike any other in human history. And Shanghai may very well be undergoing some of the most dramatic changes on the planet. But, in order for people to be adjust to such drastic and overwhelming changes, their needs to be effective negotiators and mediators, and this is where physical space can provide a solution.

The Shikumen historically provided a mediating zone. It was mix of eastern and western styles. It offered a scale that was not overwhelming to many of the new migrants to the city in search of a new life. The small and narrow alleyways offer an intimacy within which strong community is developed (although some feel it is too intimate). Shops were usually positioned right at the entrance to these communities where it would serve as a sort of checkpoint, even controlling who entered (a precursor to current gated communities? I think not). Each shikumen was based around a courtyard. It negotiated the old and the new, the rural and urban, and the collective and individual. As I walked into these alleys and passageways, often off a major thoroughfare, I certainly felt like I entered a completely different world, one of intimacy and community. Often times, the back spaces have been altered to fit individual needs. Yet, I could tell living conditions there are not good.

As the market and times changed, so did the layout and overall nature of the Shikumen. As more western styles of living were introduced, spaces became fixed, serving one function. The spaces shrunk and the alleyways became a little larger, there were fewer shops, and the entrances were now marked with iron gates and bars. But, they still retained their character and overall function: to provide affordable, comfortable, and secure housing for people who need it.

With the destruction of so much of the Shikumen, or even the renovation of them by wealthier people may very well signify a loss of a very important mediator. The question remains, is housing being provided that serves a more effective mediator and negotiator of the changes that are still occurring? On one end, there is certainly the high end loft, luxury condo. On the low end are still still shikumen, temporary housing on construction site, high rise high density, and informal settlements. But, what is in between, and what is serving the mediating role now?

I suspect the closer thing to it may be Ding’s apartment complex. It is a mid rise and has two or three bedroom units. You are not allowed to move walls around, although they were able to add a little loft over their kitchen where they have a cathedral ceiling. Most apartment buildings, however seem pretty standard.

With all the craziness and amazing development that is taking place in places like Shanghai right now, you can’t help but to think it is only on the surface, or that things are happening a little too quickly. There were numerous instances of public works projects that just didn’t quite get it right. The new subway car was too far from the platform, the fire hydrant was half buried in the sidewalk, the water pipe rising above where the new sidewalk will be. The entire city of Shanghai is sinking, especially in the Pudong area. I heard 2-4 centimeters a year. Hello New Orleans.

All the consumer goods that this country produces comes at a great environmental cost. As long as there is such a demand for cheap goods, especially abroad, the incentive to better control environmental pollution will probably not be there. The scale of growth here is astounding and is also coming at great environmental cost. As the train comes into the cities, the color seems to turn an overall gray. The air is hazy and there seems to be a film on everything, as a result of the numerous factories and coal plants pumping pollution into the air. I realize it is winter, but it feels like a harsh landscape, not unlike much of the more “developed” world 100 years ago. But, there is a big difference.

Finally, the suppression of free ideas and media is still a mind-blowing concept to me, but serves as a good reminder of the realities of the world. At the end, I have not been able to access my blog and other websites such as wikipedia, which are generated by the people and for the people, contrary to how this country is run and moves forward. Even after knowing this, experiencing it firsthand has been a bit of shock. This is a freedom I truly value, and I am thankful for all those put their lives on the line to may it possible for many more people to have freedom of expression.

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