In this post, Christof Spieler finishes his series of reports on his trip to China for an upcoming special issue of Cite. Read more about RDA’s China initiative here, which includes a knockout lecture series in the Fall. To browse all of Spieler’s posts from China, click here.
The most startling aspect of the China is the feeling that everything is moving in fast forward. From the windows of the Beijing airport express train, speeding along the expressway on its way from the Norman-Foster designed terminal of the second busiest airport in the world, you can see farmers working small plots with their hoes. From their small houses they can see the five-star hotels and modern office buildings of the airport business park. This is 1911 and 2011, coexisting alongside each other.
It’s no stretch to say that a century of American urbanism—the civic beautification of the 1920s, the migration to the cities of the 1930s, the industrial decentralization of the 1940s, the freeway-driven suburbanization of the 1950s, the urban clearances of the 1960s, the megablock redevelopments of the 1970s, the instant skylines of the 1980s, the historic preservation movement of the 1990s, the green buildings movement of the 2000s, the place-making of the 2010s—is playing out all at once in China. All of our mistakes, and all our successes, and all the chaos of a century of figuring out what a city should be, are here alongside each other. China is looking to us. But we’re looking to them, too: China is becoming a world model for modern infrastructure.
As with American cities, it’s a little hard to predict where this all goes. From the eyes of those farmers, what does China look like? Do they feel part of this success? Or do they feel left out? China has first-world infrastructure and first world cities, but much of the population is living a third world life. One might cynically observe that all the ingredients are there for a communist revolution. Or one might look to parts of our own history and think that an economic boom coupled with government policy can improve everyone’s life. Today in China, 20% of the world’s people are remaking a society more quickly than a society has ever been remade before and building what could well become the world’s largest economy. All of our futures are tied to theirs.