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Asia’s urbanisation: Big cities and bigger books

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The bombastic packaging of AECOM’s book on Asia’s rapid urbanisation belies a meek engagement with its vast subject, says Adrian Hornsby

Asia Beyond Growth takes up the tradition of squarish, fat architecture books from a familiar starting point: the world is 50 per cent urbanised and there’s a building spree going on in Asia, with ‘populations exploding, investments soaring… wealth fomenting’ etc.

If you’re wondering how the editors shepherd this story through the financial crisis (‘Don’t mention Dubai!’), the answer is simple yet gentlemanly: they just don’t mention it. In fact, reticence plays a key role throughout the book, being applied with equal rigour to questions of politics, demography, globalisation, all the way through to how even one might begin to synthesise thoughts on such a vast and diverse region (South Korea to the UAE) into anything meaningful. The book manages to be reticent on just about everything by virtue of not saying much at all.

The real mystery behind Asia Beyond Growthis why on earth AECOM put it out

An obvious point is the paucity of text. While spanning 500 pages, the total reading material amounts to less than a quarter of a small paperback (or about 20 times this review). Likewise, the infographics are relatively thinly spread, and are fairly standard fare. There are a few details, but nothing all that compelling, with no arguments attached. There are a lot of pictures, and some aren’t bad, but, because of the crazy nature of rapidly urbanising environments of Asia, everyone who goes there with a cameraphone comes back with a dozen or so unbelievable shots.

The book’s big idea, in so far as there is one, is that Asia needs to ‘look beyond growth’, i.e. beyond mere frenetic urbanisation. The cartoon version, as ever, is of a trembling, finger-wagging West cringing before a boisterous, appetitive East. ‘Beyond growth’ is all very well, emerging Asia naturally responds, ‘but we’ll stick with growth’, or, as it learns to lipspeak, ‘we’ll sustain growth’. Would the book’s editor, AECOM (owner of EDAW and Faber Maunsell), have been better talking about ‘sustainable development’? It’s miserably unsexy, but at base ‘beyond growth’ comes down to much the same kinds of things.

The book’s sparsim texts are rife with words such as ‘careful’, ‘holistic’, ‘sensitive’, ‘identity’, ‘local’, ‘small scale’, ‘conserve’ etc. In short, we can understand ‘beyond growth’ to mean something like ‘not a lot of growth, but nicely done’.

Happily, this ‘philosophy’ (if we accept our AECOM editors calling it that) fits pretty well with the half-dozen EDAW projects described. We don’t have a lot more than project blurbs and a few pictures to go on, but things like the Bengbu park in China do look nice, sensitive, regenerative and a lot less crass than much of what is going on elsewhere. But nice, sensitive and regenerative as these projects are, only in their designers’ most hallucinogenic moments of hubris could they possibly warrant a 500-page book.

The real mystery behind Asia Beyond Growthis why on earth AECOM put it out. And here we return to our starting point: the tradition of squarish, fat architecture books.

But where is the need for these big books? Is this just another form of overblown architectural rhetoric?

In terms of architectural publications, we are in a post-S,M,L,XL world. Not that the shape didn’t exist already, but in 1995, with S,M,L,XL, Rem Koolhaas sets an alternative alongside the traditional large-format monograph that was smaller, thicker, more data-driven, freer, more intellectual and, ultimately, hipper. There was a new kind of kudos to be mined out of making big urban-themed books, and the years since have yielded numerous examples (of which my own, The Chinese Dream, is inescapably one). But looking now at the indulgent Asia Beyond Growth, and groaning, one cannot help but ask if the format isn’t exhausted.

It seems the ambition from AECOM’s side was simply to make ‘another big book’, and thus a handful of worthy projects were swollen up into an extravagantly empty publication. But where is the need for these big books? Is this just another form of overblown architectural rhetoric? Another outlet for big building fantasies?

These questions are themselves misleading. Asking if we need more big books makes about as much sense as asking if we need more big buildings. If they’re good, then yes, if not, then no. And if you’re worried about a surfeit of books on Asia, only remember the scale of the urbanisation wave taking place out there, its speed, and the speed at which it is changing shape.

There are a lot of spectacular books yet to come out of Asia’s relentlessly spectacular growth. It’s just that this isn’t one of them. But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on AECOM. It has made some nice parks, which is, after all, its day job. I’d recommend it doesn’t quit.

Adrian Hornsby is co-author, with Neville Mars, of The Chinese Dream(010 Publishers, 2008), an award-winning, 800-page volume on China’s urbanisation. The book documents five years of research by Dutch-Chinese research institute Dynamic Cities Foundation

Mindbending moments from emerging Asia

1. Al-Haram Mosque, Mecca, discussions leaked November 2008

A press leak revealed discussions between Saudi Arabia and a string of Western architects, including Foster + Partners, regarding a massive overhaul of Mecca and a huge expansion to Islam’s holiest mosque. As a non-Muslim, Foster would be unable even to enter the city, though, with the increasingly complete severance between global architect and actual buildings, the fly-through renderings should suffice.


2. Three Gorges Dam, Hubei Province, China, completed October 2008

At 2.3km long, 100m high, 115m thick at the base and generating over 20GW, the Three Gorges Dam (TGD) is the world’s most powerful electricity plant, and probably its biggest act of building. But in China, where everything is always simultaneously its opposite, TGD is also a massive act of unbuilding. The TGD reservoir submerged the homes of 1.3 million people, and swallowed some 1,300 archaeological sites.


3. Absolute Towers, Mississauga, Canada, competition won March 2007

For decades – centuries even – Western countries sold their architectural and engineering class to the poor-world East. By a neat trick, they even managed to use their own IMF contributions to pay themselves. Absolute Towers marks the start of a reverse flow: for the first time, a high-profile international competition was won by a developing country office, making Ma Yansong China’s first starchitect.


4. Fire at CCTV Headquarters, Beijing, February 2009

China Central Television (CCTV) Headquarters by OMA/Koolhaas is one of the biggest buildings in the world, housing one of its most Orwellian institutions. During a fireworks display to show off the new mirrored facade, a rocket was accidently shot into the tower. In the West, the blazing building came to symbolise starchitecture burning up. In Beijing, where CCTV is known as ‘the big pants’, it was a moment of government stooges setting their own privates on fire.

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