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World events put architecture into very different contexts

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China’s population is expected to increase by 310 million by 2030. The same change took Europe 150 years, writes Paul Finch

Herbert Meyer, at one time a regular commentator on the politics of property, construction and architecture, liked to tell a story about Italy under Mussolini. A man buys a newspaper from a street vendor every day, looks at the front page and throws it away. One day the vendor says: ‘Signor, every day you buy a paper, look at the front page and drop it in the bin. Why?’  The man says: ‘Every day I am looking for an obituary.’  ‘But signor, the obituaries always appear on the back page.’  The man replies: ‘The obituary I am interested in will be on the front page.’

If you thought the 1930s were ancient history, think again. On a visit to Shanghai last week I came across an article in the China Daily on the growing tension between Japan and China over disputed territories. What caught the eye was first the headline ‘Japan’s Aso [the deputy prime minister] spits Weimar venom’; and second a cartoon showing an electric saw in the shape of a swastika being applied to a monument of a dove, labelled ‘Peace Constitution’ - a reference to Japan’s 1947 political settlement.

The article included an account of a recent statement by prime minister Shinzō Abe on the occasion of ‘Restoration of Sovereignty Day’. What he said was, literally translated, ‘Long live the Emperor’. But the article’s author, former Goldman Sachs Asia vice-chairman Kenneth Courtis, points out that this is the Japanese equivalent of saying ‘Heil Hitler’. The phrase has not been used by any premier in a public capacity since 1945. The article says powerful political forces are arguing that, if the current constitution cannot be changed formally, it can be changed in practice, rather as the German Weimar constitution was changed (in Aso’s words) ‘without anyone noticing it’. Given the impending centenary of the Great War, all this has unfortunate resonances, to put it mildly. This is especially so in Shanghai, given its ghastly experiences of Japanese conquest and occupation.

But, despite political crises, there is still the broader story of what happens to the great mass of the population not necessarily directly affected by current politics. They have their lives to lead, and those lives are bound up with architecture and, increasingly, the city.

Another Shanghai newspaper, Global Times, reports that in 2011 China’s urban population exceeded the rural population for the first time. This finding was part of a study by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. They predict the population will increase by 310 million by 2030. Yes, 310 million. A UNDP official commented that this rate of population growth is unprecedented in human history. The same change took Europe 150 years and Latin America 210. China’s National Development and Reform Commission says quality [of development]rather than speed should become a priority; this sounds awfully familiar, and awfully difficult to achieve.

Under the circumstances, the recent decision by the city of Jinan to rebuild its huge 1908 railway station (pictured), designed by German architect Hermann Fischer and only demolished in 1992, might look quixotic. On the other hand, it may suggest a welcome sign that re-use, rather than wholesale demolition, may be an idea gaining momentum.

Curiously, one of the reasons given for demolition was that the building reminded a former mayor of the ‘architecture of Adolf Hitler’. A misreading of design history, but further evidence that what WH Auden called ‘a low dishonest decade’ is still casting its shadow.
Herb Meyer, by the way, is alive, well and living in Mauritius.

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