After the economy of the Place - new territories in architecture
In recent years, "Chinese" as an attribute has gone through many changes, and now in most cases has little to do with the original meaning of the word. The interaction of immigrants from the Far East with the urban spaces they use, and of the imported goods with the urban dwellers who use them, has defined a semantic field in which almost everything that comes from East Asia is seen as - and displayed as - Chinese. It is practically a brand name, which Vietnamese merchants will put on the front of their own shops as naturally as the restaurant owner who tailored his offer to the needs of the Hungarian market.
One of the most recent and most visible phenomena to come to the fore in contemporary architecture is urbanisation in China and the attendant unprecedented architectural boom. An army of architects work on creating the new brand - and a lot of European architects have joined the ranks because the low design and construction costs make possible projects they could not even dream about in Europe . At the same time, drafting work for the designs of European studios is often done by Far Eastern outsourced workers, whose cheap professional work, like that of the sewing plants or those sherpas who develop characters for networked computer games, is necessary for the sustainability of European architectural production. By now, however, the centres of development have also followed the manufacturing industries to the Asian countries, whose economic potential is immense. Is it not time then to associate new contents with the word that has until now been the synonym of cheap, easily manufactured and disposable products?
Without a doubt, one of the primary scenes of the current transformation of the phenomenon we call a city is China, while its influence on the rest of the world, including what is still the dominant trend for the profession, European and North American architecture, has been little discussed. What impressions do those Eastern cities which expand at explosive speed make on the architecture of Europe , on those cities in which the process seems discernible only through the flow of goods and knowledge?
Alongside the built environment, there are a number of other channels through which the influences can appear, and the effects sometimes remain indiscernible. Unlike the paradigm of imported, interpreted, naturalised culture, these do not build upon intellectual processes, or a community of interpreters: the knowledge that spreads in a network builds and travels its own paths.
We need only to count those objects in our immediate environment that are of "Chinese" origin to gain a sense of the invisible background: this global network has become a key factor of the culture of our surroundings without actually seeking omnipresence. It would be a mistake to think that only less advantaged social groups are the consumers of those products manufactured in endless combinations - a significant portion of designer products and prototypes derive from exactly the same sources. These objects represent the front end of a network that, thanks precisely to its informal, dispersed quality, has enormous potentials beyond the production and distribution of goods. This is the network of eateries that can be found on every street corner, and which is not a top-down franchise system - it takes only a few steps in this global system to reach fully customised services.
If we look at this network with the eyes of a designer, we can easily see the opportunities created by the production, transport and multiplication of building materials, structures and prototypes: the returns depend only on the relative ratio of production and transportation costs. In this context, what is to be considered a copy? The photo of the local natural building material, or the product based on its scanned 3D image, manufactured at the other end of the world, for a fraction of the original price? How many more steps does it take to make fully customised materials and products? And what is to be considered local production in this system of relations, where the mass-produced yet customised goods of a European merchant are supplied by their Asian hometown's factory, which depends on these "local" orders. If architectonic innovation, which is apparently on a continuous course of development, will in fact be accessible to an ever decreasing number of people, what alternatives to costly originality will be available in this new scenario?
All this is not utopia. It is there in the construction stores, the technologies that underpin design, even in R&D and engineering. The network recognises no locations, only goals and means. Localised production and the limited opportunities of immigrants in large cities represent the surface contact of the two worlds, as do our clothing and the millions of objects in our living rooms. The Beijing programmer who fights terrorists in War on Terror and then sells his trooper, seasoned and knowledgeable about the city, on eBay, or the student of architecture who makes the working drawings of an office building to be erected on a location he has never seen, is as much part of urban reality in Budapest, as is the merchant who sells imported ornaments or sews the brand name on the shoes in the market on the outskirts of the city. As of yet, this knowledge does not cohere, becoming useful only through informal relationships and personal commitments. The question is whether architecture, which considers itself the engine of culture, can recognise the means made available to it, can learn from them, or will only use the end product.
Our historical cities are slow, and even with their experiments in contemporary architecture, they represent stability, immovability, gravity, security and time. Like water between pebbles, this new, mobile, flexible, lightweight, temporary, fragmented city runs into the niches of this context, and its cultural background is provided not only by the mobility of the network, but also a spatial experience that radically differs from the European one. In the focus of this architecture stands what is in scale beneath and beyond it: the life and culture of objects (mobility), and the land, the locality. Personal property and its inheritance, which are among the cornerstones of Western civilisation, hardly appear in this equation. This may, in fact, be what has sustained the system, which from a Western perspective has been in a state of permanent instability for millennia - and this is what is reversed in the contemporary urban mega-structures of China , where the developments that create the built environment of the economic explosion tend to rely on the model of the expansive city (1). This may have its lessons for urban policy, which is still confined by the almost exclusive illusion of the real estate speculation and architectural icon industry that the model induces. The time has come for osmosis to become visible, and for the two worlds to do something beyond simply filling each other's empty spaces. The opening, the mutual disintegration (2) has already begun - and it is only a question of attention and responsibility when it will transcend individual life strategies to appear in policies and decisions.
1. Harvey Molotch: "The City as a Growth Machine"
2. Think of Goethe's Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften), and the helpless changes in the garden.