Archis 2004 #4

Modernity at large

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The following text is an extract from the full article published in #4 2004 Archis magazine.


Open, flexible, inevitable


A remarkable process has been taking place in recent years in large parts of Asia whereby, within a short space of time, cities develop from regional hubs into transnational centres.
The scale and the speed with which these developments are taking place is astonishing. According to many, a new landscape is taking shape, a landscape of mega-cities and conurbations, which transcends the existing definitions of city and urbanity. ‘They went,’ as Deyan Sudjic writes, ‘from sleepy ex-colonial backwaters with cricket grounds and an atmosphere of tropical torpor, or down-at-heel ideological gulags infested by bicycles and Mao suits with nothing on the shelves in the Friendship Stores, into the economic and urban power houses of the world’.2 Another commentator, the architect Rem Koolhaas, writes about a ‘unique wrenching condition. The urban seems to be least understood at the very moment of its apotheosis’.3


From dictating to stimulating


The modernization process initiated by the Chinese state has resulted in the formation of a new type of city, strongly influenced by Western planning principles. In this ’emergent city’, for example, where old neighbourhoods are being demolished to make way for wide, four to eight-lane highways, a central role has been given to the circulation of car and bicycle traffic. Furthermore, a new spatial structure is in the making, based on the principle of multi-nucleation.

As a consequence of the strong growth of the tertiary sector and the partial privatization of the land market, whereby the state grants investors long-term loans, space is being freed up for the development of specialized city districts. In addition, an extensive growth is apparent, both in the horizontal and the vertical direction.


The skyline of the new Chinese city is not dominated by pagodas or temples, but rather by high-tech office complexes, shopping centres and apartment blocks. Illustrative of the scale and the speed of Chinese urban development is the growth of the Pearl River Delta, which can be regarded as an outpost of socioeconomic developments. Within the space of about 20 years, a completely new spatial structure has developed in the Delta. The economic importance of Guangzhou, for example, for a long time the most important city in the region, decreased significantly in relation to the newly created urban zones. In contrast, the growth of Shenzhen was quite spectacular. The city is often cited as an ‘instant city’, a classic example of the contemporary artificial Chinese city. ‘Shenzhen,’ writes one commentator, ‘is not a city of newly acquired freedom, but of an absolute, terrifying control on all levels.’4


Ti Yong


The city is not a neutral but rather a transitional object, formed by sociohistorical developments.

Recent developments in China show how the form and structure of urban spaces are transformed under the influence of political changes. The current developments in China can be regarded as a form of modernization condensed in time and place, in which simplified versions of Western modernity are reproduced and domesticated. According to this reading, China is moving from an isolated country to an open, modern and affluent society, where tradition is making way for cosmopolitanism, orderliness is yielding to fragmentation, and the countryside is being swallowed up by the city.

Such conceptions, however, ignore the complex and diverse forms which modernity can assume. Tradition and modernity, local and global, are closely connected. Large-scale processes are dictated by the state, but always find their anchorage in local places. The quintessence of modernity lies, in other words, not in homogenization but rather in the co-existence and intersections between the local and the global. As the Chinese themselves put it, it is about preserving cultural identity under modern conditions; becoming modern (ti) while remaining essentially Chinese (yong).


Leeke Reinders is anthropologist and researcher at OTB, Research Institute for Housing, Urban and Mobility Studies, Technical University of Delft.


1. R. Boomkens, Een drempelwereld. Moderne ervaring en stedelijke openbaarheid, Rotterdam (NAi Uitgevers), 1998.

2. D. Sudjic, ‘Identity and the city’, Third Megacities Lecture, 19 November 1999.

3. C.J. Chung, J. Inaba, R. Koolhaas & S.T. Leong, Harvard Design School Project on the city. Great leap forward, Cologne (Taschen), 2001, p. 27.

4. B. Lootsma, ‘Modelstad Shenzhen’, Archis, no. 3, 2000.