Learning From Hangzhou
Tuesday August 5, 2008 – Saturday September 20, 2008
“Above there is Heaven, Below there is Hangzhou”
The Yangtze River Delta corridor is one of the fastest developing regions in the world. Spanning from Shanghai to Ningbo and encompassing 16 cities with populations larger than 1 million people (including Shanghai, a city of 20 million at the center) the Yangtze River Delta now boasts a gross industrial output value equivalent to 21 percent of China’s total. It is a region in China that has the most investment, population, environmental pollution, and at 45% the corridor has one of the fastest urbanization rates in the world. The city of Hangzhou lies 180 kilometers southwest of Shanghai and is a major hub in the Yangtze River Delta’s geographic and economic configuration. Over the last ten years Hangzhou has tripled in size to cover 16,596 square kilometers and increased by one million for a total population of 6.29 million.
Hangzhou dates back some 4700 years and is considered one of the cradles of Chinese civilization. It is traditionally known for its beautiful women, rich cultural heritage and romantic legends. But while downtown Hangzhou is centered around the picturesque and idyllic West Lake, the backside of the city unravels in a spirit of anarchic ecstasy with no apparent adherence to architectural stylistic integrity or regulations regarding size, signage, or districting. This is indicative of many Chinese cities, where planners cannot keep pace with the accelerated evolution brought on by the country’s recent economic growth. China’s policies of economic reform have not only affected tremendous urban expansion (and even births of cities) concentrated into a short period of time, but also an unbridled culture of consumerism. Learning from Hangzhou is a case study of revolutionary transition as it occurs in one Chinese city. The aim of the project is to delineate some of the physical manifestations effected by economic expansion and examine where socio-cultural change and urban development overlap.
LEARNING FROM ADVERTISEMENTS
This project borrows its title and cue from Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown’s seminal work, Learning from Las Vegas. The authors, in pursuit of understanding the implications of popular culture upon architectural design, observe in a late nineteen sixties Las Vegas that the distinction between architecture and signage was becoming increasingly blurred. Signage they deemed was often more important and elaborate than the venues that they advertised and some buildings were signs in themselves. While Hangzhou is no match for the surrealism that Las Vegas offers, it possesses its own idiosyncratic interrelationships of architecture and signage that are confounded by the city’s rapid pace of development. Whereas in Las Vegas, signs become the buildings, in Hangzhou, the constructed environment becomes a stage for the discourse of economic expansion, often leaving architecture at the service of signage. The advertising and real estate industries, equally prosperous, have literally obliterated the respective roles of each other. Learning from Hangzhou offers a lesson for a globalizing world that is increasingly frivolous in its commoditization of public space.
Learning from Hangzhou furthers its inquiry beyond architecture and signage to the broader spectrum of urban iconography wherein demolition and construction, architectural eclecticism, accruements of habitation, graffiti advertising, inexpensive large-scale printing, climate control and cultural desire all collide in an orgy of semiotic permissiveness and point to a civilization in the awkward throes of transition.
From 2003-2007 thousands of digital photographs, based on patterns or visual re-occurrences throughout the city, were recorded and archived into categories of architectural, socio-economic and urban cultural phenomena. These photographs cover territory from outdoor advertising (in its many different and all enveloping configurations) to the constructed environment (the transitional zones of demolition/construction sites, architecture, and architectural apparatus’) to urban culture’s visual codes (street markings, ad imagery, internet bars, the wedding industry, etc.). The intention is that by isolating instances of repetition from the overall fabric of the city processes of urbanization and social/cultural change can be examined more carefully. Learning from Hangzhou is an attempt to present a developing city codified along the edges of its own physical utterances.
Like every city, Hangzhou is a dynamic organism whose very fabric is disappearing as quickly as it is woven. Learning from Hangzhou attempts to record phenomena that will otherwise vanish in China’s amnesiac race towards hypermodernity; and to ultimately describe a civilization and its attendant environment that is alive with frenetic change.
This project was made possible through generous support from IBEX Construction and Tim and Ellen Van Housen.