DeCoding Asian Urbanism Grapples with Asia’s Unprecedented Growth

Cities are becoming much denser, as anyone who has even a passing interest is demographics will see. As urban life accelerates its rapid filling-in, rural life continues to shrink. This tilt has been evident since at least the middle of last century, when Jean Gottmann, a French geographer, invented the term “megalopolis” in order to describe continuous urbanization that took place from Boston to Washington, D.C., which then contained one-fifth the United States’ total population. The shift from the countryside to cities has been dramatic in Asia, however.

The rapid rise of Asian cities is both catastrophic and beautiful. They are often larger, denser and taller than their western counterparts. This is the subject of a new book published by Harvard South Asia Institute and A+D Museum. It also features an exhibition at the Helms Design Center, Culver City, titled DeCoding Asian Urbanism.

In a mere ten years, Asia will have two-thirds the largest cities in the world, with at least four cities having populations greater than 30 million.

Gottman’s phrase, which was first used 61 years ago, seems too limiting to reflect the current state of affairs in cities like Dhaka and Hong Kong. The Philippines has three of most densely populated countries in the world. Manila is the largest, with 107,000 people living within its 17-square mile area. Our language is not up to the mark. At the current rate, for example, 90 new Asian cities will be created. Each one will be larger than San Jose in California (population approximately 1 million in 2019). In a little over ten years, Asia will have two-thirds the largest cities in the world, with at least four cities exceeding 30 million people.

The deCoding Asian Urbanismexhibition is made up of a series of rooms. It begins with a map of relative cities and ends with a video display of bars graphs that show the changes in cities over time. This shocking flash of numbers summarizes the rise and fall cities and empires. One is immersed in moving photos of intense street life in Asia. These images were filmed by Miriam Kuhlmann and then edited into flowing kaleidoscopes. There are maps of Asian cities at the time of colonialism’s birth (tiny) as well as today (enormous), and photos of grinding poverty alongside glistening prosperity. The architectural proposals that encompass all this dramatic change.

The most striking illustration in the book and the exhibition is the composite created by Saskia Sassen, a Columbia sociologist who is also an expert on globalization. The shantytown is in the foreground. It’s made up of thousands of corrugated cardboard boxes that have been piled together like a typhoon. As if painted onto horizon, the background is a skyscraper oasis. It’s as far away as a cruise ship, but equally as impervious to weather and market forces. Because it is easy to believe, Sassen’s trompe-l’oeil is compelling. This is where we know it to be, if not right now, then in the near future.

Birds-eye view of Hong Kong.. Image © ANDY YEUNG

The paradox of the Asian megalopolis is growing increasingly problematic for older Western cities. Their pre-automotive roots, while weakened, still offer, in Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase, “a place of human appearance.” This new urban form was created primarily to serve as landing pads and a platform for an elite international population. Farooq Ameen is deCoding‘s curator and founder principal of City Design Studio. He notes that these cities feature “airports and hotels, malls and business parks, factories, gated skyscraper communities and office towers, as well as virtuoso architectural elements” to mark arriviste economies, which are largely controlled by totalitarian governments. These images are shown worldwide in glossy photos on magazine covers and in news accounts.

This placelessness is matched by the vitality and dynamism the vernacular of the dispossessed. Their lives are built around cultural avowal, historical memory, and the immediate possibility of personal encounter. The lower depths are where this counter-reality plays out all too often. The informal “cities” of Mumbai’s Dharavi are thought to be Asia’s largest slum.

Here, life is built on personal relationships, lineage and trust as well as poverty. However, a natural, ingrained civic enterprise continues to percolate from the streets up and out. Qingyun Ma, a former dean of University of Southern California’s School of Architecture, said in one of many dialogues: “Life seems to have the ability to reorganize itself very quickly and…activities which happen around any physical construction are never programmed.” Spaces are often illegally claimed. Take over the Hong Kong skywalks on “maids’ day” and eat a bowl of noodles in Beijing.

A belt of freeways wraps a section of Shangha.. Image Courtesy of ISPYFRIEND

These assumptions about western cities have been thrown out. It is impossible to imagine a choreography that combines public and private spaces in an orderly and ordered fashion. You either live in a western structure, which is imposed from the outside, or you reside in Asia where sidewalks cannot be made for walking.

There are no easy answers to reform–literally–what the Indian architect Charles Correa noted 30 years ago was “a brutal mismatch between the form of our cities and the way we use them.” Yet, refashioning Asian cities is a more urgent task than ever before if they–and many other developing cities, some lodged within the so-called First World–are to become something more than models of the dislocation imposed by the exportation of wealth from the periphery to the centers of finance capital.

Ameen says this work requires urban acupuncture, a more nuanced and bottom-up approach in planning and building. He writes that cities must rely on small-scale interventions in the urban fabric that have an impact on the greater context of the city.

Traffic jam on a street corner in central Dhaka, Bangladesh. . Image © RUBY RASCAL

The book and exhibition highlight projects such as Diana Balmori’s Public Administration Town in Sejong City (Korea) and Hamzah & Yeang’s Solaris Tower, Singapore. These are projects that make use of landscape to reduce stress in the urban environment. Solaris preserves the remnants of nature in Singapore’s city center by forming the building around the original plot, where PAT integrates all the city’s ministry structures into nature. Ameen believes architecture can also help to stem the flow from rural areas to cities. Kashef Chowdhury’s Friendship Hospital in Satkhira (Bangladesh), one of the poorest areas in the country, reverses the traditional formula and brings the urban into rural. It is composed of tiny spaces, small courtyards and little piazzas. While the architecture has little impact on the environment, it can provide a village with some stability and improvement. I wonder if the village’s amenities have made it better for the children. Chowdhury wonders if this person is better off moving to the city “into uncertain employment and housing.”

Ameen believes such projects use Buckminster Fuller’s principle of changing an airplane’s “trim tabs.” This allows a large airship like a 747 turn around. He believes that urban and architectural tweaks will transform entire cities.

Courtesy of City Design Studio

One hopes. Like many architectural schemes, these rely on government goodwill and private money. Is it possible to spark a movement for spatial democracy with a handful of essential pieces? Or will we be coerced into a stale sentimentality for well-intentioned ones-offs? It should be obvious that all of our cities will die, both inside and outside Asia.