Urban-retrospector, a rethinking on the place I lived

/Guangzhou/ identity /urban village/ multi-layers

  • This is a self- interest based research that traces some of my thinking on my beloved city.

At the age of 17 I moved to Guangzhou which is considered to be one of the most influential cities in China. Geographically far away from Beijing or Shanghai that is more controlled by the political center of the nation, Guangzhou presents a more vigorous environment that’s masked with multiple layers.  It's a city that's renowned for its 2000 years history and boasts the confluences of three rivers and the Pearl River Delta. No coastal city can be compared to Guangzhou in China except for HongKong.

The local culture is significantly different from ‘Northern cities’ (as called by the locals of Canton province, which usually refers to provinces that’s located to the North of the Canton city). The old urban fabrics suggest a hint of lifestyles in old times while the hustling streets crowed with foreign businessman announces its new identity. Skyscrapers and nice apartments which are unaffordable by middle-class family, spring out along the Pearl river, while if you take a turn to get further down two blocks, you probably will find many of those 5 stories residential blocks divided by narrow street of no more than 3 feet (as they call shake-hand building, because neighbors in different apartment building could actually shake their hands across the street). Young people run down the alley to catch up the last bus which is always packed up like a can; a nanny barging outside of a family business; a car that’s clogged by bus’ losing its temper; the sound that cargo trolley wheels around foreign trade area; the patch of compact ‘urban village’ that’s beside the highly developed highway… The city is polarized in many ways, forming confronted parts that makes equilibrium over times and times. 

From 1949 onwards, 16 urban plans were proposed for the city while they generally falls into three parts:

1. Industrial city 1954-1978

-During this period leadership gave priority to the economic growth and the city was developed to focus on light industry with certain level of transportation. Series municipal facilities were rebuilt, several industrial zones and Huangpu Port Zone were developed. This was a time when architectural style was influenced by Soviet Union. And influences of CIAM and function zoning ideas could be traced from the urban fabric.

2. Socialist modern city 1979-1991

In 1979, special policies and flexible measures were implemented in Guangdong province, Guangzhou was among the first cities that benefited from preferential policies and boosted its economic growth significantly. At the same year, the urban construction guideline changed and it guided the city to focus on light industry, raw materials, foreign trade, and tourism activities. The policy allows the city shifted from a planned economy to a commodity economy which gives freedom in self- management for profit loss. Since then Guangzhou had been developed too fast for basic infrastructures to supply the needs of its dwellers and travelers which counts for 1-2 million man –times a day. Unauthorized building emerged, like concrete jungles, along existing roads radiating from the urban center, destroying the natural green belts. At the time, there was no systematic or long term planning. Decision makers patch and remedy wherever problems appears and many completed works were soon out of dated before soon the roads are dig up again.

3. International metropolis 1991-2001

In 1990, the concept of landscape city was proposed and many city image projects that have been conceptualized. But as 1990s onward, villages in the city have become a main issue that obsessed the development of the city, though now it has become an integral part of the city. These villages are originally rural areas that are adjacent to urban centers. While the urban centers sprawl and connected by commercial strips and transportation, they swallow the villages which is not be able match the development pace. These villages are featured with high building density low land use rate, ubiquitous illegal building. Since the density of this village is too high that it is subjected to fire issues, while neither fire engines nor ambulance have access to its narrow streets. Dwellers of the villages usefully develop their own town house into high density ‘apartments’ that the low rents attract high amount of migrant populations. This brings out the safety issue and exerts pressure on public security as well. Village in City is an example of polarized separation of urban/rural, rich/poor, which functions as a mirror of social inequity.

The economic boosts of Guangzhou city urge a transformation of its old city fabric in the context of a pluralistic demographic and cultural presence. The major challenge is to create city’s identities by revitalizing old urban fabrics and bringing in the needs for modern vernacular. The prevailing solutions of dealing with village city and the inequity cased by fragmentation is to create quality and vibrant suburb/rural village living, hoping by attracting back migrants from city and decentralizing the population density in urban center. The approach is systematic and considers city and rural area as a whole system through its totality.

While similar to ‘Berlin as Green archipelago’, the urban fabric of Guangzhou is fragmented and forms strong contrast between ‘groups’ (village/city). There is strong identity between groups and each’ island’ shows strong sharp edges and legible limits. Same methods could be applied to village city: Architects could define strong edges to each islands and fill the gaps with uncertainty and overlap impression of nature. Thus rather than trying to control over the ‘negative space’ which is uncertain and infinitive, architects need only to frame and delimited the existing structure of the fabric.

I can’t say this polarization is bad, because everything is living in a nuanced balance. But I am always thinking that if architects could, through their design (either in new architectural/urban projects or rearrangements of current urban form), exert changes and show their sympathies over those urban issues.



Steven Holl's humanism sympathies over China city read through the lens of Aureli



Aureli, V.P., The possibility of an absolute architecture, MIT Press, 2011

Aurel,V.P., The project of autonomy, politics and architecture within and against capitalism, Princeton architectural Press, NY, 2008

Hariri & Hariri, essays by Kenneth Frampton and Steven Holl compiled by Oscar Riera Ojeda

Monacelli Press Inc, NY, 1995

Hilary French, Key Urban Housing of the 20th C, plans, sections and elevations, W.W. Norton & Company. NY. 2008

Steven Holl, Architecture Spoken , Rizzoli International Publications. Inc. NY. 2007

Steven Holl Universe Publishing of Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. NY. 2003

Through its act of separation and being separated, architecture reveals at once the essence of the city and the essence of itself as political form: the city as the composition of separate parts. 

In ‘the possibility of an absolute architecture’, Aureli proposes a reconsider of formal aspect in architecture in light of a unitary interpretation of architecture and city. He coined the word ‘ absolute’ to described the individuality condition of an architecture, for being able to be resolutely itself after being separated, when its form is confronted with the environment in which it is suited. He argues that the agonistic relationship between architecture and its context can only be understood by acknowledging the process of separation and confrontation.

He first critically analyse the differences between ‘city’ and ‘urbanization’ by analogy comparing Greek’s polis to Roman urbs. Greek’s polis, the political space of the agora, is a place where decisions are made for the sake of public interests, while the urbs describes the walled agglomeration, which addresses the material constitution of the city, of houses without political qualifications.  Aureli argues that both the geographical form and insularity condition as a mode of relationship in Greek polis makes it an essential political form. While the infinitely growth of insatiable network in Roman Empire unfolds its ‘civitas’( similar to that of ‘polis’ in Greek) into a economically oriented totality.  

Aureli then moved forward to argue the rebirth of the Western city was propelled primarily by the role of economics and the economic impetus of urbs gradually took ove the political idea of civitas. The rise of bourgeoisies, which phenomenon comes along with the increasing network of economic transactions, defines a new identity of contemporary city. Rather constitute a form of public interest, the bourgeoisie comprises eventually the interests of owners of private property, because it is in the economic interest of only one segment of the entire social body. This phenomenon of fundamental substitution of politics with economics as a mode of city governance was regarded to Aureli, as the notion of urbanization.   

Aureli distains urbanization and the condition of limitlessness and the complete integration of movement and communication brought about by capitalism. He looked at the isotropic plan by Cerda, Hilerseimer’s city of repetition of single typology and v which theorised urbanization as the ultimate and inevitable fate of the contemporary city, and argues that ‘the essence of urbanization is the destruction of any limit, boundary, or form that is not the infinite, compulsive repetition of its own reproduction and the consequent totalizing mechanism of control that guarantees this process of infinity.’ This ‘bad infinity’ of urbanization consumes the city through the process of endless repetition.  Furthermore, contemporary urbanization’s  attempt to obey the logic of a total integration while struggle with maintaining the pluralism required by metropolis is illustrated in Koolhaas’s City of the Captive Globe, where captivity and iconographic diversity play a fundamental role.  

In respond to the infinite urbanization, Aureli proposes a view against the totalizing space of urbanization by redefining the political and formal discourse in architecture.  Political form requires the object to affirm its counterparts by recognising its enemies as a critical mirroring of itself.  Then political form is to establish a relationship that negotiates in between the confrontation of parts by not synthesis of confronting parts, but by recognizing the opposition as a composition of parts. The formal in architecture is incarnated into the experience of limit, as the relationship between inside and outside. Inside is the architecture while outside is the situation it suits. Form exists from the moment it represent s the tension from an inside towards outside and indicates how inside can reflect itself through outside. Formal concerns the ‘outside’ and the ‘other’ as much as it concerns with the object itself, so it goes against totality and conception of multiplicity in urbanization.  Thus formal and political are overlapping categories:  formal is another interpretation of political, because political is the agonistic space of confrontation of parts and its counterparts. Both political and formal discourse relies heavily on defining an object through ‘others’ and both address the possibility of separation, composition and counterparts. In architecture, both discourses were interpreted as separateness in the constitution of architectural form. The formal and political of architecture are mobilized against the ethos of urbanization.

The possibility of an absolute architecture is aiming to alter the dilemma of urbanization: integration and closure by reclaiming separation not only as an urban governance manifestation but as a tangible form. The possibility of an absolute architecture is an attempt to re-establish the sense of the city as the site of political confrontation and recomposition of parts. The idea of separations links the possibility of an absolute architecture to the idea of the archipelago as a form for the city. The archipelago sees the city as agonistic struggle of parts whose forms are finite and in contrast with each other. The islands are framed and limited by the seas, yet their formal boundaries allow to redefine the sea between islands. Here architecture form can be seen as a form as frames, and a limit to urbanization.

The chosen project is the horizontal skyscraper- vanke center by Steven Holl build in Shenzhen, China during 2006 and 2009. Steven Holl is known for an architecture that concerns with fundamental issue relating to site anchoring, atmosphere, material concreteness, form explorations from which spring out the interest of lights, and also his pursuits on the phenomenology of space and time. He perceives architecture as a dynamic process where people constantly reinvent our relationship to the world of the senesces, such as an instrument that play of the experience of time, light and place. ( Holl, p11) His architecture is often drawn analogy to the rhythm of sounds.  As Toyo Ito once says that’ the spatial experience in Holl’s architecture is quite unique as if one were dreaming about modern architecture… the word drift suits his architecture perfectly…space is often weightless’   His site-related consciousness seems to make him the most remote reference for political and formal discourse in architecture. 

Hovering over a tropical garden, vanke center (horizontal skyscraper) the length of which is as long as the Empire State Building is tall unites into one vision meandering along a coastal scenic area to the East of Shenzhen. The site is embraced by ranges of mountains to the north and face to seneric sea shore to the South. The building is a hybrid building including a hotel, headquarter offices for Vanke Co. Itd, and serviced condominiums. A conference center, spa and parking lots are located under the large green public landscape which is characterised by mounds containing restaurants and a 500 seats auditorium.

Porous and transparency is seen as a main attribute of horizontal skyscraper. Shadow, sunlight and geometry are interlocked in experiential phenomena. Natural light plays as an essential force interlocked with time. Sun and shadows plays out in the vessel of the building like a volumetric sundial.  Through the porosities of its façade, clear concept driven geometry, structure and material gives new expressions in light.  Transparency is a delightful phenomenon visible in the horizontal skyscraper. The refraction of sunlight by a pool of slightly undulating water reflects back it shadow back over to the main structure. The cooling ponds was positioned as a rectangle on the South elevation to establish the ripples of late afternoon sunlight on the ceiling. The visual drama of refracted and reflected sunlight can bring seasonal and daily change- music to building. The possibility of subtle coloration changes occurring from the natural phenomena outside. To set a window far back in to a wall elevation is to put its glass in shadow and to project window glass outward is a way of capturing and framing sections of the reflected landscape in the building façade. 

Porous in program is achieved by diagrammatically turning the skylines of city upside down and forming an elevated expression through the main structure. One of the main characters of the building one could observe upon arriving from the North elevation is the eight planar pillars upon which hovered the horizontal megastructure. Instead of sparsely assigning programs into several detached structures, the project float one large structure right under the 35 meter height limitation, unifying the programs into one unified space.  The hovering expression of the building makes it seems weightless and one’s eyes would eventually draw to the vast landscape that is left exposed under the structure after it’s lifted.  The decision to float structure was also inspired by the hope to create views over the lower developments of surrounding sites to the South China Sea. Thus the ground level, underside of the floating structure, becomes it main elevation and is brought vitality by the elevated gesture of the main structure.

Holl allows the attributes of industrial technology to enter and envelop his building, such as building’s structure as a combination of cable-stay bridge technology merged with a high-strength concrete frame; use of highly reusable material bamboo for doors floors and furnitures throughout the offices instead of using raw materials or exotic woods; greenscreen solar shading panels which is eco-friendly and easy to recycle. In this way the forces of urbanization in the form of the mass production of building technology become the very appearance of his architecture.

Another design philosophy that Holl holds, anchoring, seems to challenge Aureli’s interpretation absolute architecture as limit form.  As Holl argues in his black swan in 1989 : ‘Architecture is bound to situation…Building transcends physical and functional requirements by fusing with a place, by gathering the meaning of a situation. Architecture does not so much intrude on a landscape as it serves to explain it…Architecture and its site should have an experiential connection. When a work of architecture successfully fuses a building and a situation, a third condition emerges. ‘( p17 black swan) It seems like Holl is attempt to integrate the relationship between building and its surroundings into a whole system. By elevating the whole structure above the planar pillars, he created a philosophical commitment to bring parts together.

However, one can argue it is the planar pillars, as a main design character that makes horizontal skyscraper an absolute architecture. The pillars separate the building into counterparts and define the space into a hybrid condition: one space occupied by the pillars as defined as a void intangible elevation; and the megastructure that hovers above the pillar. It is through the separation of parts that the horizontal skyscraper defines its political form, and through the framing and limitation defined by the pillars that the building find its formal discourse. The way the pillars reorganize the connection between a building and its site affects not only one’s experience of what is placed on the pillars but also his experience of the city that sits as outskirt of the building.  In this way, Holl’s pillars reinvented urban space as an archipelago of limited urban artifacts. It is this emphasis on finiteness and separateness that make artifacts like these the most intense manifestation of the political in the city.

Moreover, since the pillars elevated the megastructue which leave the underground elevation to public, the building gradually loses its commercial interest compared to many of commercialised skyscraper where the lobbies are developed into stores. Holl, by leaving out vast open spaces for the public ,shows his sympathises to urbanizations through Aureli’s lens of anti-capitalism arguments.