Sunday, December 17, 2006

monoliths and change--an industrial cityscape--concrete and green

I've always found something eerily beautiful about the concrete housing blocks that are clustered all over modern China. Together with the gray-yellow haze of pollution, the dark silhouettes of cranes against the horizon, and the muffled sounds of construction, they form this kind of solemn, industrial cityscape that is uniquely Chinese. I'm not sure if there was any particular system or method towards their construction or municipal layout, but I always imagine them being put up sometime just before the Cultural Revolution, at a time when the collective energy that carried the CCP to victory had yet to have been turned in on itself. They certainly look old enough to have been built in that era, but I think that that, in actuality, most of them were put up in the late seventies or early eighties, shortly after China's re-opening and its renewed push towards development.

Generally the buildings are set up in rectagular complexes with a courtyard in the middle, although different sets of complexes seem to have been constructed at different times, so they approach each other at sharp angles and create quiet, narrow alleyways that turn on jagged corners. They are typically five or six stories high, made of unadorned concrete, both inside and out, and are composed of one or two bedroom apartments that are perhaps intended for single families but are, more often than not, filled with half a dozen people or more. When they were freshly purchased essentially none of the apartments were decorated inside, including paint, floor boards, or furnishings. While many of them have since been adorned with these amenities, some of them are still as bare as the day they were created, and some only partly finished. When I was apartment searching in Shanghai about one in three of the apartments I looked at were had bare concrete walls, and many were neither carpeted nor tiled.

Nowadays they appear to be half-crumbling, and hardly suitable for habitiation. In addition to the general pockmarcks and discolarations, their sides are invariably coated with pollution residue, which is itself streaked with water lines from air conditioners. The rooftops are messes of upturned tiles and corrosion that look fit to collapse at any moment.

Yet, in all of their dilapidation and ugliness, these buildings are a fundamental part of the landscape of modern China, a part that is little written about or spoken about. They are, essentially, the architectural foundation of the modern Chinese city. As such, these endless stretches of concrete generally give the skyline of any city here city a gray tinge, like the color of river-worn slate.

In Chengdu, however, many of the buildings have rooftop or windowsill gardens with lush vegetation that tendrils out along the walls and gives the horizon a hint of green. Moreover, here the buildings burst from their complex communities not only along major roads but also along the sand river (沙河), a tree and flower-lined waterway which twists and bends through the north-eastern district of the city. This contrast between the natural greenery and the color of old concrete grey gives the buildings in this part of the city a kind of special quality, something that speaks uniquely of the city of Chengdu.

I like to go on bike rides along this waterway and, as I make my way under the trees, observe the old monoliths along its shore, these giant remnants of a dehumanizing, mass industrialization, a kind of historical, cultural, and psychological convergence that I think most of us are incapable of completely understanding or appreciating. I certainly don't understand it, confronted as I am by these things on a daily basis.

Along the ride, as they drift past with vegetation bursting out of them (and seemingly poised to devour them), the buildings take on the appearance of ruins, rather than the living places they truly are. It always makes me think of the crumbling cities I once saw in the jungles of Belize, of a dead civilization speaking out from the cover of vegetation, quiet and mournful.



Blogger KMM said...

PS--If anyone knows any Chinese terms for these kinds of buildings, please let me know. I'd like to do some actual research on them.

11:16 PM  

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