Future Asian Space: Projecting the Urban Space of New East Asia

Future Asian Space

Author(s):  Limin Hee with Davisi Boontharm und Erwin Viray

ISBN:           978-9971-69

Publisher:  NUS Press

Year:           2012

Price:         $38.00

Reviewed by Moritz Pöllath, PhD. Candidate, Jena University, Germany

First time visitors to Europe usually remark on the distinct architecture of its towns and cities from Lisbon to Warsaw. The legacy of the medieval cityscape defines European cities: a large medieval marketplace with a church or magnificent cathedral and most of its old administrative buildings at the core, often surrounded by vanishing city walls. Stimulated by the sprawling global cities in Asia the authors of Future Asian Space are searching for similar distinct features that could constitute “Asian-ess” to answer the question: What is Asian Space?

The contributors, who are scholars in architecture, design and human settlement, are exploring the way Asian cities are finding answers to provide their residents with attractive urban space. This is no easy task in face of the second wave of urbanization, which is transforming Africa and Asia since the 1960s. While the first took place in Europe and North America from 1750 to 1950, the second wave will leave Asia by 2030 with estimated 2.64 billion urban inhabitants and already 11 out of 19 mega-cities are in Asia. The goal of the volume is to stimulate interest and discussions about this vast transformation and its choice of case studies from various Asian mega cities makes it attractive to practitioners.

On a meta-level several authors touch on Asia’s socio-cultural history and deliver insights into the distinctive quality of Asian urbanizations. It is with this inter-disciplinary approach, that the volume reaches out to broader academia. The study of architecture and site from different research fields presents a fitting choice to explore the difficult question, whether or not there is an Asian identity and if it is represented by the physical space of its cities. Fittingly, the book starts with Liauw’s study of contemporary Chinese urbanism, which exerts a huge impact in the development of the Asia-Pacific region since Deng Xiaoping initiated Chinas “Open Door Policy” and established five urban Special Economic Zones (SEZs). SEZs have since become a role model in Tanzania, Mauritius, Zambia and Nigeria. In addition, similar Chinese investments are taking place in India, Southeast Asia and Russia, inducing the mayor of Mumbai in 2007 to proclaim “that he wanted to turn Mumbai into ‘India’s Shanghai’” (p.7).

In light of the immense impact of Chinese city planning, Liauw cautions about the “wasteful transformations by this ruthless form of urbanism”, which makes it “normalized practice” for every generation to demolish and reconstruct their built environment (p.7). Although the Chinese practice of rapid modernization in combination with a diffusion of Western ideas in modern design is apparent in the construction of Asian space, it is too early to tell whether or not Chinese urbanism is either a sign of the “Globalization of China” or the “Sinofication of the World” (p.8).

The emergence of global cities in Asia and the interest in “New Asian Cities” (p.19) is covered by Lee who closely studied the exhibition “Cities on the Move: Urban Chaos and Global Change, East Asian Art, Architecture and Films Now”. While acknowledging that the West’s presence in the modernization of Asia cannot be rejected, Lee studies the difference of non-Western actors in this process. For Lee, the modernization of China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore since the 1980s “is inseparable from the expansion of Euro-American capitalism” (p.26). The exhibition confirms these deep post-colonial ties between East Asian cities and the West and argues that the new Asian cities remain strongly influenced by free-market, neo-liberal concepts combined with ongoing modernization under the all-encompassing idea of progress.

In addition to Lee’s article about the structural similarities of Asia’s global cities other authors explore the various urban trajectories that add to the similarities and uniqueness of the viral Asia-Pacific region. From a Euro-American perspective, Seoul is neither a traditional, post-colonial nor modern city and remains heavily influenced by the dichotomy between the Japanese colonizer and colonized. Out of their historical experience Korean society is “overly guarded in conceding and negotiating private territory, while being most tolerant to encroachment in the public realm” (p.34). Kim’s socio-historical argument can be applied to other Asian cities and is well placed in the first part of the volume, which explores the commonalities of Asian space.

Part two and three offer detailed district studies about the creativity that flourishes in the districts of Asia’s global cities. Singapore’s post-industrial history of Telok Ayer portrays the transformative forces at work: In the 2000s Telok Ayer was a site for New Economy enterprises but changed into a district with a strong focus on cultural production in 2003 and lifestyle services in 2006. Hutton’s narrative instructs the reader about the “unplanned success of Telok Ayer as a zone of industrial experimentation and restructuring” and reminds city planners that not every minutiae can or should be planned (p.68).

In this debate, Boontharm argues for the “creative reuse” of sites and strongly advises against gentrification as a development strategy (p.73). To him, the smallness of places in Tokyo as well as the shop houses of Singapore’s Haji Lane and Bangkok embodies “Asia-ness”. Hee and Su expand this observation with a study about Shanghai’s art factory and introduce the concept of “urban recycling” (p.108) to revitalize obsolete and disfranchised urban areas. In addition, the articles by Radović and Ohno contribute two case studies about Tokyo, whereas Ohno’s concept of fibercity presents the most forward looking idea in this volume. The project which incorporates the need for mobility, accessibility and attractive green living space for a changing demographic confronted with environmental problems acknowledges an aspect not mentioned in the volume before: although Future Asian Space focuses on the sprawling global cities, it is shrinkage that small and medium cities already face. Ohno’s highly visionary article offers the reader a glimpse in the future of urban living and to future architects and city planers an untraditional strategy for city transformation.

Special attention should be given to Chee’s introduction of “Site, Situation, and Spectator” (SSS) as an inter-disciplinary approach drawing on a “site responsive program” (p.139) developed by the National University of Singapore. Chee’s formulation of the methodology behind the concept of an “expanded site” (p.143) can be found as a common denominator in all articles and should have been given a more prominent place up front. While she comes from an architectural background and the SSS program aims to educate architecture students, her study combines the notion of “site” through architecture and art and produces a concept that is also worthwhile for students and researches with a cultural, sociological and historical background.

Although the SSS program approaches small sites, it can support the research of the commonalities of the global cities in Asia-Pacific. It “reconfigures architectural definitions of “site” by learning and transforming site-oriented principles” (p.149) and teaches students the “socio-cultural-historical aspects of space” (p.149). Chee’s article, who argues for the inclusion of micro-histories thereby establishes a link to the field of modern history. Her argument that the “construction of Asian space” is linked to the relationship between subjects and space (p.155) has been explored by architectural historian Shelley Hornstein, who awards citizens an active role in the connection between spatial frameworks and memory sites (Hornstein 2011). To navigate this superfluous and transnational relationship in Asia Chee argues that the construction of culture and space  ͈should move beyond the ready stock of oppositional stances such as traditional-modern or historical-progressive” (p.155).

The volume offers a rich choice of case studies in the Asia-Pacific for architecture students and city planners. It makes the case, that there is an Asian space despite strong differences. Especially the modernization of Asia’s cities might further the similarities more than it enhances its differences, and its minutiae details can be found in this edition. Yet, the question what constitutes Asian space cannot be answered by this volume alone. Its focus on architecture and city planning gives the reader an insight into the difficulty to define “Asian-ness” influenced by modernity, progress and cultural uniqueness. It would be the task of a group of scholars from various backgrounds to answer the notion of “Asia-ness”. Academics and practitioners will find in Future Asian Space a broad exploration of the modern trajectories that are influencing the development of urban areas as well as the construction of Asian space in a global and post-colonial environment.

Hornstein, Shelly, Losing Site. Architecture, Memory and Place. Ranham, UK: Ashgate

Suggested citation:  

Moritz Pöllath (2014). Review of Future Asian Space. Projecting the Urban Space of New East Asia, by Limin Hee with Davisi Boontharm and Erwin Viray, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol.7, no. 2, Internet file: https://asianintegration.org/index.php?option=com_joomlib&task=view&id=113&Itemid=75