The Future of Cities: Architects Need to Take A Stand

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The Future of Cities: Architects Need to Take A Stand
By Pauline Ang

What is the future of cities? How do cities innovate and stay innovative? How should cities govern themselves? What is the role of technology?

These were the questions that were posed to four distinguished speakers – Professor Edward Glaeser, Mr Peter Ho, Mr Narayana Murthy and Professor Wang Shu – at the public forum entitled ‘Technology and Governance in an Innovative City’ in Singapore last week. Responding directly to the theme, the first three speakers spoke about the importance of technology and good governance in spurring innovative ideas for the urban environment. Though it was not explicitly defined, innovation was understood as an essential ingredient in creating a successful city – a successful city being one that makes high quality city life possible through sustained economic prosperity.

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wang-shu-ningbo-history-museum-04Ningbo History Museum, 2003-2008, Ningbo, China by Wang Shu (All photos by Amateur Architecture Studio)

The last speaker was Professor Wang Shu, who is well known as the first Chinese architect to receive the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 2012. As may be expected by those who are familiar with the architect’s work and philosophy, Wang Shu adopted a radically different position in his speech. An outspoken critic who sees the rapid urbanisation of China and other developing Asian cities as a destructive force that is driven by a single-minded pursuit of materialistic gains and GDP growth, he dismisses the attempts of Asian cities to emulate European (Corbusian) models of the city, only to end up with faceless cities populated with identical buildings that look and feel like jails. Instead, he advocates a return to the model of the Chinese village, where man and nature live in harmony while art, literature and culture flourish – a peaceful, scholarly way of life depicted in ancient Chinese landscape paintings.

What is the future of cities in Asia, and how should we deal with China’s explosive growth? Architects need to take a stand, he says. This calls for a re-evaluation of our social and cultural values and a re-evaluation of the meaning that cities hold in our minds, which go beyond discussions on architectural form and form-making, or an unquestioning acceptance of market-driven policies and economic pressures.

Wang Shu’s works offer a glimmer of hope for the future of Chinese cities, pointing towards a new contemporary vernacular that is born from a reinterpretation and re-adaptation of traditional building materials and craftsmanship. If the present holds meaning because it is understood as a bridge between the past and the future, the fusion of tradition and modernity in his architecture provides that link, drawing upon the memories of the city while it looks forward to the future.♦


“Values and Development”: Excerpt from Professor Wang Shu’s speech. Source: Centre for Liveable Cities

‘Technology and Governance in an Innovative City’ was a public forum organized by the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities and Centre for Liveable Cities on 3 May 2013.

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