Monday, 1 March 2010

Book - Asia Beyond Growth

A heavy book about a heavy topic and in this case size matters. Since the book is a bout size and its content celebrates the vast extend of the land area covered or better involved one might understand the motivation behind the physical extension of this publication. However other factors might also play a part.
We are talking about Asia Beyond Growth - Urbanization in the World's Fastest-changing Continent by AECOM former EDAW is published by Thames & Hudson.
The book starts with what has been leading the debate about the future of urban design and urban planning for now three years: "Today, for the first time in history, more than half the world's population lives in cities ..." and it adds quite rightly, and this is then also what the books really celebrates on the following 484 pages: "... and most of these cities are in Asia."
It is sort of a monograph as the books author is AECOM former EDAW, a single planning and design firm. It is, however, not a documentation of their projects only, it is more sort of an extended report of experience and knowledge. It coincidently falls into place with the change of name. The company was formerly known as EDAW (all the projects and most of the experience dates back to the EDAW times) and has recently, late 2009 changed its name to AECOM, a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE: ACM). They are proudly presenting themselves on the website as: "Today, listed on the Fortune 500 list as one of America’s largest companies, AECOM has approximately 45,000 employees located in 100 countries."
The book however is about the companies work in asia an documents the drastic change, the massive amount of work done as well as the vast extend of individual projects. For this the authors make extensive use of photo documentation and graphs. And the publication seems to follows in the footsteps of well known publications that introduced this sort of graphical language, for example S,M,L,XL or Massive Change. This language seems to be at the moment very popular, i.e EndlessCity and I pointed this out recently in connection with the book Comeback Cities - Transformation Strategies for Former Industrial Cities published by NAi Publishers.
In twelv chapters the Authors discuss the challenges of planning in the Asian context and chare their experinces. THe photographs used to illustrate are a really big part of the book and there is also an online blog thatextends this and documents the photographers work for the publication work. You can find it HERE.
The problems faced by planners are very often similar. It is described in many examples through out the book. For example in the case of Shanghai: "These developments are often the scale of new towns, requiring comprehensive planning and amenities, but lacking the cultural or historical background that might lend the place a distinct identity." Surprisingly still a lot of examples are then developed in reference back to the European city which is in turn stylized as an ideal type. We have all heard these stories of groups of Chinese investigators being sent to Europe to measure and document villages or entire town to replicate them back home in Asia. An we have all hoped this might be a single case or an exemption, but this might be more often the case than hoped. This really fuels the important debate about creation of identity which, to a large extend urban design is about, is an ongoing process. Probably especially in the Asian context, the role of foreign practices, mainly western offices, probably is more important than usually discussed. In fact the discussion about cultural export and 'international style' is not extensive enough in most cases. It is primarily about size and money and recently about work and jobs and less about the culture clash, export of values, believes,f culture and knowledge. The burning question here is, how interactive and emancipated this collaboration is. Probably one could argue that it is not the role of the international practice to lead this debate, but it should be left to other to do so. On the other hand who could this be, architectural critics, academic sociologists or even publishers? I believe it has to be part of each and every project and it is to a large extend part of the role and responsibility of the planner to be involved in an ongoing discussion around the impact and extend of the project in progress. And of course all the other disciplines have to be involved too, and in the case here especially when it comes to a publication. The book represents a clear position whether it is explicitly discussed or equally explicitly absent. And for me this is the main week point of this publication. It is a documentation of multiple facets of the Asian growth, a nice picture book, a heavy weight in your bag and definitely a document of its time of a certain subject, but it is lacking this discussion of a wider context for not to ask for an explicit standpoint.
This includes other areas of discussion and is not limited to the debate about westernization of Asia through planning firms. It continues in through the trend topics put forward. What I mean for example is that often topics are presented very shallow and with an sort of innocent view. Take for example the topic 'It's all About People', already the topic is suggestive enough, there is no need for explanations, so the authors decide to illustrate it with photographs and minimal text. This text says:"In Asian cities, it is common for people to use the spaces between the buildings as outdoor living rooms. ... In many places, it seems, all pieces of the city are used for and by people." This is then illustrated for example with a fish market or a street with small mobile fast food stands. Not enough, it leads in directly the topic of the slums. Which is a bit odd in the context of what has been said about the topic: "In many places, it seems, all pieces of the city are used for and by people." and showing a photograph of lots of these slum hutches crammed into a tiny space between high-rise buildings and streets. Another example is the photograph of the little boy, shown full front, as he urinates onto the street to illustrate that people in Asia do not use the public toilets. This sort of, by the authors, pretended innocence, while showing material left open for interpretation in multiple contexts (one of them might be a wrong one) gives the book a strange taste, which is definitely not intended.
So to conclude, this is a book in a tradition of thick and heavy architecture books (if such a category exists) on a subject that has been dominating urban design practice and planning for the past decade (not clear at this point in time how it continues). It is rich on illustration through photographs, graphs of illustrative and sometimes suggestive character and text essays on certain subjects. It does, however, at times have this character of uncertain shallowness or unidentified innocence that can leave the reader in the dark about the real aim.

Image taken from / it shows the initial cover, where it still says edited by EDAW and Denise Scott Brown. I don't know what happened to this collaboration , since her name does not come up in the publication I have here. Only some of the chapter titles that start with 'Learning from ...' suggest a connection, but could be a reference.

For an alternative view read Adrian Hornsby's review of the book.

AECOM, 2010. Asia Beyond Growth: Urbanization in the World's Fastest-changing Continent, Thames & Hudson.