Feb. 25, 1997 (a) Mar. 11, 1997 (a)

Column Index - Feb. 25, 1997

a)Are (Were) Gilbert & George
Really Gay, Sexists and Racists?
Yoshitaka MOURI
a)International Convention
"ASIA: Redifining the City"
Kayoko OHTA

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"ASIA: Redefining the City"

Oct. 18 - 20, 1996
TN Probe
TN Probe

TN Probe Menu

Rem Koolhaas and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture

ArchiNed Links - Rem Koolhaas/OMA Source Page

Hijjas bin Kasturi
Shah Alam Sports Complex

Liu Thai-Ker
CASA Home Page

International Convention
"ASIA: Redifining the City"

Kayoko OHTA

Ambivalent feelings

Asia is gaining popularity. Newspapers are reporting about the region with unprecedented enthusiasm, and one Japanese TV station has as many as 5 Hong Kong crews, each of which is making a number of different programs.

Why are people suddenly interested in areas and countries like Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, or Thailand, which have always been neighbors of Japan? One simple explanation can be found in the fact that the economic growth has left Japan for the Asian continent. Even the World Bank vouches for the growth of Asia which is said to continue until the year 2010. As the Asian cities are modernized at an extraordinary pace, the Japanese might have begun to feel some kind of solidarity with these countries. In addition, under this "closed" situation, the Japanese people could be projecting their unreachable desires on those Asian cities.

It seems that this feeling is shared by the Westerners. To be more exact, for the Westerners, who are trapped at the deadend of modernization, Asia's hyperactive phenomenon of modernization is a very complicated and ambivalent issue. Emotions such as that of a parent watching over his child, hoping that his own mistakes will not be repeated by the child, and a fantasy about a totally ununderstandable new world intertwines with each other like a marble pattern. With a clear recognition of this, a "hard-core" international convention was held last October at TN Probe in Tokyo, where the modernization of Asian cities was discussed as a common theme for the East as well as the West.

The convention was conducted in a unique style. Throughout three days, after two speakers gave presentations about one city or region from different viewspoints, they had a discussion including a moderator, and this session was held five times. The cities taken up were Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong. The speakers were those from various backgrounds involved in urban development, including urban administrators, urban planners, architects, scholars and bureaucrats. They spoke about the present situations and problems of their local city, as well as the city's plans or strategies for the future.

Shedding light on Asia's blind spot

What made this convention unique, more than anything else, was the steering of the discussions by Rem Koolhaas, a Dutch architect, who had been the moderator throughout the convention. Engaged in Asian urban studies as a professor at Harvard Graduate School, and an author of theses about Singapore, he naturally has an ambivalent feeling towards the cities in Asia. However, he does not try to suppress or conceal his feelings which are in limbo between shock and yearning. With a belief that to give too simplistic a judgment or meaning to this phenomenon filled with intensity and incomprehensibility, that makes one gape in amazement, is most dangerous and unproductive, he tries to maintain an objective stance by even relativizing and subjectifying his own emotions. There, I can see his respect and affection towards Asia.

No sooner had the presentation ended, than the moderator opened attack to the presenters with aggressive questions and opinions. Often, his offensive fell on the presenters with such imminence that they could only respond with their true feelings. Of course, that was his tactic to discover and share a positive and productive "intelligence". Rather than becoming nonplussed, the presenters joined in on his "provocation". It was a series of impossible scenes for a symposium where conventionally, it ends in a polite manner, and in planned harmony.

The cities taken up in the convention included Bangkok, where the urban administrators pursued "convenience" overcoming the current situation which is said to be a breakdown of the urban functions, Singapore, the new capital of Malaysia, which is attempting to take a leap from an agricultural nation into a futuristic nation based on the information industry, and is also marketing itself to other Asian countries as a prototype city, or Pudong of Shanghai that is turning into another "Manhattan". In every city, they show extreme changes and extreme visions which happened in a sudden scenario of advanced economic growth. As a result, two aspects of time are seen in these cities. One is the future symbolized by the skyline competing for number one in height in the world, and the other is the present, symbolized by the barracks and marketplaces that crowd the surface of the river.

On the same planet, but with a different dream ?

The Malaysian architect, Hijjas bin Kasturi passionately speaks, receiving criticism towards an unrealistic plan for development and the future. "Now, the Asian cities have entered competition all at once. In order to survive, we must run faster and jump higher." Liu Thai-Ker, an urban planner from Singapore, emphasized that "The cities in Asia may appear to be full of contradictions. However, we have arrived at this point with only several decades of effort. We should be viewed over a longer span." Maybe, the energy of their cities is generated because they are inside the scenario of dashing towards the future such as the years, 2010 or 2020.

Jeffrey Kipnis, the American architect engaged in projects in Bangkok and China, posed a doubt that "Although one speaks of failure, if he looks at the reality of Bangkok, he will notice that the things said to be the problems of a city are also its attraction. Maybe the problems of those inside may be trapped too much in Western morale." He presented Bangkok as a city with a new potential transcending the Western logic. The Hong Kong architect, Aaron Tan, analyzed the city as a "life form of nature" which can be seen in the dismantled Kowloon slum or the newly developed areas in Hong Kong.

Such an attitude of trying to love the "present" of the cities, seems to be carried by the "outsiders" of Asia, seen from the development of this conference. However, that is all the more why it has an extremely important value, and a critical but constructive viewpoint.

Seeing the horizon in Asia

The reaction of the audience towards Koolhaas's presentation about his study of the Pearl River Delta done at the Harvard Graduate School, held at the end of the conference, was totally divided in two. Especially to the Japanese architects and historians, his presentation seemed to look like a promotional move into the Asian market. This is most distressing. The stance of Koolhaas in this conference was that the existential meaning of the architects and the urban planners itself is facing a crisis, and that what is presented most strongly is the current situation of Asia. It was a serious, and in a way, dangerous stance. Seeing the amazing difference in consciousness, I felt confronted with the crisis of the architects.

Moreover, what I felt most strongly was Japan's tendency to see itself distanced from the rest of Asia; however, then, it must have something else to do other than just investing or sightseeing. To begin with, Japan should clarify its stance. As we can see in the example of this convention, I felt that Japan must act now to take an international initiative to learn something important from Asia, and to share the knowledge with the rest of the countries.

[Kayoko OHTA/Editor]

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a)Are (Were) Gilbert & George
Really Gay, Sexists and Racists?
Yoshitaka MOURI

Column Back Number Index

Feb. 25, 1997 (a) Mar. 11, 1997 (a)

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