Last week, the Dallas Architecture Forum invited architect Qingyun Ma to Dallas. Born in China and now teaching and practicing in Los Angeles, Ma was intimately involved in Rem Koolhaas’ “Harvard Project on the City,” in which the Danish architect brought students to China to study the emergence of a new kind of urban form. In part one of my interview with Qingyun Ma, we talk about that project and the emergence of a city that confounds western assumptions about use and function in an urban environment — the first cities that have grown organically out of a socialist political and economic system. In part two, we will talk about car-driven urban forms in American, such as Ma’s Los Angeles, as well as architectural practice in the east and west.
FrontRow: I wanted to start with the Harvard Project For the City with Rem Koohaas and your work with that. What was your role in the project and can you explain a little about this idea that came out of it — the “post-city,” the new form of the city?
Qingyun Ma: My role in that project was, one, to bring the region to him, which is theShaanxiprovince, to Rem’s attention. In a way, the explosion of the cities [in the region] is unprecedented. For us it is unprecedented because we are used to cities in the old form, likeVeniceorFlorence. But this [new form] has nothing to do with it, so there seems to be no model for its development. And Rem called it “post-city,” and it is what he thinks a city is supposed to be.
FrontRow Supposed to be? So it is a positive evolution.
QM: It is “pre” the city we know. Rem immediately realized that is what the city is supposed to be, maybe in different sizes, but that’s what is kind of emerging with its own force, rather than modeled with some paradigm. He actually called it, “what the city used to be.” If it is post-city, it is “post” the city we are being used to, the old European model. That’s kind of a conceptual discussion. And my role in the project was really to set up interviews, areas to visit; and also for the student – it was primarily a student project – and the students are sent to different agencies, townships, or developers to spend time with them, to really investigate. So I was kind of one of the local agents to set that up. And then I thought that role was fine, but when the book was forming I was given the script to read, and I was forming a lot of comments. And the editor found the comments fascinating, and thought it would be great if they went along with the text. So the comments were edited into the book. So my first role was an urban agent, and it turned into the alternative voice.
FR: So this idea of the post/pre-city. What, in layman’s terms, differentiates the urban forms. How do you recognize each?
QM: I think it is mostly form. Function, actually, it is exactly how a city is supposed to function, that is, immediacy, flexibility, multiple choices, and freedom to a level of randomness. Those are actually functions that a city is supposed to embrace. But what happened there in Shaanxiis the form. It is more that the form alarms a research mind. Why does it take a form like that? It is something very peculiar. For example, I can point of two things: intermingled with planned housing or social housing, with the original farm housing and farms, there’s development housing that is quickly wrapping around the villages and keep going.
FR: Rather than taking them over?
QM: Yes, because they need the farmers because they need the residences. Even today you see large track of land that is lived and used by farmers. And it still exists in the pretty dominate part of the city. That’s one. The other one is the factories. Not only local manufacturing, it’s from Hong Kong, Taiwan, foreign investment in manufacturing that brings large industrial buildings right up against the original city. But then you have millions of workers, and where do they live? They quickly find themselves in the villages, and the villages become rental properties for all the floods of industrial workers. And in a day, people go out of the door and some of them go to the field and some of them go to the factory. That’s fascinating.
FR: That’s fascinating because when you’re dealing with an American model, you can’t have those kinds of forms because eventually the proximity of agriculture to commerce or to industry will immediately change the value of the land, and it will be developed very fast. Does the ability of that city to take that form contingent on land laws and ownership in China?
QM: Yes. Particularly the kind of improvised, immediate land use, and the juxtaposition of it was something very apparent and alarming. But also in the same time, the government is catching up, so there are highways and theaters. First you have the citizens, and then second you have the city. And then the government is constantly catching up by building. At that time, the city was like highway after highway, you don’t know where the highway actually goes – it just keeps going. In the book you see the continuous highway leading nowhere.
FR: It sounds like it goes completely against everything that zoning has done in western cities. Is part of the project – is it advocacy or is it theoretical, looking at the benefits of a city that doesn’t have the boundaries between the various functions of a city?
QM: The book was really to help to bring that force into an urban debate that addresses two things: one, the making of a city, and particularly related to political and economical system — if we all felt cities are driven by the kind of market value or an organized capitalism. And the idea is that is what cities are supposed to be: commerce, it is non-agrarian, therefore it is more democratic therefore it is more industrial. But we haven’t seen socialism as a political system actually deliver its own city.
FR: Socialism, in its western forms, emerged in countries where there were already urban forms, but this is new development.
QM: Exactly. This is a new kind of economy that is now delivering cities. So I think that was the debate, whether or not it was an advocate of it. Now Rem, from his personal, he is frustrated and disappointed by models of cities likeAmsterdam. ButRotterdam, where he is from, is something else – it has a port. You can sense where Rem comes from; he is constantly instigatingnew cityforms and special orders that generate by the economy that is evolving. So he is always very sensitive to that. So in a way he is advocating that, not the city per se, but obviously the city can be better. Every city, no matter what is the created form, it can better or it can be worse. I guess he is still looking for that better city. A new model of a better city, and that is why he is taking it as a student project, to first have the students realize there are reasons for the city. Don’t kill it, but make it better.