Academic journal article China Perspectives

Thames Town, an English Cliché: The Urban Production and Social Construction of a District Featuring Western-Style Architecture in Shanghai

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Thames Town, an English Cliché: The Urban Production and Social Construction of a District Featuring Western-Style Architecture in Shanghai

Article excerpt

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China's urban production, its urban planning practices, and its urban forms started evolving in the early 2000s. Urban landscapes became more modern, rose upward, spread outward, and juxtaposed heterogeneous urban fabrics. Recently-developed residential districts were joined onto old rural towns and connected to the town centre by a dense network of motorways, or even a light railway network. Certain districts built on the outskirts of the big Chinese cities borrowed from Western architecture.(1) Academic research has approached the creation of these Chinese suburban residential districts with their borrowed architecture either through an analysis of urban forms and their borrowings or through the processes of sociospatial differentiation and the emergence of gated communities. This article stands at the interface of these two approaches, putting Western-style districts back at the heart of the fabric of the Chinese city, from its production to its social construction.

The emergence and spread of districts featuring borrowed foreign architecture in China is related first and foremost to the circulation of urban models, which can be considered from three different angles: the first linked to the force of developments such as the globalisation of markets, imperialism, neo-colonialism, and competition; the second an attempt to understand, at the level of personal relationships between the players, how certain models came about in a specific context; and the third connected to the trajectory taken, to that which circulates between the two, and to the networks of professionals that have fostered these knowledge exchanges. Lieto(2) underlines the links between these approaches through an analysis of their theoretical and practical discourse, focussing on "practices such as they are," and this is what we have chosen to do by placing ourselves at the interface of urban production and social construction.(3)

In the case of China, understanding the direction of this circulation constitutes a challenge. Commentators taking a Western-centric view consider these Chinese districts to represent voluntary neo-colonisation, that is to say, the Westernisation of China in accordance with urban and architectural models as well as with neo-liberal forms of consumption issuing from the United States and Europe. Sino-centric commentators, on the other hand, highlight the Chinese system of representation and its integration of the world in order to catch up with technological and cultural advances. Both these critiques focus on the architectural project and its effective realisation without, however, understanding how the space is then perceived and appropriated by its users.(4) Moreover, according to Bosker, shanzhaiculture is a widespread and accepted phenomenon. The term refers to the production of counterfeit branded goods reproduced down to the last detail whilst at the same time offering extra features considered to be lacking in the original and intended to meet the specific requirements of a given market.

This article, therefore, goes beyond urban production alone to analyse the social construction of a district of Western-style architecture on the out1. skirts of an emerging Chinese metropolis through the case of Thames Town, situated in the new city of Songjiang, southwest of Shanghai. The "town on the Thames" is characterised by English-style urban markers such as red telephone boxes and traffic lights on poles painted with horizontal black and white stripes. This urban creation with its borrowed architectural forms presents a meticulously planned layout that crystallises the tensions encountered in Chinese suburbs: the gated community, the staging of Western architecture and its appropriation, the identity enhancement it represents, and over and above this, the relationship of the self with others, and of others with the self.

What do these Western-style districts teach us about the way in which Shanghai, a metropolis that wishes to transmit its own model of Chinese urban planning and modernity, thinks, produces, and appropriates the Chinese city? …

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