3 Scenes, As Metaphors

Published 2007-04-11

Exhibit A: A New Privacy Wall


(Pre-existing rebar-reinforced concrete railing) = (nearly forgotten yet deeply sublimated Confucian/Taoist/Buddhist patriarchical tradition) + (3000 year history)

(Hastily piled, poorly fired red bricks with copious slip) = (post-dynastic political confusion) + (shortsighted infrastructure planning) + (nepotistic favor system)

(Concrete stucco façade) = (all important “face” expressing (unity + modernism))

This structure will not withstand an earthquake, or a few strong men swinging hammers. For its purpose (screening apartment windows from the road), it is Good Enough. It will stand a few years before being partially demolished at great effort for swamp fill. The remaining structure will be incorporated into a superhighway for Segway scooters leading into Huweishan Park.

Exhibit B: An Open Pit

Across the road from the wall pictured above.

Load-bearing dirt wall The Open Pit

October, 2006

Someone was in a gobsmacking hurry to open this pit. A small army of peasant laborers (assisted by pneumatic hammers) worked literally 24 hours a day for about a week and a half to carve it up. In the process, they exposed an unretained, loadbearing dirt wall, atop which ran a road. They also removed the basement rock underlying the structure immediately adjacent (which also lacked a loadbearing wall on the pit side). Someone delivered a few loads of bricks, and then they eventually retained the wall under the road.

About a week later, the workers literally set their tools down and walked away.

April, 2007

In the intervening five months, the only activities at the site have been the looting of the rusty tools, and the occasional dumping of concrete waste from the high-rise construction across the road.

NewExhibit C: Old and New

I took this photo about 200m east of the road flanked by the wall and open pit described above. To the left are some older farmhouses, the remnants of a long-gone peasant farm built along the hillside. To the right are the new, unoccupied highrises. The old farm buildings house rusty handtools, construction debris, and about a dozen peasant laborers. They skim the construction site for electricity.

Refer again to the mode of construction described in Exhibit A. The farmhouse and highrises differ very little in their essential mode of construction. The farmhouse is red brick filling a timber frame. The highrises are red brick filling concrete frames. The highrises have a ceramic bathroom tile façade. From this angle you can’t see it, but on the farmhouse the side facing downhill (i.e. toward town) has a plaster stucco façade.

Exhibit D: (Contrast)

One of many... Boat Eyes Village shop Typical Balinese residence

Typical scenes of the Balinese built environment.

For a Balinese worker, to build a thing carelessly reflects poorly not only on oneself, but on one’s family, caste, and nation. It also offends gods and ancestors. The act of making a thing is a small sacred act, a contribution to the world shared by all Balinese. Balinese bricklayers abhor mortar. They strive to lay brick in such a way that mortar is unnecessary. Balinese shopkeepers align their products neatly, with all labels facing out. Balinese fishermen regularly repaint their boats, which have names and personalities, and would be offended by poor treatment.

I believe China may have had a similar attitude once. Chinese people still hold in great reverence their ancestors and history. But in the modern Chinese aesthetic, cheapness and disposability trump all other concerns. In the face of this overweening ethic, the ancient reverence has become a form hollow of substance. I don’t know where it went, or what made it go away, or when it will come back. I don’t know if other nations (viz: Japan?) went through similar transformations during their periods of rapid modernization. But an absence of respect for things makes China a difficult place to like, especially for a design fetishist like myself, who has made a personal cult of engineering, durability, sustainability, usability, and re-usability.