art, China, development, environment

Phantom Landscapes: Wherein China’s built environment overtakes the natural one

A few years ago, the China Environmental Protection Foundation worked with advertising firm J Walter Thompson’s Shanghai office on an anti-pollution campaign featuring the work of Shanghai artist Yang Yongliang. Certainly the message here is as relevant today as it was in 2009.

(Click to enlarge)

A couple of the images appear to be from a series Yang calls Phantom Landscape II. While the work here takes off from the old shan shui style of landscape painting (shan means mountain, shui water), I believe these are digital creations. In any case, shan shui is one of the most evocative styles around, and Yang’s take on it is a lot of fun to look at. You can see more at his website.

Below: From a completely different series, A Bowl of Taipei 1
Image of mountains in a bowl by Yang Yongliang.

China, development, international, journalism

The International Suburban Style


A few days ago, the AP’s Daisy Nguyen published a report on the trend of building suburban-style developments around the world. Developers in China and India and Africa are looking to Southern California (pictured above, partially) for a growth model. While this should be alarming to anyone concerned about resources and climate change (and willing, if you’re an American, to adopt the do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do ethos), it’s a classic example of how growing middle class populations are importing elements of American life. The article describes, for example, a community outside of Shanghai:

Grassy front lawns and driveways lead to pastel-colored homes that mimic French, Italian or Spanish architectural styles. Customized kitchens, screening rooms and basement wine cellars are very different from Chairman Mao’s vision of communal living.

“It’s hard to tell you’re not in Southern California,” [Pasadena-based architect Andy] Feola said.

On the highways outside of cities like Beijing and Delhi, I zipped past billboards that advertised gated communities, some with McMansions and garages large enough for SUVs. They seemed out of place, but such are our preconceptions of places like China and India. (And, to an extent, disappointments–who travels around the globe to hang out in suburbs?) But they wouldn’t build them if there were no demand. As affluence increases, so does the market.

From the environmental perspective, one would hope sustainable design could mitigate the negative effects of such development. Whether that is being applied in a robust way remains to be seen. But for some, it seems, the prospect of mass suburbanization should go full steam ahead. In my favorite quote from the story, one American architecture professor said: “It’s too bad that we as Americans are turning away from suburban sprawl as Asia adopts it.”

Regarding green development–in China, anyway–an article last week in the Christian Science Monitor noted that one grand project has stumbled. The correspondent, Simon Montlake, describes the situation of Dongtan, a planned eco-city outside of Shanghai that was being designed by the engineering firm Arup. (A related article published in The Telegraph last October is well worth a read, too.)

Dongtan’s plan hits all the right sustainability buttons: energy from waste, recycling, limited carbon emissions, density, energy-efficient buildings, etc. You may have seen the feature on this project, “Pop-Up Cities: China Builds a Bright Green Metropolis”, in Wired last year. I’ve been in touch with Arup employees in the past and they seemed devoted to making this work, not just in terms of design, but socially and economically. It’s tough when, after a streak of good press, something comes along to trip up a project. (Last year, Conde Nast was particularly good to Arup, with the Wired feature and a New Yorker feature.)

One of the main sources for the Monitor article was Kira Gould, the communications director at William McDonough + Partners. Montlake briefly mentioned the Huangbaiyu Cradle to Cradle Village project:

On a more modest scale, William McDonough + Partners designed an ecovillage of 400 households in northeast China, of which 42 houses have been built. The plan called for affordable solar-powered bungalows using local materials in a bid to free more land for farming. Instead, the developer built suburban-style tract homes that most local families have shunned, according to a PBS documentary earlier this year.

Ms. Gould concedes that mistakes were made in the design and construction of Huangbaiyu, the village. One complaint was that it didn’t create enough jobs. But that was never part of the project, says Gould. “We came to learn that economic development and sustainable development were often being used interchangeably,” she says.

To give you an idea of what that looks like, we have this:
a view of the model village

I should remark on a couple of points here, especially the take-away from my PBS report, as described in the article. I wrote a comment on the Monitor’s site a couple of days ago. (Shannon May, who studied the village, also wrote an interesting comment on the selfish reasons that have motivated Western firms to attempt green development in China.) My comment hasn’t yet been published; I’d guess the comment moderators have been short-staffed due to the holidays. In the meantime, here it is:

I’d like to thank Simon Montlake and the Monitor for mentioning the investigative piece I completed for FRONTLINE/World (PBS) earlier this year. But I must clarify one point raised in this article about my story.

The residents of this farming village currently live spread out in a long valley, near their crops, with livestock on their property. The plan created by William McDonough and his partners on this project outlined a single, dense community for the entire village.

While it is the case that the local developer built suburban-style tract homes, it is fair to say he did so based on the plan he received. (His modifications of details of the design are a point to debate.)

The planners recognized, before construction began, that the yards of the new houses would be smaller than those that currently exist. As noted in the narrative that accompanied the master plan: “The yards may be too small to support the number of livestock that currently occupy many yards in the village.” In practice, this meant the farmers could not keep their livestock–a major source of income–if they moved in.

And that, simply, is why no one wanted to. There was a fundamental flaw in the design: it neglected to account for this basic element of village life. The cause of this oversight is, to some extent, a mystery because no one from William McDonough + Partners would comment for my story. But the more important point to remember here is that villagers saw that this eco-village would require them to trade in their lives as farmers for lives in factories or offices or whatever would fit this suburban-style tract home design.

Who could blame the villagers, then, for hoping that some new jobs would come along with this high-profile international eco-village project, since participating in it would force them to give up their old ones?

Update: Nothing to update, which is my point. It is the 12th of January, and they’ve not included my comment. I have re-submitted.

Update: Comment now online at Monitor’s web site. 13 Jan 09.

Illustration by Grady McFerrin of farm animals and model home.
articles, Asia, China, development

Western Promises

Cover of October issue of Dwell magazineDwell Magazine’s October issue is out, and it includes an essay, entitled “Western Promises,” that I wrote about my reporting on the Huangbaiyu Cradle to Cradle Village project.  Huangbaiyu, a small village in northeast China, set to become a leading example of the power of green design in a country that desperately needs it. The architect William McDonough had top billing as a major driver in the project, which was planned according to his “cradle-to-cradle” principles. But the project failed. In retrospect, it seems as if it was destined to fail, given the fundamental flaws that I describe in the piece.

This story started out as an assignment for PBS Frontline/World, and covers the same ground. I’m grateful to Frontline/World and the team of producers and editors there, and to the editors at Dwell for giving me an opportunity to reflect on the story.

The essay hasn’t been posted online, but as soon as it’s available, I will link to it. (In the meantime, check out the magazine in print.) It’s accompanied by some excellent illustrations by Grady McFerrin (see above, for example). And the editors deserve extra credit for coming up with the title.

[Update: It’s online here!]

development, dissipation, lost, unfortunate

Necessary Bohemia

The Hitch is right; San Francisco hasn’t got it. Not anymore.

From Vanity Fair (the emphasis is my own):

It isn’t possible to quantify the extent to which society and culture are indebted to Bohemia. In every age in every successful country, it has been important that at least a small part of the cityscape is not dominated by bankers, developers, chain stores, generic restaurants, and railway terminals. This little quarter should instead be the preserve of—in no special order—insomniacs and restaurants and bars that never close; bibliophiles and the little stores and stalls that cater to them; alcoholics and addicts and deviants and the proprietors who understand them; aspirant painters and musicians and the modest studios that can accommodate them; ladies of easy virtue and the men who require them; misfits and poets from foreign shores and exiles from remote and cruel dictatorships. Though it should be no disadvantage to be young in such a quartier, the atmosphere should not by any means discourage the veteran.

China, corruption, crime, development, disaster, earth, environment, geography, international, life, lost, unfortunate

An Unquiet Earth

Hard times around the globe these days. Earthquake in China. Cyclone in Burma. Tornados in the U.S. An enormous volcano on the verge of collapse in Chile.

Over the past several months, I’ve been working on a story about a possible earthquake here in the Bay Area. One thing I’ve learned is starkly visible in Sichuan right now: When an earthquake strikes, it’s not the earth that kills you. It’s everything else around you.

In the short term, this typically means buildings.* In China, construction quality will be a part of the discussion about what happened. Corrupt developers, local officials, and cut corners should come as no surprise–I’ve seen alleged evidence of it firsthand. The Guardian covers that angle. As one angry parent told a reporter:

“These buildings outside have been here for 20 years and didn’t collapse – the school was only 10 years old. They took the money from investment, so they took the lives of hundreds of kids. They have money for prostitutes and second wives but they don’t have money for our children. This is not a natural disaster – this is done by humans.”

In China, some call it “tofu” building. Or, as Josh Chin notes:

“Toufu dregs”-style construction (豆腐渣工程) has long been a source of public anger in China, and a potent symbol of corruption at the local level. (Witness the fuming controversy over shoddy electric poles during this winter’s freak snow storms in the south.) And now it appears the widespread practice whereby officials and developers profit through architectural corner-cutting may have cost a few extra tens of thousands of lives.

An erupting volcano can kill–namely through a phenomenon known as a pyroclastic flow. Cyclone Nargis was accompanied by a storm surge–this is what caused much of the destruction in the Irrawaddy Delta. But that damage was magnified by the loss of mangrove forests, which provide some resistance to these forces. The mangroves have been cut away to make room for development. This time, the initial round of damage was increased not by what humans have built, but by what they’ve taken away. And in Burma, human intention contributes to the continued suffering.

Boulder in the city of Mianyang, Sichuan. Kyodo News.*Update: Robert Siegel reports that the village of Gui Xi, in a steep-sided valley, was heavily damaged by displaced boulders and large landslides. (The photo at left, by Kyodo News, is from the city of Mianyan, Sichuan.) The most vivid and gripping English-language reporting from Sichuan is coming from NPR. All Things Considered was originally planning to broadcast features from Chengdu next week. When the earthquake struck, they had many resources in place.

development, dissipation, lost, San Francisco

The crashing down.

There are several interesting stories coming out of the crane accident in New York City. One was Susan Dominus’s portrait of the typical scene at Fubar, which occupied the ground floor of the destroyed townhouse on East 50th. Although the occupations of the regulars comes as a surprise (advertising, television cameraman, programmer) and doesn’t exactly square with the vision of a neighborhood bar, remember, this is Manhattan, not Boston circa 1982. Not too many house—painters or mailmen in that crowd, anymore.

But what I found particularly resonant were points like these:

And yet for the people who live there, it’s an unusually tight-knit neighborhood, filled with longtime residents who experience the city as a place to live, not a stage set designed to highlight Manhattan’s millennial glamour. . .

It’s hard to miss the symbolism: Old-time neighborhood hangout literally crushed by the force of development run amok.

These sentiments are so resonant because they are so relevant. This is San Francisco, too.

San Francisco is my first city. I moved here about six years ago (six years, one month, six days), and though I arrived at a relatively more affordable time, post dot-com burst, I still felt ten years too late. No doubt I engage in some idealization—San Francisco as a working city, where dock-workers actually live and work, same for skilled tradesmen and artisans; where commercial fisherman tie up at Fisherman’s Wharf (see the opening of Gay Talese’s “Silent Season of a Hero”). Even that exercise in anomie and post-modernism The Crying of Lot 49 made San Francisco seem more real, less posed. But that’s all gone. The smithy on Rincon Hill, if it exists anymore, is nothing but an anachronism, shorthand for lazy Chron reporters and lazy so-called-blog writers. I have friends moving into the goliath tower, nearly complete, at the top of Rincon Hill, the one that hulks over the approach to the Bay Bridge and interrupts the San Francisco skyline like an obnoxious interlocutor making his most onerous demand first—and getting it. “In five years, it’s going to look like New York,” one new resident of that tower told the Chronicle. He also said:

“Some people want to live in a funky Victorian until they see this,” he said. “I think San Francisco has changed and it’s changing faster.”

“I represent the new guard.”

The new guard.

And it was about six years ago—when I got to know parts of the city by walking through it each weekend—six years ago when I stepped into Vesuvio, the bar with the famously literary pedigree. And, sure, it trades on that reputation, the Kerouac and red wine mystique next door to City Lights. And, yes, that tends to attract the tourist crowd and those who, in Ms. Dominus’s words, want the city to be a stage set. But not always.

I ducked in there on a Sunday afternoon, seeking escape, profoundly self-conscious from walking alone through North Beach’s jazz festival. There was a guy named Bruce at the bar, who kind of looked like Dave Barry, talking to his friend Jack (Jack the Hat), who was tending the bar. We talked about how expensive it was anymore. And I bought Bruce a beer, and asked how the city had changed in the 30 years he and Jack had lived here, and Bruce said there was all kind of change but these days the thing is that everywhere you go there are frat guys. Just everywhere. They ruin every cool bar, every event. We talked a little more before Bruce left. I ordered another drink and talked to Jack. And wouldn’t you know, a few minutes later the festival let out and in poured a bunch of guys wearing board shorts and pink polo shirts with upturned collars and visors and flip-flops with beautiful bouncing girlfriends clamoring for attention. The frat guys were upon us. So I let Jack get to work and finished my beer and made to settle up and Jack said, forget it, no charge.

anticipation, China, consumption, development, environment, international, journalism, multimedia, really?

China: Green Dreams (Finally)

China Green Dreams

Last August I went to northeast China and for the following five months I’ve been putting together a story about an eco-village in China. Or, rather, an attempted eco-village.

Here’s how Frontline/World described it: “The village of Huangbaiyu in rural northeast China was supposed to be a model for energy-conscious design. The initial project was to build 400 sustainable homes, a collaboration between U.S. architect William McDonough and the Chinese. But something went awry. Frontline/World reporter Timothy Lesle traveled to the region to investigate.”

I’m glad I got to do this project and look forward to any responses it may get. No doubt they’ll range from positive to negative. Frontline does something different with this slideshow from a web-tech perspective, which is to stream the images and sound like video rather than through Flash.

If you get a chance, let me know what you think. And if you are inspired, let Frontline/World know what you think.

China, corruption, development, energy, international, journalism, video

China: Undermined

Check out Duane Moles’s video report “China: Undermined,” part of FRONTLINE/World’s online “Rough Cuts” series. I reported the story with him and Wu Nan last March in southern Shanxi Province.

Below, a photo I took of damage from underground coal mining in the home of a villager.

Damage from Coal Mines

A few more pictures here. More available soon, I hope.

articles, development, environment, influence, international, money, politics

What’s Doing in the Mato Grosso

Google Map of South America

My friend and former colleague Pat Joseph has an article in the latest Virginia Quarterly Review. It’s about the boom (and recent bust) in soy farming in the interior of Brazil.

Well written, all round, but one section I especially liked was about the Brazilian sense that the Americans need not tell them how to live, they can take care of themselves just fine, thank you. Classic case of the You did it, so can we philosophy of resource development running up against the Don’t make the mistakes I did when I was your age philosophy. Classic.