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Monday, December 29, 2008

Book Review: In the Chinese City

In the Chinese City: Perspectives on the Transmutations of an Empire edited by Frederic Edelmann
Actar, 2008

Exhibited at the Palais de Chaillot alongside Positions, also produced by the Cité de l'architecture ed du patrimone in 2008, In the Chinese City aims to "cast a new light on architecture and the city in China," due to the rapid pace of change and the concomitant repercussions of practices in the country, most notably innovation, destruction, and pollution. The book collects a number of essays by academics from China and France, organized under broad yet descriptive headings: Garden, Earth, Water, Fengshui, Architecture, Family, Destruction, etc. A plethora of historical and contemporary illustrations and photographs accompany the essays, making the book, like its companion a visual feast that attempts to situate and make sense of what is happening in China today.

The above headings frame the presentations of eight Chinese cities: "diverse megalopolises including popular Shanghai and Beijing, famous Suzhou and Xi’an, the unknown conurbian between Canton and Shenzhen on the Pearl River, and the emerging Chongqin with the gigantic three Gorges Dam Project." These investigations are interspersed amongst the chapters, with Beijing receiving its own section at the end of the book and an essay on the impact of the 2008 Olympic Games suitably positioned as the last chapter. Given its breadth and ambition, and the various voices contributing to its realization, the book is a fractured and incomplete view of China today through the lens of its history. Essays on geomancy and historic maps, admittedly important in the country's development and history, don't hold as much interest as snapshots of family life today or descriptions of the unfortunate destruction and displacement that a constant threat to traditional life and urban fabric. One wonders if a more focused curatorial approach would have helped hone the ideas within the essays, allowing readers to capture more of the state of affairs in China. Having the information fit into broad categories that acknowledge the importance of certain aspects in the country's past, present and future but don't recognize the depth that such a tactic entails, leaves the reader yearning for more.

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