Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

Urban China: Work in Progress

Urban China: Work in Progress (Timezone 8, 2009) is a book based on Urban China (城市中国), the PRC’s finest archi-socio-geo-politico-historical magazine.

My editor’s letter:

For years, people around the world have strained to understand, emulate, and affect the modernization of China. It is an endeavor that unites scholars, merchants, missionaries, artists, and autocrats, each of whom can find in China’s social experiments the rationale for his or her personal vision.

In the last decade, the growth of Chinese cities has inspired architects to join in. Having missed the modernization of their home countries, these professors, students, and professionals see in China a chance to test theories, make proposals (and money), and possibly save a developing country from urban trends that originated elsewhere but show signs of achieving apocalyptic proportions in the land of 1.3 billion. In a short period of time, they have produced an impressive amount of stuff – buildings, books, conferences, reports, recriminations… all offered in good faith and executed with the inevitable bias of the outsider.

At this point, there is little need for more Western commentary on the Chinese condition. To advance understanding, Europeans and Americans must now turn to primary sources. We must commit ourselves to understanding China’s modernization on its own terms, not as the adoption of our way of life but as the continued evolution of theirs.

Since launching in 2005, Urban China Magazine has explored the world’s fastest urbanization from the inside out. Through field work and historical research, consultations and commissions, an organization of Chinese architects has created one of the world’s most valuable social documents, a study of urban change that combines a planner’s perspective with a neighbor’s concern.

Unlike other architecture magazines, Urban China places buildings in the background, focusing instead on cultural phenomena that trigger their creation and justify their destruction. By emphasizing architectural concerns over architectural creations, it has created an intellectual space capable of accommodating any imaginable subject. Over the course of more than thirty issues, Urban China has taken up many of the 21st century’s most urgent issues, including migration (Urban China #16), manufacturing (#7), climate change (#21), creativity (#33), utopia (#25), and disaster (#31).

This book is drawn primarily from three issues, Building a Socialist New Village (Urban China #12), The Chinese Family (#19), and Chinese Education (#22). The three were originally created to coincide with Documenta 12, each responding to one of the exhibition’s three key topics.

Issue 12 responds to the question “Is modernity our antiquity?” by examining the New Village, a stacked concept which implies both historical continuity and radical change. Issue 19 offers a response to “What is bare life?” by reducing Chinese society to its most fundamental social unit, the family. Issue 22 answers “What is to be done?” by declaring education the most vital component of China’s remaining modernization.

Taken together, these issues cover large sections of the Chinese cultural landscape, connecting its imperial past to its globalized present. By presenting a perspective that looks simultaneously inward and outward, forward and backward, this book tries to apply to the process of modernization the benefit of hindsight, locating China’s current condition within a continuum of modern and pre-modern behavior, and redefining the drive the modernize as an effort to tie-in rather than catch-up, an often unintentional process of applying new practices to ancient principles.

Translated in full for the first time, this selection offers a sample of the vigorous self-examination in which the PRC is currently engaged. The work is presented is draft form to emphasize the effort’s incompleteness and uncertain outcome. Annotations are offered in the form of excerpts, which tie together seemingly unrelated articles and provide an alternate route through the book.

It is a small step to bringing balance to the Western conversation on China and an introduction
to one of the world’s most admirable magazines.

Co-editor, Designer

Jiang Jun
Urban China/城市中国
Timezone 8