Practical Utopias explores the spectacular urban transformation of East Asia that has captivated global investors, corporate tycoons, well-heeled jetsetters, and architects and planners alike. It attempts to unravel the threads that link the large-scale projects that underlie this change.
The exhibition casts a wide net, typologically. Marina Bay in Singapore, a rigorously planned megaproject integrating retail, casino, hotel, and urban garden, appears alongside Pudong and the Bund, two sides of Shanghai’s Huangpu River that in twenty years have been completely transformed, one from farmland to skyscraper-thronged financial center, the other from erstwhile seat of colonial power to tourist and nightlife center. Hubs in networks figure prominently, both in terms of physical transportation, like the Hong Kong International Airport and Changi Terminal 3 in Singapore, and as well in terms of global flows of finance capital, like the International Finance Center in Hong Kong.
The focus on hubs, flows, and connections—both physical and financial—suggests that these built forms are more linked to each other than to their immediate urban contexts. Saskia Sassen, in her 1991 book The Global City, discussed how the command and control of global financial flows results in both the tendency to disperse (following the mobility of capital) and agglomerate (concentrating headquarters and services in the global cities of New York, London, and Tokyo). It might be argued that the projects illustrated here are adding a new phase to Sassen’s earlier findings, the front offices roaring forward in the new global finance hubs nipping at New York and London’s heels.
Courtesy Wilkinson Eyre; Gensler Publications; Safdie Architects
Lavishly illustrated with photographs, architects’ renderings and diagrams, and large sectional drawings, and organized into five themes—“Connected,” “Dense,” “Green,” “Thick,” and “Fun”—the exhibition weaves a story that is as entwined as the spaces it explores. Connected, dense cities are green. And “thick” projects, programmatically complex in three dimensions, are “both connected and fun.” There is an emphasis on spaces of financial transactions, transportation, and retail hubs, evidently propelled by global finance capital. Nevertheless, the exhibition emphasizes that these spaces are not just lively and fun, but, in a sense, public.
The photographs and illustrations are supplemented by a handful of models, video installations, and two displays of the accouterments of 21st century urban life—shopping mall guides featuring stacked, color-coded, axonometric floor plans, the tangled nets of expansive mass transit system maps, as well as, in a memorable moment, “Singapore Girl,” Singapore Airlines’ flight attendants fully objectified in doll form.
Courtesy Steven Holl Architects; Tim Griffith / SOM
Somewhat missing is better indication of the “lived-in” sense of these places, especially since they are often touted as the new public spaces of Asia. How do these spaces fare under throngs of people? Or over time? The video installations move closer to this, but the stop-motion styling in some of these often prove more visually stimulating than experientially edifying. Large in scale, often corporate, institutional, or governmental, the projects here are stylish, fast-paced, spatially intricate, and yet sanitized. Compared to other visions of Asian modernity—complex, multi-shaded, constantly teetering between aboveboard and underground, formal and informal, like something out of a Wong Kar Wai movie—these projects, as shown, seem to miss key moments of Asian urbanity.
The five themes provide an intriguing framework. It is evident that it is really not about scale, and it is not about style. Green and Dense, perhaps the two more critical themes, call out for more elaboration. For Green, we are shown the buildings and master planning of the National University of Singapore—with requisite green walls, green roof, and solar panels—and the reconstruction of the Cheonggycheon River in Seoul, a successful urban amenity project that has also been criticized for the lack of connection to broader ecological systems. The exhibition doesn’t mention initiatives of far broader consequences, for example, Singapore’s own techno-utopian efforts—through recycling, desalination, and extensive capture—to be water independent. Density is a complex topic. It is implicated in current sustainability concepts like ecological footprint as well as debates on the virtues of urban existence, what Louis Wirth called “urbanism as a way of life.” Here Dense is left somewhat vague, explained primarily at the scale of a building.
Courtesy DBOX/FOSTER+Partners; Mori Building Company; DBOX
One of the more illuminating parts of the exhibition is a series of small, 3D-printed models of cityscapes. After the texts and photographs that reinforce the global links of each project, these one-square-foot models of each city open up interesting questions about differences. Varieties of scale, time, and urban governance show through the slender, ziggurat skyscraper forms of New York City, the radical dissimilarity of Shanghai Pudong and Bund, the intricate scale of Tokyo, and the flatness surrounding Marina Bay in Singapore. To those with a passing familiarity with each city, these specificities bring up issues of history, geophysical constraint, and socio-political conflict.
And that is perhaps what is most absent here: the socio-political contexts that set the stage for, and are now part of, waves of global flows of capital and global design practice. These might include, in the past, war, colonization, and nation-building, and now, questionable labor practices, social inequality, the political contestation that follows large-scale urban projects… Surprisingly, the concept of “utopia” itself is never questioned, as if the “practical” qualification relieves the exhibition from taking on the loaded term.
Practical Utopias enthusiastically takes on the critical sites and built forms that are drawing more and more design professionals, opening up a new era in our practice. There is a lot to learn here, and a lot to question. Those who study global flows of capital and information often dwell precisely in the places where flows slow, or stop—Sassen’s “preferred sites,” or Manuel Castells’ “spaces of places.” As if situated in the same flows as the projects it bears witness to, Practical Utopias smooths rather than contrasts, highlights rather than details. One wishes that the exhibition lingered in these places, and took a longer, harder look at both the contradictions as well as the opportunities.