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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 07-Jun-2006

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 19

Wordcount: 1000

Behind the red velvet curtain lies a culture destroyed

Elizabeth Farrelly – Elizabeth Farrelly writes on planning and architecture issues for the Herald

THE myth of the Land of Peach Blossoms, as told by the 4th century poet Tao Yuanming and retold by a professor of landscape at Beijing University, Kongjian Yu, recounts how a humble fisherman discovered a little mountain-ringed utopia, accessible only via a narrow cave, where everyone was happy, well-fed and compassionate. The emperors, impressed by the beauty of the peach-blossom landscape, tried to replicate it. But, seeing the landscape as mere decoration, they overlooked the deep tie between beauty and necessity, and failed. Thus landscape gardening, the ancient art of emperors, became formalised, desiccated, sterile.

In Sydney, meanwhile, every second architect you meet is just popping across to China with the design of a new million-person city or similar in their breast pocket. It has been happening for years, helping China consume its 54 per cent of the world’s cement and 34 per cent of the world’s steel. So far, 40 million farmers have been displaced and 67 million hectares of arable land consumed. Yet – and this is weird – we never see the results. We see what the stellar architects do, from Zaha Hadid to Rem Koolhaas to I.M. Pei, which is the super-size equivalent of brandname fakes. But no Aussie stuff.

It’s especially odd since architects are not generally inclined to the bushel. Almost as though they’re ashamed. As though the China works of the past decade are a bastard litter, abandoned behind the red velvet curtain, never to be acknowledged. Further, when you quiz these architects as to whether there’s a culture gap, they deny it airily.

So here’s a theory: they are ashamed, because they know better. They know China is on a Titanic course to catastrophe, but cannot resist the succulent status of hired stud. As Yu says, “Western architects come to China; they should tell the truth, but they want jobs so they won’t tell the Chinese Government that the American model is a mistake.”

Born into a rural land-owning family, Yu was twice ejected from school during the Cultural Revolution, despite topping the class, and spent years herding cows. Winning a place at Beijing University, he had never left his village, never heard of landscape architecture.

It was 1980. The village had no phone. Yu’s teacher cycled for an hour to explain “landscape gardening” as the art of emperors, comprising beautiful pavilions, waterfalls and rockeries. What he didn’t see, a Harvard-educated Yu now explains, was that the ancient emperors’ art was itself a corruption of landscape architecture’s true nature, namely, the art of survival.

Returning from Harvard in the mid-1980s, Yu was dismayed to find bicycle lanes given over to cars, rivers and sacred streams turned into channels, rice paddies paved. “For two years I cycled, but it was too dangerous, so I gave up.” His mission, though, is undimmed. Landscape, the art of survival, is the art of the future.

Of China’s 606 cities, two-thirds are seriously short of water. The aquifer level under Beijing is 80 metres down, dropping a metre a year. No one knows how much remains. So the Government is building a 1700-kilometre aqueduct from the Yangtze, itself (by government description) “cancerous”.

Yu argues for a national “ecological infrastructure”, preserving wetlands and flood plains and acknowledging the “critical flow” of the land – analogous to energy-flow in Chinese medicine.

Much, though, depends on the mayors. If you can convince the 606 mayors not to be “little emperors” there is hope. So, in 2003 Yu wrote a book, The Road to Urban Landscape, outlining this “negative planning”, and sent it to all 606 mayors. It has had nine reprints so far, and Yu’s work has included turning channels back into rivers and establishing working paddy fields on campus.

At official levels, the rhetoric is changing. Citizens have sued over destruction of habitat and Pan Yue, the Vice-Minister for State Environmental Protection, recently declared: “The proper future for China is a green socialist eco-civilisation.” But the reality remains terrifying: toxic rivers, poisoned soil, rampant desertification, vast sandstorms and the fact that China, with 1.3 billion people, now imports rice. Not unlike Australia, you might think. Only with 65 times as many mouths to feed, in a comparable area, and with a government with the power to avert eco-catastrophe, should it choose.

Will it, though? Signs are mixed. In December, the Government reportedly shot dead 20 villagers protesting against a wind farm near Hong Kong. It builds solar-powered eco-cities, such as the proposed Tangye New Town, by fiat. But the speed is breakneck, and the cost heartbreaking. Twenty years ago, 10 per cent of China’s people were city dwellers; now it’s 40 per cent. In 20 years it’ll be 70 per cent, with every city triple its present size. Hardly surprising that, of China’s richest 100 people, 50 are developers.

Meanwhile, the Government demolishes the last of the picturesque hutongs, or alleyways, and their traditional court-houses that enforest (and predate) Beijing’s Forbidden City, replacing them with residential high-rise and a kilometres-long ceremonial avenue designed by Albert Speer’s son. In the same Olympic spring cleaning, it has issued millions of copies of a new little book (not Mao’s) entitled Basic Reader in Civility and Etiquette, with rules on spitting, underwear and directing one’s gaze.

The common thread is modernism: anti-nature, anti-dirt, anti-history. It’s as though the entire enlightenment project, from Napoleon through postmodern classical-revival, is being rerun in simultaneous trash-cast, not a single lesson learned.

For Yu, the ironies run deep. And they’re not just about the world’s largest communist regime replacing the last shreds of its own culture with bad copies of imperialism’s worst mistakes. It’s that old emperors’ refusal to see that survival, identity and beauty must be strengthened together. “Ironically,” he says, “in seeking identity we are losing identity.”


PHOTO: Field of dreams … a rice paddy at Shenyang Architectural University. Photo: Turenscape


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