Pearls of Progress

When I graduated a decade ago from a university nestled in a picturesque town in south Holland, I recall R.K. telling us Europeans about the Pearl River Delta signifying a new kind of metropolis, "a city of exacerbated difference whose character is based on the extreme differentiation of its parts." Nothing like the gradual historical layering of a town like Delft: a place where the Dutch royal family have been laid to rest beneath a church located on a paved central market square since the golden sixteenth century of the Netherlands. The PRD was developing at such a pace that it made the considered practice of architecture seem inadequate as a means for dealing with the sheer quantity of potential speculation in China's new hinterland. Modernism, rationalism, minimalism, all were encumbered by dogmas of guiding principles. Rem even knocked that other catch-all in the name of expediency: "postmodernism has nothing to do with style or aesthetics, but is simply a way of doing architecture in less time with less sophistication. It's very expensive to invent. You need time and therefore you need money."

After a humble fourty-eight hours in Guangzhou, but with recollections of Shenzen and Hong Kong in my memory, I'm inclined to wonder: do the urban ambitions of cities - no matter how hard they strive to portray themselves as the latest bastion of human development - matter in the face of the sheer number of individuals by and large seeking a common goal: a better quality of life? For all its self-confidence in being an agent to progress, I sense design can only provoke a model of future(s). And if we're lucky, good design (usually only perceptible in hindsight) goes on to perpetuate common frameworks of life (work, play, dwelling) that instil pride, establish consensus, and engender shared liberties between the people it fosters.

To put it another way: what is an opera house devoid of a resident opera company? No matter how much I wanted to be impressed by its sleek gravitas, or could cynically bemoan its constructive shortcomings, Hadid (but also the other shiny edifices populating Guangzhou's CBD) left me feeling anxious. These pearls of progress can - in fact should - become more than orphans of speculation. Not because 'one billion people won't be wrong' (R.K. again): China's dilemma is the reverse of that other great power: E Unum Pluribus ('out of one, many').

Granted they mark a fresh and confident start, but it's still just that. These buildings are not merely the result of progress, but a means to it. My exit from China feels like a cliff hanger.