The Chinese Dream

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words Gabriel Coxhead

This exhaustive and dazzling book can impress even those now jaded by the familiar cliches of Chinese hyper-urbanism says Gabriel Coxhead.

The world's fastest growing economy; the next global superpower; urban redevelopment so rapid that maps can't keep up - everyone knows that China is changing dramatically. But changing into what, exactly?

The Chinese Dream doesn't provide a definitive answer; instead, its various contributors offer myriad ideas from diverse perspectives: political, economic, ecological, sociocultural, architectural. The central unifying theme is the phenomenal rate of urbanisation; specifically, the Chinese government's proposal in 2001 for the construction of 400 new cities by 2020 - 20 per year - to accommodate the ceaseless flow of hundreds of millions of rural emigrants. But beyond such demographic trends, the book also considers the city as a sort of psychic domain, where dreams of the new China are played out: from the state's ambitions for economic growth via socialist capitalism, to individuals' desires for consumer goods and better jobs.

Although it looks towards the future, The Chinese Dream is simultaneously an account of the present, exhaustively documenting the tumult and chaos of, as the subtitle puts it, "a society under construction". Stuffed full of written essays, photo-essays, maps, diagrams, charts and graphs all depicting and analysing the multitudinous varieties of urban living, it's an absorbing, encyclopaedic monster of a book, the result of four years of research and documentation.

Four years in which, according to government strategy, about 80 new Chinese cities have presumably been built? Well, not exactly, it turns out. Rather than pursuing the official goal of 400 distinct cities of a million inhabitants each, a much more likely prospect is the emergence of one single, vast megalopolis housing 400 million - a continuous urban field twice the size of France, reaching from Beijing down to Shanghai.

Within this model, a huge range of concepts and methodologies from architecture and urban theory are discussed, as well as societal aspects and cultural shifts: the rise of gated communities and increasing social stratification, or the tendency towards "copy-and-paste" city planning, where only faux-classical "Eurostyle" facades give any individuation. At times, the book reads like a bestiary of exotic urban forms: itinerant "floating village" compounds; "raisin bread" development; "infrasprawl"; messy, amorphous MUDs ("Market-driven Unintentional Developments") - these are new terms to describe a new society. While the jargon can be daunting, the actual concepts are often fascinating, as in the essay on the "city of zero liminality", where there's no transitional blurring of experience, just the textureless, mind-numbing cycle of discrete zones of home, taxi, work, and so on.

To be sure, a lot of the trends are profoundly depressing - pollution, rampant commercialism, the desolation to both cities and human lives. It's not all negative, though. China's urbanisation is, after all, the largest humanitarian project in history, with hundreds of millions of people being lifted out of poverty. Several chapters contain overtly utopian visions of the future - from high-density eco-apartments to superfast public transport systems, like giant conveyor belts dissecting the city. If certain scenarios occasionally smack of hokey, sci-fi fantasy, there's helpful guidance in the form of a dream-certainty chart running along the bottom of each page.

It is, finally, such deft design details that mark out The Chinese Dream as more than simply an unusually articulate collection of essays. This is a work intended not just to be read, but to be experienced visually, absorbed impressionistically: a barrage of different aesthetics, motifs, fonts and images which combine to create the sense of something heady, febrile, truly dreamlike. With its mixture of high-tech graphics and graffiti-like scribbles, its dense conglomerations of data, its sheer sense of visual and material proliferation, The Chinese Dream manages to encapsulate the essence of the Chinese city not just through its content but in its very form.

The Chinese Dream: A Society Under Construction, by Neville Mars and Adrian Hornsey, 010 Publishers, £49.50

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