Written by Stephanie Hemelryk Donald
I was recently at the award announcement for a photographic competition run jointly with the cityScopio project, the Royal Institute of British Architects, and the Universities of Porto and Liverpool. The subject was Crossing Borders and Shifting Boundaries, and could, in principle, have featured images from anywhere in the world. The judges were looking for atmosphere, architecture, and photographic excellence.
In the event, the winner (Alnis Stakle, Latvia) and both runners up had entered images of China. Once again then, China was defining the city, its boundaries, its edges, and its spirit. Stakle had caught that recognizable juxtaposition of hope and hubris that accounts for the shining lights and dark corners of China’s urban expansion. He had captured how we understand the city whether or not we inhabit it ourselves.
My brief was to address the topic of the winning portfolio to a room full of architects and architectural students, many of whom were Chinese. I did not want to rehearse the obvious to experts but there were some opening comments that deserved an outing: that the Chinese city is a place of constant building and destruction, that it is shaped by contrasts, and that the space between buildings – so important for natural light and scale, has almost disappeared in the rush to fill in the gaps with progress.
What else? Well, these architectural photographs excelled because they did not exclude humans. Migrant workers eat in makeshift shanty street cafes, crouched under tottering skyscrapers and framed by electric wires, lit by brown light. When I looked at these familiar blurred bowed backs, hands over bowls, children perched amongst them on plastic orange stools, I found a way to talk to my audience.
These photographs lit up the three Rs of the Chinese city: Ruins, ren, and Risk. Risk-taking on a phenomenal scale is at the heart of the Chinese urban explosion: risks with money, with accelerated construction, with design and with people’s lives. The risk is exemplified by the proximity between new buildings, vulnerable shacks and the ever-present threat of reconstruction. And finally ren, people and humanity – the ren of the little man and the ren of goodness/benevolence. They are brought together in the person of the migrant, building the Chinese city from the ground up. Stakle’s photographs see this and celebrate it.
Professor Stephanie Hemelryk Donald is Head of the School of Arts at the University of Liverpool