The Emerging Asian City: An Interview with Vinayak Bharne
Planetizen managing editor Jonathan Nettler spoke recently with the book’s creator and editor Vinayak Bharne - joint adjunct faculty at the Sol Price School of Public Policy and the School of Architecture at the University of Southern California, and Director of Design at Moule & Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists - about the genesis of the book, what defines Asian cities, and how planners need to alter their practices to engage with them.
Planetizen: Tell us about the genesis of the book. Why this book and why now?
Vinayak Bharne: When I arrived in the United States from India in 1996, there were a handful of people doing serious research on Asian cities. The US economy was at its peak, and you had to go out and seek scholars who were giving Asian cities a significant enough place in the larger rubrics of urbanism. Today there is no shortage of attention on Asia’s cities, and I don’t believe we need books to call out their significance anymore. But I think we need newer insights and provocations to broaden and deepen our understanding of urban Asia.
Asia’s cities continue be read through a number of lenses. There is the comparative lens wherein Asian cities are understood through their contrasts with European and American ones. There is the indigenous lens, that is, Asian cities as a series of rich original cultural patterns and traditions. Another is the East-West dialectic – beginning with colonialism, and extending into rubrics of post-colonialism and modernism. Then there is Asia as the innovative frontier for new post-industrial expressions. There is also the regionalist lens, that is, urban Asia as the accumulation of distinct cultural or ethnic identities – South-east, South, Middle-east. There are others. None of these lenses are necessarily exclusive, but they have instigated different positions and approaches towards urban Asia. I was interested in making a book that looks beyond isolated readings; that brings many positions together; that looks at Asia as a “both…and” rather than an “either…or” phenomenon.
While I’m enthusiastic about the volume of research on Asian cities, this book also comes out of a frustration that the profound and sophisticated scholarship that is bringing Asia to the forefront of mainstream dialogues isn’t percolating as much into the practice world. So there was also a conscious attempt to broaden the discussion and create something that could be utilized by professionals, as well as academics.
Vinayak Bharne: I have always found the geographic categorization of Asian cities unconvincing, because for me the histories and destinies of cities across Asia are far too enmeshed to over-simplify. If you look at the Asian urban landscape from enough of a distance, you notice that it has been shaped by distinct phenomena – social, political, economic, cultural – even though different parts of Asia have reacted to them and manifested them differently. The fundamental forces shaping Asian cities are neither necessarily isolated nor regionally unique.
The Indian sub-continent, for instance, is historically entwined with the cultures of the Persian and Gulf region. China’s or Dubai’s rapid urbanization is an echo of Japan’s unprecedented growth in the 60s and 70s. Colonialism; post-independence Nation-building; the entry and assimilation of Western democracy; informal urbanisms; sudden cities; the embrace of Modernism – these are phenomena scattered throughout urban Asia in space and time, even though their specific guises may be different.
For instance, several Asian nations, after independence from colonial powers, built brand new Modern cities as emblems of sovereignty. But six decades later, how and why are Chandigarh, Islamabad, Jakarta and Tehran different? Likewise rapid urbanization has been a cyclical phenomenon in Asia – Japan in the 70s, Hong Kong in the 80s, Kuala Lumpur in the 90’s and now Shenzhen. Where do they overlap? Where do they differ? These are some of the questions that the book tries to probe.
So, to capture all this and more, the book gathers multiple voices to speak about multiple places, but within a broad framework of three contingent broad lenses: Traditions, Tensions & Transformations. This structure consciously de-emphasizes geographic themes and focuses on phenomenological issues, concerns and overlaps while simultaneously capturing the contrasts that exist in different places at different times.
Planetizen: The book examines the influence of Western culture and approaches to urbanism on the development of Asian cities. Has the pendulum now swung backwards to where Asian cities have something to teach Western planners?
Vinayak Bharne: It was never one sided to begin with - though I think we in Asia have been far more explicit about our perceived superiority of the West, compared to the other way round. I joke with my American students that many of us that grew up in Asia had an advantage because we were always looking to the West, and so we always knew as much of what was going on in the Western world as ours. We knew every major city, every major effort.
But talking about pendulums, let’s look at colonialism, for example, which is often looked at as a Western phenomenon from the point of view of the conqueror. This view sees colonial cities embodying an attitude of superiority towards indigenous habitats – for instance New Delhi was consciously disconnected from the medieval labyrinthine grid of Shahjahanabad by a cordon sanitaire. But the other view observes how colonial efforts never failed to embrace climatic and tectonic vernaculars within their urbanisms for both practical and political reasons. Any colonial city reveals upon closer look, the struggle to amalgamate native spatial concepts and construction techniques in dwellings and monuments, creating hybridities, found in neither worlds. Colonialism, in this sense, was reciprocal and symbiotic; it was as much about the imposition of the conqueror, as the resilience of the conquered, though few see it this way.
The second dimension of the East-West dialectic happened between the 1930s-60s under the converse rubric of post-independence nation-building. But these grand investments in new-born countries with few economic resources and large illiterate demographics were never taken through the litmus test of the native populace. So if one looks at the legacies of these “Western” implants today, one sees how they have been assimilated, appropriated and transformed by the native population. Chandigarh, Islamabad, Tehran, all need to be understood today not for their originating intentions, but for their subsequent reception, for what they have become and why – that is where their greatest lessons lie.
Further, several Asian cities have now transcended their original Modernist influences, and mutated into new identities the West has never seen. For example, Tokyo’s sophisticated densha (train) network pales any transit system in the world. The dramatic evolution of Hong Kong’s multi-use high-rises, high-speed transportation, elevated walkways and subterranean worlds all seem like a "hyper-Manhattan," where the ideas proposed for 1920s New York have not only been enacted but surpassed. The East-West dialectic was never one-dimensional, if we understand that origins are not the only ways of understanding something.
Planetizen: In the past decade, we've seen an increasing number of Western architects and planners practicing in Asian cities. Are the processes that we utilize to develop a plan for Birmingham or Baltimore relevant for practicing in Asian cities, or do we need to alter our practices to engage with these cities?
Vinayak Bharne: I think Western architects and planners need to make a far more sincere effort to take Asian cities seriously on their own terms, and understand the consequences their ideas will have. What I largely hear is either confident opinions of what Asian cities ought to be – from a Western standpoint, or simply blatant proposals in the name of globalization. But many of us who have lived there approach it with a much more nuanced understanding.
True, many Asian cities are going through the same problems as Western ones: the debacles of single use zoning, FAR regulations, bureaucratic planning, urban disinvestment, sprawl, autopian dominance, etc. The difference, however, is that the processes and forces perpetrating these conditions are very different in most parts of Asia, so the processes for their reversal are also going to be different. Massive population explosions, rural to urban migrations, extreme economic polarizations, large informal economies, different governance structures, ambiguous administration and reinforcement, the dominance of religion, the ambitions of a rising middle-class, the continuing perceived superiority of the West - all ultimately create very different expectations of what urban life is in the first place.
Further, the gravity of urban issues is far greater and nuanced compared to Western cities. The water crisis, for instance, one of biggest challenges of urban Asia today, is not so much an issue of water availability, but inadequate treatment and distribution infrastructure. Slums are illegal and un-hygienic, but nurture many alternative forms of entrepreneurship that contribute heavily to the urban economy. To take another contrasting extreme, Tokyo has no land to build on, so up to 30% of its fabric is demolished and rebuilt each year – something Western cities would never dream of. Where does one draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not? Revisionist planning methods that are for example reforming sprawl in the United States work because of a transparent and strong legal system. They cannot even begin to get implemented in places where regulatory systems are murky. In many places like India, it is alternative practices, by non-government organizations and activists that are meeting with uncanny success at bringing real urban change.
The question therefore is: How can Western architects and planners look beyond their preconceptions of great or ideal cities, and tap into the existing agencies that are already making a difference in Asian cities. How can we navigate, accept, remain sympathetic to or in certain cases penetrate and transform the existing processes and structures to catalyze urban change towards equity and social justice?
One of central intentions for the book, then, is to provoke, particularly in Western practitioners a more fine-grained understanding, exchange, and engagement with the complexities of Asian cities.
Asian cities still take the West very seriously, so their destinies will emerge not only from their own choices, but also from the ones we Western urbanists make on how to understand their realities, and eventually accept or reject their expectations.
Planetizen: What is next after this book?
Vinayak Bharne: In the book’s epilogue titled “Engaging the Asian City,” we suggest the next stage of this exploration, which is to examine Asian cities as contexts for alternative modes of urban practice. Building upon this book’s discussion on how Asian cities are being shaped through other forces and aspirations, the next step would be to examine how and why we should engage with Asian cities differently. Alternative efforts of urban transformation, and their successes and failures need to be brought out – they have a lot to teach us. That said, it took me five years to finish this book, so let’s see how long it takes to think out the next one.