Countless Chinese villages have been engulfed by modern cities. They no longer consist of picturesque farms and feng shui groves, but of high-rise buildings so close to each other that they create dark claustrophobic alleys—jammed with dripping air-conditioners, hanging clothes, caged balconies and bundles of buzzing electric wires, and crowned with a small strip of daylight, known as “thin line sky.” At times, buildings stand so close to another they are dubbed “kissing buildings” or “handshake houses”—you can literally reach out from one building and shake hands with your neighbor.
Although it is easy to see these villages as slums, a closer look reveals that they provide an important, affordable, and well-located entry point for migrants into the city. They also offer a vital mixed-use, spatially diverse and pedestrian alternative to the prevailing car-oriented modernist-planning paradigm in China. Yet, most of these villages are on the brink of destruction, affecting the homes of millions of people and threatening the eradication of a unique urban fabric. It is the largest urban demolition in the world’s history.
About this phenomenon, given little attention in the West to date, Dutch architect and urban design professor Stefan Al edited the book Villages in the City: A Guide to South China’s Informal Settlements. He led a team of 20 researchers to document these villages. They interviewed villagers and visited and photographed their homes and environment. The book includes essays by a number of experts, stories of villagers, and drawings and photographs.
After the book presentation (in English), there will be a debate about rapid urbanization in China and similar developments happening elsewhere.
About the speaker
Stefan Al is a Dutch architect and Associate Professor of Urban Design at the University of Pennsylvania. He co-teaches an online course Designing Cities to more than 30,000 students each year. He also edited the book Factory Towns of South China, and was one of the designers of a 600-meter tall TV tower in Guangzhou, China.