Friday, November 29, 2013

China's Manhattan

China's urban planners are certainly ambitious. They've replicated European villages, parts of Venice and Paris. Although they tried and lost when it came to ripping off Disney, they've set their sights on reproducing Manhattan, not just architecturally, but actually making a better Big Apple and taking over Manhattan's role as the world's economic capital.

China's efforts to replicate the world may be more than an homage to internationalism. Historically, architectural reproduction is common in China dating back centuries. It's more than just whimsical fun, rather it symbolizes dominance over the culture being reproduced.

However, despite the fact that the nation owns so much of the West's debt, they've recently taken on quite a bit of their own. China may soon face the same realities America and Europe faced during the Great Recession.

China's Manhattan Project uninhabited and under constriction

Don't let the world's biggest construction site fool you. China found a funny way to finance a lot of "World Firsts" and tiny town disasters.

The Chinese government somewhat owns the country's land. When they want something, they take it. Like many major projects in China, Tianjin, or the other Manhattan, began as a nearly worthless piece of land seized by the government.

The government then reassessed the property for far more than it was worth, borrowed against the bloated value, and began to build. It's a gamble, a gamble that makes the American housing bubble blush. In fact, at a construction cost of $200B, it is the American housing bubble.

When Tianjin's Manhattan project is over, if it's ever complete, China will not have surpassed New York's influence as a global presence. New York's presence is not present in its architecture, but two centuries of history that could have yielded the same outcome from suburban Phoenix.

Prominence isn't made from buildings and cities, however grand. It's bred from sweat. Dubai learned this the hard way.

Skyscrapers were invented out of need, a necessity that is only necessary in the world's older cities. They work in Shanghai and Beijing because, like Manhattan, the only direction to build is up.

Many attempts to scrape the sky across the Middle East and Asia are the end result of design competitions leaving behind countless empty skyscrapers. America certainly indulged in its own attempt to reach the clouds, evident in skylines from New York to Los Angeles. But even the Empire State Building, although empty during the Great Depression, was built out of purpose.

Many may argue that America's resistance to compete with the skylines of Mecca and Dubai is the symbolic end of the American Empire, a return to a modest sense of provincial colonialism that Europe succumbed to at the birth of our nation.

That would be more likely if these vastly taller skylines were something new rather than simply taller. By replicating Manhattan, China doesn't usurp or dominate American culture or prominence, particularly to anyone outside China. In fact, to the global stage it does just the opposite. Instead of creating its own architecture, its own cities, or defining something new, it actually bends to tired design, recreating exhausted and congested street grids while America, Europe, and Japan continue to innovate.

By doing nothing more than owning its people and places, these dictatorships, monarchies, communist governments can easily afford to grow taller, but only prove why their governments don't globally work. China may feel it dominates Europe by offering its citizens Swiss villages and the Eiffel Tower, asking its people "why bother traveling to Europe when it's all right here?" But they also remove their people from global culture, which exists in the global populace, not its architecture.

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