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New towns: interview with Michele Bonino

Michele Bonino was born in Turin in 1974. After completing his studies in his hometown, he moves to Barcelona. Despite he’s continuing to travel, he keeps on using Italy as his base, where currently works as Architectural and Urban Composition Professor and as Rector’s Delegate for Relationships with China at the Polytechnic of Turin.
He has been a Visiting professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing and a Visiting Scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology of Boston.
He’s the academical Curator of the Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture 2019, which was exposed in the Chinese town of Shenzen. He’s coordinating the Polytechnic’s participation to the project of research called “Transition towards Urban Sustainability through Socially Integrative Cities, in the EU and in China” (funded by Horizon 2020), and the architectural project for the Visitor Center of the XXIV Winter Olympic Games of Beijing 2022, located in Shougang. Besides that he’s starting, in collaboration with the South China University of Technology, China’s first-degree course in Urban design.
His articles ad essays were published on magazines such as “Abitare”, “De Architect”, “Le Cahiers de la Recherche Architecturale et Urbaine”, “Il Giornale dell’Architettura” (of which he was page admin), “Parametro”, “Il Sole24ore”, “Territorio”, “World Architecture” and on many others volumes.
Among the books he published: “The City after Chinese New Towns” (Birkhäuser 2019, with F.Governa, M.P. Repellino, A.Sampier), and “Beijing Danwei. Industrial Heritage and the Contemporary City” (Jovis 2015, with F. De Pieri).

1 – What are the New Towns? What do they represent for the Chinese? And what do they represent for us? How are we building them and why?

This phenomenon of New Towns exists since ages and the reasons that brought to build cities ex-novo in Europe or in other parts of the world range from the need to create new places of power to the need of space for some populations that need to find a localization. At the Polytechnic of Turin, besides an academical course held with Filippo De Pieri, which has analyzed some New Towns built all around the world in the last century (by Canberra to Chandigarh, by Sabaudia to Milton Keynes), we focused on more specific research too, which was entitled “The City after Chinese New Towns“, published in 2019 with Francesca Governa, Maria Paola Ripellino, Angelo Sampieri per Birkhäuser (with photos made by Samuele Pellecchia, Prospekt). We started with the hypothesis that the construction of New Towns in China, and the ways in which they are governed, has influenced and will surely influence more and more global urbanization; new models were born that now are conditioning the world’s organization.
The main reason why in China emerged a wide construction program of New Towns, was the assimilation of the great migration from the countryside: for many years now a real exodus is taking place toward the cities, and another 300 million inhabitants are expected to move in the near future. To face this situation China has developed a construction plan of new cities and of new areas of expansion for existing cities.

The impulse that starts the construction of a Chinese New Town may come both from a municipal level, and from a government level through the initiative of the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, or of the Ministry of Commerce, or of Science and Technology, if it’s the case of those “Development Zones” conceived as a hub of innovative activities that give structure to the city that forms itself around them.
Instead, for what concerns the localization, often New Towns are indeed nodes for a new foundation, built outside of the pre-existing settlements: an example of this is the New Silk Road, that besides facing the theme of urban migration from the countryside, it faces another Chinese problem which is the redistribution of population in the internal zones of the country (the 80% of the population is concentrated in the 20% of the territory, which is the East Coast). Other New Towns, or New Areas, are instead expansions of other existing cities: every big Chinese city is living a strong program of re-urbanization of its adjacent areas.

One of the outcomes that we have analyzed in our research, is how this government program can’t accommodate all this migratory impulse that China is living. Already from the ’80s, when the program of reforms promoted by Deng Xiaoping started, a system called Hukou was initiated, a system that includes a sort of double passport, with which every inhabitant possesses a passport for the city and one for the countryside, so formally he is an urban inhabitant or a rural one. This mechanism is used to regulate urban migration: cities like Shangai or Beijing have a Hukou practically closed, according to which it’s virtually impossible to gain citizenship if you come from “the outside”, while the urban passport is favored for those who choose to settle in the cities of a new foundation in the West part of the country, granting important facilitations, like free membership to university for their children or other benefits. A consequence of this demographic control instrument is that not everyone accepts this condition and, consequently, the official population of Chinese big cities is unknown. Beijing, for example, has about 10 million registered inhabitants but, in fact, there are 5-6 million more inhabitants, because many of them emigrate to reach their relatives or to reach people of the same region who already have official citizenship. They settle in city remaining citizens with a rural Hukou. This tendency leads to the fact that in Chinese cities live millions of inhabitants, which don’t have access to health care or to school, and which often reunite in communities that offer
self-organized services.

This relationship between the formal city of registered citizens, and the informal city of those who settle in an unofficial way, makes the fabric and the life of Chinese urban centers extremely interesting, this is because exists a co-existence of these two phenomenons, which in the big cities is practically omnipresent and which grants them a particular identity. However, my intention is not that to aestheticize this condition, because this often becomes a dramatic problem, both in social and urbanistic terms: how can you size a city’s public services, by knowing that in theory its inhabitants are 10 million, but that is actually 15?

2 – Considering the time that architecture needs and the inconsistency of the predictions, we believe that the city of the future is the one we are building today, and the Chinese example is obvious, what are the positive aspects of the New Towns that they are currently building? What the negative ones? What are the contradictions?

A very contradictory aspect is the relationship with the environment. China perceives, as a possible risk for its stability, the rise of an ever-growing middle class, no more inclined to live in the urban condition to which was used to. For example, the Beijing I remember in 2013, when I spent there a semester as a teacher, it was an unacceptable place for those who had enough income to increase their family’s quality of life. Beijing was a very polluted city, where to move around the town was necessary to sit in traffic for hours. With the rise of a demanding and ambitious middle class, the government decided to aim to this urban development, through a great work of pollution reduction and promotion of a healthy life.

Beijing is changing its physiognomy, in just a few years it reduced by more of 30% the level of urban pollution with some conventional actions, such as the introduction of alternate license plates and the reduction of energy consumption, and with other extraordinary actions, like the relocation of factories. The relocation of many production plants outside the city leaves place for areas utilized for urban requalification, representing a very interesting opportunity for a regeneration of those cities from the inside. Also, it’s important to underline that despite we perceive China as a country which builds at full speed, actually construction sites are closed every winter in Beijing: the works stop for two months and in order not to pollute, green sheets are laid on the bare earth and on the mountains of rubble, that block the dust on the ground. Flying above Beijing during winter feels like looking at a great installation of land art.
So it’s negative that Chinese cities still have low environmental standards, but it’s positive that we can see how, with these kinds of policies, things are fastly changing.

Another aspect that concerns the environment, the health and the involvement of citizens, it’s a program of “Active health”, which has the purpose to bring back the citizens to live the cities outdoor. This tendency has roots in the Chinese spirit, but was however declined because of an inhospitable environment: in 2013 I would never have imagined that I could go jogging in Beijing, but now it’s possible.
On this matter, with the occasion of Beijing Olympic games of 2022, which will become the first city to have hosted both Summer and Winter Olympic games, was founded a brand new town called Snow Town: the city is located 300 miles from Beijing, but with the fast railway will be possible to reach it in about 50 minutes. Taking into consideration this great event, it seems that China’s intention is not that to show itself to the world as it did during the Olympic games of 2008, that is with gigantism and great works like the Herzog and De Meuron stadium. Their objective now is to push people towards sport, towards an outdoor activity, and this is why the Snow Town was founded in the district of Chongli: a sort of satellite for Beijing, dedicated to the awareness of outdoor activities, of more elevated and healthy standards of life, which are becoming an important status symbol for the emerging class.
I was impressed when I saw some people having an appetizer wearing a snowsuit over 300 km of distance from the ski tracks. This could make some people smile, but it represents how the Chinese middle class is moving towards a new style of urban life.

3 – Do you have in mind some theoretical solutions, or already initiated ones, that could contribute to the growth of developing countries? According to your own opinion, is it possible that this New Town model could be applied in Africa, where the Chinese have many interests? What could be the effect?

As for what concerns Africa, and more in general the area of the relevance of the New Silk Road (Belt and Road initative), this process may have already started.
A clear example of this are two ports, with annexed services, residences and offices, that form two great urban complexes: Gwadar, a port located in Pakistan that was already living a very strong expansion and which nowadays is hosting a New Town of Chinese initiative; and Gibuti, another port built by the Chinese, which is also in expansion.
Particularly, China Merchants Group is replicating the “Shekou model”, the Shenzen port, by investing in certain points of the sea route that leads to the Belt and Road, and by physically building ports, each one with its own New Town.

Another example of this is Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, where the Polytechnic of Turin has a university building: about 50 miles from the city was founded a Chinese industrial park, Peng Sheng park, that was part of a system of 20 other settlements of this kind, founded outside of the national territory, to the side of which an enormous “Park of Friendship” was built, perfectly preserved despite being located in a deserted zone: a kind of compensation for settling in an area of others. This kind of approach, despite the clear and often aggressive economic expansion, is based on an idea of harmonious cooperation. With this spirit in Gwadar is being constructed a New Town in a pseudo-national Pakistani style: Chinese urban models that become less severe and get closer to local traditions, through a sort of “architectural diplomacy”.

The Belt and Road Initiative starts with a geographical tale, by restoring the sea routes between China and Europa, but soon became completely a foreign policy’s tool (for example even Brazil has signed an agreement with the Belt and Road): it’s becoming the way with which China arranges international relationships. It’s called “initiative” for a reason: it’s not an operation that forces others to join. I remember the Italian debate on this argument last spring. In essence, the Chinese government act in a very determined way, but there is always a basic narrative that allows two cultures to meet and to cooperate for a common development.

4 – What significance do you give to episodes such as the reconstruction of historical monuments in real scale inside of the New Towns? What are the consequences of the differentiated approaches of each single businessman regarding a univocal government orientation?

The monuments reconstructed in a 1:1 scale in Chinese New Towns are often part of a bigger strategy, which is to push people to live in these cities, together with some policies that I have described in my previous answers. This grants the possibility to live in a certain kind of experience without needing to move; in a certain way, they can substitute a travel experience, but they exaggerate the dimension of entertainment. Lanzhou New Area, a place that hosts an attraction park with copies of the world’s most famous monuments, from Colosseum to the Taj Mahal, would be otherwise an inhospitable urban area: the urban project is full of opportunities for entertainment, to multiply the attractiveness of the urban experience. Inside of the New Town itself, many perfectly designed parks were built, in the middle of the desert, bringing water and realizing very important works of engineering to build a micro-cosmos that may build an idea of a city that is complete, where otherwise could hardly exist.

The theme of “copy”, on the other hand, finds its roots in Chinese mentality, which is very different from ours. The value given to a monument, or more in general to buildings that belong to the past, has nothing to do with “originality”, while the “integrity” is very important. For example, the Feng Shui is a tradition which is linked to the fact that an artificial element, which man inserts in nature, corresponds and respects the rules of nature itself. So, the disposition south-north, the position in relation to the stars and the territory, etc. are parameters that need a solid building for them to be fulfilled. If half of a temple collapses, it is impossible to preserve the other half, because i would lose its corresponding value with the natural system, in which it wants to be inserted. Rather rebuilding it would be a better choice. The theme of “copy” has its historical depth. However, when we read that in China exist 32 copies of Washington’s White House, we’re far from that finesse of thinking which I have just tried to describe, and we enter into a different Chinese traditional theme: the model.

Chinese politics has always needed to control a very vast territory from its center, and transmitting and creating models has always been one of its main methods to preserve control and power. An interesting example is how the two most recent Five-Year Plans, which objective is to develop the cultural and creative industry (the production of contents to generate profit), have determined important policies to convert former factories into cultural centers. In this regard, in a regenerated building located in Beijing, that was the headquarter of the government press agency Xinhua, a “flagship” transformation was created, which is shown to every political officers and to cultural promoters which, in every part of China, would want to do this kind of operation: it’s a great quality intervention, that is worth studying, through which it’s explained to these officers how to do it so that they can “copy” this model in other cities of the country.
So, we have two components: on one hand, there’s the market, since rich people like to live in places that recall prestigious architectural space, and because for the officers it’s often convenient to turn cities into touristic-commercial poles, while on the other hand, we have the theme of copy and of the model.

Regarding the approach of each businessman in relation to a univocal government orientation, I can say that the relationship between architecture and city, in China, is very peculiar: the urbanistic projects promoted by the authorities, even if they are often sophisticated, don’t promote an integration between the urban dimension and that of the buildings. Usually, they stop when they have finished defining urban grids and boundaries, determining great batches that may be easily given to developers which are interested to buy its construction permit: even today, despite the alarm’s signals that speculative mechanisms of Chinese economy often have, this is one of the principal incomes of local administrations. We can’t know which architecture will occupy each batch, because it will depend on the choices made by the promoters or by the constructors. But it is this phenomenon, paradoxically, that unveils architecture, that doesn’t cover it behind shades and stratifications until it reinforces it. On one hand this collection of objects can’t be completely controlled by administrators and leaders but, on the other hand, they fully understand its clarity and its instrumental potential. And they keep on giving them meanings (on a propagandistic and a commercial level) that a more urban architecture could not be able to express with more clarity. In many cases, these meanings can become vessels for some values: values like, how we saw earlier, for example, “health” and “entertainment”.

5 – How are different cities blending in China? Are they really different, or do they start from being the same city? Do both cases exist? Which are Chinese strategies to build megalopolis starting from single urban episodes?

A model that we have studied during the “The City after Chinese New Towns” research was that of Zhengzhou (which hosts the famous Kisho Kurokawa’s master plan), and that of Kaifeng, where a gigantic megalopolis made of independent cores is growing, cores which are separated from great green spaces crossed from highways and railways, aiming to connect the already existing cities using this net of infrastructures. These New Towns are structured in relation to the railways junction that came before them. The Zhaoqing case, in Guangdong region, results interesting also because it’s one of many New Towns, which were born on a highspeed railway junctions, which is the world’s biggest and fastest rail network ever built. The crucial choice was that to plan this rail network, making sure that its main junctions wouldn’t have been in correspondence to main cities, but outside, so that they could build a New Town near these poles. Chinese strategy is about infrastructures creating urbanization, and not the contrary. We can say that this strong infrastructure, programmed and planned at a central level, it’s the first element that coordinates Chinese cities, which leads to the country’s urbanization.

Other than Zhengzhou and Zhaoqing, the third case that was explored in our book is Tongzhou: is located to the East of Beijing, where it was decided to move the Municipal Government in order to lighten the administrative pressure on the capital. This New Town, unlike our previous examples, was settled in a place where one of the most ancient cities of the area already existed: the historical center was completely submerged by the construction of an whole city. Tongzhou is a New Town, since it’s a tool of political implementation and construction, but invades and fills the holes of an already existing city. This is where the Chinese model of urban planning seems to be in crisis: the grid traced on a macro-urban level can’t be set because start from a pre-existing urban fabric, the progress by zones identified by the grid, which after that find their development tools in housing promotion, can be applied in a more fragmentary condition. The result is a heterogeneous catalog of everything that has been the development of the Chinese city in the last 150 years, divided into sections. This is interesting from a point of view that takes into consideration how cities combine, but from an urban quality’s point of view it didn’t work well.

China can teach us to share basic infrastructure synergies, in fact in Italy is always really hard for cities to cooperate. The Po Valley, for example, is a very disorganized area: in particular, you can notice that if you look at the disposition of fairs and expos, just like the airports that are everywhere and without coordination. In China, they progress by making great territorial masterplans, which aim to make different cities to move together and strategically, planning and regulating the territory and discovering that a part of the services can be shared by two different cities. With the Italian political system, clearly, we have other benefits, such as the possibility to locally administrate with more caution, while China can show us how to administrate the territory more efficiently.

6 – In light of your experience of research and of your personal history, do you feel like assuming a possible vision of what future cities will be like? How could they be? How do you picture the world of the future? What will be the role of the cities in this world?

I’m positive about the role which cities will have in the future: despite the data that express mankind’s tendency to a life which is more and more urban, it appears to me that cities, and so living together, grants uncomparable benefits. When I was a student there was this legend according to which, in the future, we would have lived distant from each other, without needing to go to a city. I think that nowadays this fascination is already gone because we realized that living in the same space gives us more thrilling possibilities. The energy consumption, mobility, culture’s development, are all factors that greatly benefit from our being together and unite.

As for what concerns the future transformation of cities, I can’t agree with those who make life-changing predictions, which hope for radical changes thanks to technology. The city, being a decamillennial invention, won’t be able to change that much in just a century: I think that the cities of the future will be more or less like the ones in which we live today.
Technology indeed has an increasing importance and influence, and this was in fact the argument we discussed at Shenzen’s Biennal 2019, which we organized together with Carlo Ratti and with the South China University of Technology.

I remember an article written by Richard Sennett, which is called “No one likes a city that’s too smart” published by The Guardian in 2012. Sennett argued that we should be more careful to cities that rely too much on technology because Smart Cities of the past are a nightmare for us now: technology, which renews itself this fast, becomes obsolete with the same rapidity. Implanting technology in a system, like the urban one, which on the contrary tends to change slowly, it’s a delicate operation. The city is not a computer that you can update instantly or an object that you can replace by buying the most recent one. The coordination of these two development times can maybe be achieved if the problem is considered on a local level, in the hands of communities. The original title of our Biennal, which was called in the end “Eyes of the city”, was supposed to be “Embracing cities”: the idea of a city that embraces and accepts groups of people that assume technology as something of their competence, as a way to heal and update urban environment, rather than great operations from above to activate innovations on a large scale.

7 – When, how and why did you decide that Architecture would have been your way?

I remember that I started to get interested in representations and drawings of cities when, as a young boy, I spent summers in our family’s house, where could be found some reproductions of Sardinia’s maps dating back to a time where topographic and cartographic instruments didn’t exist yet. I saw the rooms filled with these representations, all different from each other and, clearly, all wrong. I was fascinated by the idea that even things like these, that can be measured, such as territories and cities, could be subjected to a strong interpretation, in relation to the way with which they were represented. After that, the choice of the university was born by the fact that, despite having studied humanistic disciplines (I attended a humanistic high-school, which is called “Liceo Classico”), people around me kept on suggesting to specialize in a scientific discipline: I liked architecture because it was a halfway solution, more or less like a doctor who has a really solid scientific knowledge, but which applies it mainly through a human comprehension.

8 – To date, what is your definition of Architecture?

I think that a definition of Architecture should be less codified, unlike it was in the past. Architecture has become a very wide planning ability, that spaces from the traditional planning of a building to that of services and solutions. Disciplinary boundaries are fractured and this is a great opportunity: in my travels, I realized how much architects are useful around the world; it’s a moment of great actuality for this job.

9 – Which advice would you give to future architects?

It appears to me that an architect’s work, as a traditional job, is nowadays in crisis and that makes it harder fulfilling it. However, the forma mentis that the architect acquires is one of the most updated: being able to interpret problems conceptually, to build a problem together with a client, to plan a process instead of a punctual response. Today, I suggest to focus on these capacities.

Translated into English by Matteo Annecchiarico.

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Marco Grattarola AdministratorKeymaster
He graduated in Architecture Sciences at the Polytechnic School of Genoa with a thesis on “Active Architecture”. He did two internships, in an art gallery and in an architecture studio. He currently attends the Master at the Polytechnic of Milan. His interests range from music to drawing, in which he experiments with curiosity and passion.
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