Chicago Architect — March/April 2013
Two Chinese Architectures
THE MIGRANT WORKER AND URBAN POVERTY LIVE AT THE MARGINS OF CHINA’S BOLD URBANISM
IKNEW ON MY FIRST VISIT TO CHINA THAT THE POPULATION WAS 1.4 BILLION PEOPLE, but the feeling of being in a crowd there is unparalleled. My second time to China, I knew that 128 million Chinese were considered below the poverty line, and yet I was still not prepared to experience this poverty by entering their personal homes. Throughout my travels, I was torn between the stone hovel I was standing in and the skyline of the city being built around me.
As astronomical as Chinese urbanization has been, it was, and still is, being stymied through the hukou system. The hukou is a household registration system in which some rights to social benefits are tied to a person’s city of birth. Chinese citizens who were born in a rural town and migrate to the city for work forego the rights and benefits of their residential hukous. As industrialization forced China to urbanize, many people sacrificed the social rights of their hometown hukou to move to urban areas and seek work.
The implementation of the hukou system to restrict internal migration seems quite odd since the migrant labor force, now numbering around 253 million people, has literally created the cities that define modern China. However, the hukou system allows for the marginalization of millions of people while providing a pool of cheap labor used for work such as construction.
This is one small but important part of the current situation that defines our practice in China. The hukou has created specific Chinese patterns of urbanization from the macro to the micro scale. Other developing countries where there are no such restrictions have seen urban development largely result in the creation of slums. China is quite different. There are very few “slums” in the sense of the word that images of Mumbai or Rio de Janeiro call up. Urban poverty is pervasive but not condensed; a street of people living without running water or electricity can be adjacent to brand new state-of-the-art construction. These “pockets” of poverty are throughout the city, in every city. It was here that I spent seven weeks of my summer.
Shenyang, the second city on my trip, is home to the only Finance and Trade Development Zone in China outside of Shanghai; this status has sparked development as it looks to break out of the ranks of the third-tier cities. I set about exploring the city and decided to take the subway line until its end at Limingwenhuagong. As I exited the brand-new subway station, I was greeted with a dirt road and sparse agriculture; seemingly nothing to demand the stop. I turned around and saw the inevitability of Chinese development: cranes. There were at least 12 on the horizon, building identical high-rise apartment buildings.
This mass production of high-rise construction is pervasive in China. The construction of social housing is being used to partially offset a likely further slowdown in commodity property while keeping up investments in construction materials and household appliances. By 2015, China plans to build 36 million social housing residential units. But without residential hukous, migrants, who are most in need of affordable housing, are not eligible for government subsidized housing.
The plight of the migrant was apparent in Shenyang as I passed a tent that was pitched in the middle of the sidewalk. As had become the routine, I was poking around and was soon invited inside. A row of beds lined one side of the 300-square-foot tent, enough space for about 15 people to sleep side by side. On the other side of tent was a table for meal preparation and more beds, about room for seven people.
I saw a similar situation in Hohhot, where the migrant workers were living under the stairs of a pedestrian overpass bridge. The three male workers used tarps to create a tent in which they shared a bed, washed their laundry in buckets and dried it on the sidewalk.
In Chongqing, I visited another home of two migrant workers. They were living illegally in an apartment building, which had partially fallen down, and the courtyard had become a dumping ground for garbage. As far as I could see there were no other people living in the dilapidated complex, creating an eerie, almost post-apocalyptic scene in the midst of crowded urban China.
In Shenzhen, after picking my way through a courtyard of garbage bags in front of her house, another woman invited me into her home. As is customary in so many residences, it was the multigenerational home of a grandmother, a mother and a newborn. This family was lucky enough to have two rooms and a manual flush toilet, although it had no door and was separated from an indoor food preparation space by a half wall. The rest of their kitchen with a hot plate was just outside the main entrance of the house, right above the open gutter system.
In every city, in every part of the city, I toured homes like these. Even though China is rapidly developing into one of the world’s wealthier nations, with beautiful projects being built to constantly redefine what is possible in architecture, there is still pervasive poverty and a marginalized population living in its boldly-shaped shadow.
For more information about the Martin Roche Travel Scholarship and the AIA Chicago Foundation, visit tinyurl.com/acdhlsm.
As the recipient of the AIA Chicago Foundation’s Martin Roche Travel Scholarship, Anne Dudek received $5000 to study rapid urbanization in China and living conditions of migrant workers within cities. Available to students enrolled in an accredited school of architecture in Chicago, the Roche Scholarship allows awardees to complete an independent study related to the field of architecture and design.
Dudek is now a project manager at Nudell Architects, as well as a second year design studio teaching assistant at IIT.