I have always been fascinated by Chinese design. Har-Ye’s work caught my attention over a chat at Harvard as she is one of the world’s leading expert in Chinese railways. Enjoy her article below.
Descriptions of China’s railways today are almost always littered with superlatives: one of the most extensive networks in the world, the fastest train, the largest railway terminals, and the longest high-speed rail line. Along with these impressive accolades though, China’s railways have also suffered their share of high-profile setbacks that have cast doubt on the country’s ability to realize their ambitious rail agenda.
Amidst the controversies and problems, railways, and more specifically the high-speed type, have undoubtedly emerged as one of the symbols of New China. A source of national pride, they offer insights that extend beyond just the mere wielding of a state’s technological might. China’s railways are in fact a useful analytical lens in understanding more broadly the practice of design unique to the country.
“Design”, however, refers not only to the aesthetic creation of an object. The origin of the term in Latin in fact entails the use of signs to mark out, devise, and appoint a concept, scheme, or strategy. In addition to the imaginative use of colors, forms, and layouts, the notion of “design” also encompasses an equally pragmatic dimension of planning.
In the case of designing a modern rail system that includes the rolling stock, routing, signaling, tunnels, bridges, and stations, China has been a latecomer in the international scene. Its belated participation and protracted development over the course of the 20th century led to comparatively slower and limited gains in transportation accessibility. Yet, the country has also benefited tremendously from “lagging” behind other world precedents.
When China decided to embark on its high-speed rail project, it chose not to invent but to emulate. Without the technical expertise, China turned to the leading players in the high-speed rail industry. Since the inauguration of the shinkansen in 1964, high-speed rail technology has matured with the competitive entry of the French, German, and Spanish systems. In building its high-speed trains, China acquired the technical knowledge and skills through joint-venture arrangements with four principal industrial conglomerates – Alstom, Siemens, Bombardier, and Kawasaki.
The country’s first high-speed rail terminals in Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, and Guangzhou were likewise a collaboration between local design institutes and renowned architectural firms including Terry Farrell & Partners and AREP. Because of its latecomer’s advantage, China set out to learn from international best practices with the objective of attaining self-reliance very rapidly to then undertake its own adaptations and innovations. Fundamentally, the practice of design is guided by this principle of emulation that is intrinsic to the Chinese culture: to model itself after what it deems as the dianxing or the classic exemplar.
In just a few short years after acquiring the know-how, China experimented recently with a type of incremental, competence-enhancing innovation in the form of a super high-speed train running at 500 km/hour. In the mid- to longer-term, it would not be surprising to see Chinese innovations that involve reconfigurations to tailor to specific markets or even more fundamentally altering improvements that substitute existing prototypes.
Another notable feature of design, and particularly architectural design, commissioned by state entities and institutions in China is to have a strong metaphorical value. For instance, the curves of the roof at Beijing South Station were inspired by the Temple of Heaven, while the design of the new Wuhan Station drew strongly on the legendary yellow crane symbolizing the city.
Here, in what Edward Hall terms the “high-context culture” of China, the significance of these productions is subtly communicated, albeit in a modern reinterpretation. More importantly, there is a tacit understanding of what the designs mean to the local community and how they contribute to the shaping of the local identity.
In China, an overarching territorial vision underscores the planning and design of the railway network. This is distinct from the piecemeal growth of the systems in the United States and the United Kingdom for example, where the logic of the line determined the subsequent pattern of the network.
The railway system is also conceived of not as the object, but a means to a much broader ends. The ‘Four Horizontals-Four Verticals’ passenger-dedicated high-speed rail line plan unveiled in 2004 has since become the backbone of the ‘Two Horizontals-Three Verticals’ urbanization strategy launched as part of the 12th Five-Year Plan from 2011 to 2015. Ultimately, besides just transportation, the railway system is intended to facilitate and affect the pattern of urbanization.
Both now and in the past, the design of the built environment in China has never been about the object per se. Instead, these material forms were and continue to be seen as conduits through which social relations are ordered from the Confucian to the communist, and the post-socialist context of the present. As such, design remains grounded in both attaining an aesthetic expression befitting of appropriate to the place and time, as well as enabling the realization of a socio-political order and harmony.
In a nutshell, the practice of and approach to design in China is quite exceptional in three key regards. First, it is distinguished by a conviction in emulating the best, where creativity is not bereft but folded within the subsequent processes of innovation and local adaptation. Second, design is also about a vision of the whole in which the object or concept designed is situated within a “high-context culture” of interactions. Finally, design is inseparable from (social) relations and the facilitation of those relations, ranging from the personal to the dynamics at the local and national scales.
Har-Ye Kan is currently a DDes candidate at Harvard. Her main research interest lies in infrastructure and human settlements, and how society both relates and contributes to the making of the built environment. Her doctoral dissertation is focused the development of railways in China over the past century up to the present phase of high-speed rail construction, and the impacts of these technological systems on the conceptions and practices of space and time.
At the GSD, Har-Ye has served as a teaching fellow/teaching assistant for courses and studios such as “Urbanization in the East Asian Region”, “Modern Architecture and Urbanism in China”, “Designing the American City: Civic Aspirations & Urban Forms”, as well as “Peri-Urban Development in China: Alternatives for the Landscape of Southeast Beijing”.
Har-Ye graduated with a BA (Hon) in Geography from the University of Cambridge in 2006, and an AM in Regional Studies-East Asia from Harvard in 2007. She is a recent recipient of the Dissertation Fellowship from the D. Kim Foundation for the History of Science and Technology in East Asia.
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