CITY GROWTH TO BOOK SPRAWL
In review of Asia Beyond Growth, ed. EDAW, 2010, £19.95

Asia Beyond Growth takes up the tradition of squarish fat architecture books from a familiar starting point: the world is 50% urbanised and there’s a building spree on in Asia, what with “populations exploding, investments soaring … wealth fomenting” etc.. If you’re wondering how the editors (“Don’t mention Dubai!”) shepherd this story through the financial crisis, the answer is simple yet gentlemanly: reticence. They just don’t mention it. In fact, reticence plays a key role throughout the book, being applied with equal rigour to questions of politics, demography, globalisation — all the way through to how even one might begin to synthesise thoughts on such a vast and diverse region (South Korea to the UAE) into anything meaningful. The book manages to be reticent on just about everything by virtue of not saying much at all.

An obvious point is the paucity of text. While spanning 500 pages, the total reading material amounts to less than a quarter of a small paperback (or about 20 times this review). The infographics likewise are relatively thinly spread, and are fairly standard fare. There are a few details, but nothing all that compelling, and no arguments attached. There are a lot of pictures — and some aren’t bad. But then the truth is, the rapidly urbanising environments of Asia are so crazy that everyone who goes there with a cameraphone comes back with a dozen or so unbelievable shots …

The book’s big idea, in so far as there is one, is that Asia needs to “look beyond growth” — i.e. beyond mere frenetic urbanisation. The cartoon version, as ever, is of a trembling finger-wagging West cringing before a boisterous appetitive East. “Beyond growth” is all very well, emerging Asia naturally responds, “but for now we’ll stick with growth”, or, as it learns to lipspeak, “we’ll sustain growth”. Would EDAW have been better talking about “sustainable development”? It’s miserably unsexy, but at base “beyond growth” comes down to much the same kinds of things. The book’s sparsim texts are rife with words like “careful”, “holistic”, “sensitive”, “identity”, “local”, “small scale”, “conserve” etc.. In short, we can understand “beyond growth” to mean something like “not a lot of growth, but nicely done.”

And happily this “philosophy” (if we accept our EDAW editors calling it that) fits pretty well with the half-dozen EDAW projects described. We don’t have a lot more than project blurbs and a few pictures to go on, but things like the Bengbu park do look nice, and sensitive, and regenerative, and a lot less crass than much of what is going on elsewhere. But nice as these projects are, only in their designers’ most hallucinogenic moments of hubris could they possibly warrant a 500 page book. The real mystery behind Asia Beyond Growth is why on earth EDAW put it out. And here we return to our starting point: the tradition of squarish fat architecture books.

In terms of architectural publications, we are in a post-S,M,L,XL world. Not that the shape didn’t exist already, but with S,M,L,XL Koolhaas set an alternative alongside the traditional large-format monograph which was smaller, thicker, more data-driven, freer, more intellectual, and ultimately hipper. There was a new kind of kudos to be mined out of making big urban-themed books, and the years since have yielded numerous examples (of which my own, The Chinese Dream, is inescapably one). But looking now at the indulgent Asia Beyond Growth, and groaning, one cannot help but ask if the format isn’t exhausted. It seems the ambition from EDAW’s side was simply to make “another big book”, and thus a handful of worthy projects were swollen up into an extravagantly empty publication. But where is the need for these big books? Is this just another form of overblown architectural rhetoric — another outlet for big building fantasies? Could we establish a kind of currency conversion, whereby two big books = one 100,000+ sqm project = x cm of additional penis length? And has this architectural currency, like certain others of recent times, suffered a collapse?

These questions are fun but misleading. Asking if we need more big books makes about as much sense as asking if we need more big buildings. If they’re good then yes, if not, then no. And if you’re worried about a surfeit of books on Asia, only remember the scale of the urbanisation wave taking place out there, its speed, and the speed at which it is changing shape. There are a lot of spectacular books yet to come out of Asia’s relentlessly spectacular growth. It’s just this isn’t one of them. But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on EDAW. They have made some nice parks, which is after all, their day job. I’d recommend they don’t quit.

 

Adrian Hornsby
19.01.2010

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EDAW is now AECOM’s Design + Planning practice