— Building and Planning

Image and Economy


Hangzhou has an earnest, if sometimes invisible, connection between what it used to be and what is has become. Nearly everyone you encounter here is a tourist or has been living here (outside the city center) for the last few years; the residents live in older housing blocks behind commercial streets, small shops, and plastic surgery advertisements that line some of the more visible areas of the city. In many ways their storefronts act as barriers, an economic and spatial fence, between a more strictly consumer and tourist society and the more traditional values associated with housing and habitation in Chinese cities. The storefronts are a buffer zone allowing inhabitants within the block to sell small goods to tourists on the street, removed from the conditions of their housing areas.

The temples and preserved landscape areas – West Lake in particular – are physically immune to the forces of political and economic modernization that characterize this relationship. Their preservation turns them into cultural monuments whose stable meaning serves as a specific and continuous backdrop for what is an otherwise constantly changing social and political system. It is presumptuous, however, to say that traditional housing blocks and preserved monuments are examples of a battle going on between ancient and modern China. China, or more specifically Hangzhou, has already begun the process of physically and mentally industrializing as a society, and it will continue to do so according to its own principles. Rather than suggesting winners and losers of a battle between historical culture and images and the contemporary consumer economy – when what we mean is a simplistic battle between backwards tradition and progress – we should rather look at these different kinds of images and ask how they co-exist together as parts of a modern Chinese city.

It seems important, then, not to ascribe a false sense of time to either of these conditions; it should be clear that they both exist now and are greeted with the same enthusiasm by residents and visitors alike. West Lake, and the innumerable surrounding pagodas, are curtained off from rapid urbanization in a similar way that the older housing blocks are from the busy street. In this way it is easy to misinterpret the modern city as a discrete marker of economy, and the landmark as a discrete marker of culture. West Lake is a tourist destination for millions of Chinese every year, and this fact alone makes it one of the most striking symbols of economy. That very same economy allows governmental oversight and planning in defining the geographical regions of preserved landscapes, and funds not only the more visible forces of ‘modern’ urbanization at large, but also the modernization of culture and its images as well.