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The City as a Common Framework

Rethinking the Developmental City in China

Christopher C. M. Lee

The contemporary Chinese city is a developmental the cheaper version, unrelenting rubber-stamped
city (fig. 1). In the developmental city, the political blocks. The urbanization of these megaplots
legitimacy of the governing party is sustained by, results in the dissolution of the city as a legible
above all other considerations, its ability to initiate, artifact; the civic dimension and public sphere
promote, and administer economic growth. The play no part. This sea of speculative enclaves does
developmental city relies on market speculation not constitute any idea of the city, either in the
as its modus operandi; it requires that planning European tradition, as a space of coexistence, or
strategies and parameters have minimal develop- in the Chinese sense, as an administrative frame-
mental restriction or political resistance in order work with a clear and legible deep structure. What
to attract developers and financiers; and it is often is lost is the idea of the city as a common space
legitimized as rational planning or the scientific par excellence.
methodeuphemisms for a resistance-free This essay argues that a critical reading of the
utilitarianism. history and tradition of city making in China has
The developmental city uses the megaplot as the potential to counter this imbalance in develop-
a basic planning module. This oversized tract can ment. It does not aspire to a re-creation of the city
vary greatly in size between urban areas and the form or urban fabric of ancient China. Rather, it
peripheries of the city. It is an efficient planning proposes a recuperation of the cultural and philo-
apparatus that allows the government to urbanize sophical ideas that have underpinned the political,
rapidly by shifting to developers the investment artistic, and aesthetic production of the city as a
required for infrastructure. The state is responsible total work of arta collective artifact.
only for widely spaced infrastructure; the devel-
oper must provide infrastructure and public goods 1.
within the plot. In 1992, Manuel Castells referred to Singapore
The basic parcel of a master plan, the mega- as a developmental city-state. He claimed that a
plot is represented by a colored patch indicating state is developmental when it establishes as its
use. The lack of architectural and spatial attri- principle of legitimacy its ability to promote and
butes promotes efficiency in planning and land sustain development, understanding by develop-
transactions. The megaplot is a tabula rasa, a ment the combination of steady high rates of
condition that is favored by speculative develop- economic growth and structural change in the
ers for the speed and freedom of development productive system, both domestically and in
it offers. Within the megaplots, buildings are its relationship to the international economy.1
regulated by planning parameters that result in Singapore, he argued, is achieving its impressive
either freestanding towers in large unconsoli- economic success because the government
dated open spaces or colossal superblock housing exercises tight control of society and also because
developments, gated luxury communities or, in the population accepts such measures. The
The City as a Common Framework

Shanghai, c. 2012: the developmental city

developmental city-state is driven by two impor- directors and sometimes more directly as the chief
tant ideas. First, the state prioritizes the trans- executive officers. At the helm of this corporate-
formation of economic conditions above everything like organization is the Communist Party secre-
else. Second, economic development is elevated tary.3 In China, the developmental state, or
to a high status both due to its larger goals and as local government, was an outcome of the economic
an end in itself. Singapore is ruled by a one-party liberalization of 1979, in which the transfor-
system with a highly centralized decision-making mation and development of the city was central
structure that micromanages all aspects of to Chinas transition from a planned to a more
economic and social development. This structure market-oriented economy. As noted by Fulong
takes the view that the city is an apparatus for Wu, Jiang Xu and Anthony Gar-On Yeh, this
development as well as a demonstration of the transition can be summarized as one from state-
states ability to deliver tangible improvements to led extensive industrialization to urban-based
the lives of its citizens. A city conceived through intensive urbanization.4 Given that land is owned
this ideology is always in a state of becoming; con- by the state or collectively and that the state is
tinually remolded according to a political agenda, unable to address the infrastructural shortage, the
the city is made suitable and adaptive for capital government opted for extracting rent from state-
accumulation following the economic logic of owned land. With the land and housing reform that
neoliberalism. As Koolhaas declared in 1995, this followed,5 urban spaces were put to work, com-
developmental model is being implemented in modified through land-leasing that turned housing
cities across China.2 into real estate. This ideological flip did not dimin-
J. C. Oi has argued that this concept of the ish the power of the state but represented a shift
developmental state was attractive to the Chinese from the state defending proletariat ideology to
government, but with one crucial difference: The promoting economic rationality.
state responsible for much of this growth [in rural Eager to attract foreign direct investment,
industry] is local governments that treat enter- local governments began adopting the methods
prises within their administrative purview as one of global-oriented production, thereby turning
component of a larger corporate whole. Local urbanization into a tool for economic growth.
officials act as the equivalent of a board of Urbanization was no longer reactive to demands
for housing the proletariat, as in Britain and 10
Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. It was now
predictive, in the form of speculative real estate.
The socialist city, which emphasized production in
both function and symbolic representation, had
been reconceptualized as the developmental city.
To capture the flow of capital in the city, the state
increased the level of urbanization and allowed
rural to urban migration. Rural counties are subject
to the leadership of the city; the citys resources
are extracted for speculative profit.
An urbanization process that offers the least
resistance to capital, encourages speed in its real-
ization, and absolves the state from the provision

Common Frameworks, Part 1

2 of public goods found its physical model in the
Typical master plan, with colored patches indicating land use, c. 2008 megaplot. The 1989 City Planning Act vested in
local government the right to regulate develop-
ment and authorized it to prepare tiered plans for
development. At the apex of this process is the
master plan, a document accompanied by a series
of maps that outlines the designated functions of a
city, its development goals, target size, and general
land-use structure. Guiding the growth of a city
over twenty years, it is essentially a general per-
spective of the prospective city.6 Once approved,
the master plan becomes a statutory plan. The
document represents the city as patches of color,
each one designating the land use for a develop-
mental plot, or megaplot (fig. 2). These parcels
3 are necessarily large, ranging from approximately
Housing development on typical megaplot, c. 2011
four hectares in city centers to forty hectares in
its peripheries, and are surrounded by oversized
arterial roads. The responsibility for secondary
roads, along with other public goods, is transferred
to the developer. These planning trade-offs are
often negotiated between local government and
developers rather than legislated; flexibility makes
investment more attractive and development
of the megaplots more likely. However, more often
than not, the delivery of public goods is delayed
(sometimes indefinitely) because it is an expense
that generates no profit for the developer.
The architecture of the megaplot can be
divided into two categoriesthe norm and the
exception. The former is architecture at its most
efficient, a product of pure real estate logic that
maximizes the number of units or the amount
of floor area allowable on a plot with the lowest
construction cost alongside an image sufficiently
tolerable for purchase. Buildings are usually
monotonous residential towers or slab blocks with
4 remedial landscape beautification inserted into
Typical megaplot the leftover spaces on the ground. The form of
11 these high-rises results entirely from the extrusion
of the plans of the most sellable apartment. The
uniformity and pervasiveness of this architecture
are the outcome of the pure marketization of
urbanization and its generic planning parameters
and developmental controls (fig. 3).
The architecture on a typical megaplot (fig. 4)
is generated by a procedure that starts with
defining the plot boundaries. Regulations pre-
scribe a thirty-meter setback from major roads
and a fifteen-meter setback from minor roads.
Infrastructure within the megaplot, implemented
by the developer, often incorporates a redundant
The City as a Common Framework

perimeter road for local access, exacerbating

the disconnection between the megaplot and its 5
neighbors. Buildings are placed within the site Walter Gropius, diagrams illustrating parallel rows of tenement
blocks of different heights on a rectangular site
according to spacing regulations. When the build-
ings are positioned in a north-south orientation,
the spacing is equal to their height; the typical
height limit for a residential tower is approximately
fifty meters. Within this limit, height is dictated
by parameters derived from the desired floor area
ratio. The building footprint is further controlled by
coverage and green area ratio. The implementa-
tion of the planning parameters and its regulations
can lead to only one outcome: a Corbusian city of
towers in a field.
The city of towers, a model developed in the
1920s, accepts standardization and utilitarianism
as the sole architectural strategies that can be
used to design new habitable spaces. A diagram
prepared by Walter Gropius clearly shows the
scientific method for solving housing problems,
which is much like a mathematical puzzle; this
formula can be implemented in any number of
places (fig. 5). This method was discredited,
mainly in the 1960s and 1970s, for its indifference
to the heterogeneity of urban life. Its most devas-
tating critique came from Colin Rowe.7 Rowe used
figure-ground plans to emphasize the striking
contrast between the building figure in typical
modernist architecture and that in a historic 6
European city (fig. 6). Comparing Le Corbusiers Le Corbusier, project for Saint Di, figure-ground plan (top);
Parma, figure-ground plan (bottom)
Saint Di and the Italian city of Parma, Rowe
argued that in the former, the buildings are the
figures, spaced apart as markers. In Parma, the
void is the figure; tightly spaced buildings are
space definers. Rowe believed that the Corbusian
city laundered the ground plane of its textural
richness while the urban spaces of Parma, defined
by the citys architecture, expand and contract,
creating friction and containment for the urban
encounters so crucial to social intercourse.

Common Frameworks, Part 1

HOK, Liang Ann Financial District, 2012: the architecture of exception in the megaplot

In cases where the megaplot is utilized to the cutting-edge building technology required.
serve up an alluring image of the city, the archi- The spectacular image of the CBD conveys the
tecture is designed as the exception, not the promise of success and disguises speculation
norm. Local governments, usually the city plan- as certainty.
ning bureaus, engage urban design consultants As a result, the architecture of both norm and
to make a development attractive and unique.8 exception serves up an urbanism of enclaves frag-
Once the designs have been accepted by the mented and closed off according to social class.
local government, the urban plan is subjected They are fragmented by inflated and duplicated
to the planning parameters and color patches of roadways, spaced out towers, large building
the master plan, but in a way that is calibrated blocks, remedial decorative landscape, and life-
to encourage the intended outcome. The central less ground planes. And they are closed off by
business districtan oxymoronis the most fences, security gates, hoarded open spaces and
common example of this exception in China. In luxury amenities, and roads so wide that they
a CBD, the form of an office tower is anything make walking onerous if not hazardous. This sea
but the pure extrusion of a plan (fig. 7). Instead, of urbanization is not what constitutes the true
the high-risenever less than thirty stories meaning of the city, the space of coexistence.
tapers, chamfers, folds, bends, twists, and Practitioners of new urbanism and purveyors
contorts. Exterior form molds interior floor plates. of transport-oriented development claim that
The building announces, bombastically, the the remedy to such ills is simple: narrower roads
ability of the sponsor to accumulate the capital (but more of them); buildings that define the edges
necessary to build the vast structure and to afford of streets; mixed programs; reasonably scaled
13 blocks that promote walking and bicycling; public
transport with dense transportation nodes (fig. 8).9
While practical and commendable, these solu-
tions neglect the fact that the city is not just the
efficient management of spaces for work, living,
and leisure with a functional and mechanistic
inevitability that is outside a cultural and political
will. A rethinking of the developmental city must
challenge and offer an alternative to its ideological
premise. It begins with a recuperation of the idea
of the city.

The City as a Common Framework

Aristotles definition and conception of the city

remains one of the most enduring and profound.
In the opening paragraph of his Politics, he defines
the city as a partnership (koinnia) or species of

Observations shows us, first, that every city

(polis) is a species of association, and sec-
ondly, that all associations come into being
for the sake of some goodfor all men do all
their acts with a view to achieving something
which is, in their view, good (1252a1).

For Aristotle, the purpose of the city is for the indi-

vidual to live a fulfilled life.10 The city-state, or polis
in Greece during Aristotles time, was not subordi-
nate to a state or nation; it existed as a sovereign
entity and controlled the surrounding agricultural
territories. Aristotle defines the political com-
munity as a partnership pursuing a common good.
The highest good is the virtue and happiness of
the citizens, and the purpose of the city is to allow
the attainment of this common good through
education and law, that is, to be a rational and just
society. For Aristotle, the city is essentially the
shared and common pursuit of virtue.
Aristotle argues that the polis is a compound
and a whole rather than an aggregation: A city
belongs to the order of compounds, just like any
other thing which forms a single whole, while
being composed, nonetheless, of a number of
different parts (1274b39). Additionally, the polis
is neither a geographical location nor an aim-
less collection of human beings. Its identity
consists in its organization (form) and structure 8
(artifact). The concept of form is important in Peter Calthorpe, transformation of arterial grid into urban network

understanding both Aristotles political philosophy

and his definitions of the polis. For example, a
sculptor conceives a form before he sets to work,
and the sculpture that he produces has this form.
The form is the final goal of the sculptors effort. relatively homogeneous demos compared to most 14
The same pattern of analysis applies to human of todays cities, but it is precisely because cities
beings, as well as to other living things. Thus, the today are heterogeneous and pluralistic that
polis is both a physical place to live and an abstract this definition of the city as a partnership, a space
space for politics. of coexistence, becomes more urgent.
For Aristotle, the constitution comprises the Aldo Rossi, in his Larchitettura della citt
form of the polis. The polis requires the constitu- (1966), claims that any Western city has its origins
tion to exist. But the polis can also be an artifact, in Greece; Rome may supply the general principles
like a house (that is, the form of the house and of urbanism, but the constitution of the city and
the artifact of the house). This concept of form, as its urban beauty lie in Greece. Rossi distinguishes
constitution or nomos, suggests the framework between the Greek polis and the cities of the
of recognition that is required for the polis to exist. Orient: the Greek polis had no city wall, at least
For Aristotle, nomos, commonly translated as in the beginning, and was characterized by a citi-
law, custom, or convention, is not a given, zenry scattered over a reasonably large region.

Common Frameworks, Part 1

unlike phusis or nature. The former requires an He intuits that the city is formed by choice above
acceptance or subscription among citizens. This all else, by something prior to and independent of
subscription to the common good or law is fun- the physical structure of the city wall:
damental to Aristotles first definition of the polis
as a partnership or koinnia. The word koinnia is The Greek city was characterized by a
in fact connected to the idea of sharing or hold- development from the interior toward the
ing something in common. Indeed, Aristotle sees exterior; its constituting elements were
the polis as a shared enterprise in which citizens its temples and its housing. Only after the
or participants pool their resources and efforts archaic period, for purely defensive reasons,
toward a common goal, the good life. were the Greek cities encircled by walls, and
Aristotle shows how the city comes into being in no case were these the original elements
by means of the formation of various partnerships. of the polis. In contrast, the cities of the
He begins with the partnership between male Orient made walls and gates their res sacra,
and female, for the sake of reproduction. The other the constituting and primary elements of
partnership, between master and slave, is for the city; the palaces and temples within the
preservation. For Aristotle, the master and slave city walls were in turn encircled by other
both benefit from this relationship. Relationships walls, like a series of successive enclosures
of reproduction and preservation come together to and fortifications.11
form a household that meets the daily needs of
life. As families expand, they come into contact and Rossi thus highlights the double meaning of
form villages; as villages expand, they form cities. the polis as Aristotle did: the conception of the
It is not the size of the villages that makes a city city-state. The city refers more to the Acropolis
but their self-sufficiency. Resources are pooled primitive site of refuge, worship, and governance
to pursue shared virtue and happiness and in this and the state refers rather to the extended territory
way the fulfillment of an individuals telos. where the citizens lived (fig. 9). Originally, polis
Thus, Aristotle introduces the nature of the meant the Acropolis, and astu meant the inhabited
city as one that is based on partnership; it is a area. Thus what linked Athenians to the city was
space of coexistence. He states that the city is essentially political, not residential. As Roland
clearly a unity, a unity that must derive from a Martin pointed out, the ties to the abstract idea of
multitude. Human beings are inherently different, the city were more significant for Athenians than
and it is from this difference that partnerships are the ties to a physical space; they were interested
formed. This requires the city to allow for spe- in the form of the city as the political organization
cialization and greater self-sufficiency. Cities for most favorable to the moral development of the
Aristotle are sustained not by complete unity citizens.12 From this, Rossi speculates:
and similarity but by reciprocal equality. Here,
I draw on Aristotles identification of the impor- In this ancient organization it seemed that
tance of coexistence, the common good, and the the physical aspect of the city was second-
conflicts that accompany his conception of the ary, almost as if the city were a purely mental
polis. The citizens of Aristotles polis constitute a place. Perhaps the architecture of Greek
15 cities owes its extraordinary beauty to this
intellectual character.13

The dialectics of abstract and concrete,

the domestic space of the family and the political
space of free and equal men, housing and monu-
ment, center and extended territory, can sum-
marize the way in which the historic European city
can be read (fig. 10). The typical European city
is composed of an architecture of rule and excep-
tion. Housing, the architecture that allows the
management of private and family life, is the rule,
often bearing the same deep structure that creates 9
The City as a Common Framework

entire housing districtsthe terrace house, the Athens, Greece, 2008

courtyard block, and so on. The exceptions to this

rule are the monuments of the citychurches,
town halls, libraries, buildings for the administra-
tion of public life. These monuments are built as
an expression of the collective will, as something
permanent, as singularities in the vast unifor-
mity that surrounds them, as punctuators and
concentrations of artistic achievement and capital
expenditure. The deep structures of housing and
monument differ significantly. The structure that
governs the organization of a church into aisles,
nave, altar, and transept bears no relation to the
arrangement of a house into bedrooms and living
rooms. The city as the reification of the idea of
what is held in common, as a space of coexistence
and therefore a space of plurality, rests on the
dialectics of form that Aristotle has bequeathed
Western civilization. The city is conceived through
its architecture as a common artifact.

If the root of the European city is coexistence 10
from free will, the root of the Chinese city can be Leon Krier, The True City, 1983

seen as a code of conduct for coexistence. The

formation and preservation of a harmonious
collective culture has been a constant feature
of Chinese civilization. Three principal cultural/
philosophical concepts were brought to bear:
Confucianism, Daoism, and yin yang ().
These concepts pervade every aspect of life, from
statecraft, personal relationships, morals, and
ethics to aesthetic production. The conception of
the Chinese city is inseparable from the Chinese
imperial city from the period of the Zhou Dynasty
(c. 1046256 B.C.) onward. The period of the Zhou
Dynasty saw the transition of Chinese civiliza-
tion from a prefeudal to a feudal society. Another
factor that sets the Chinese imperial city apart
from imperial cities of other cultures is that it is
conceived as a whole; its limits are predetermined a period of social disorder and political misman- 16
conceptually and demarcated physically by city agement because it advocated the law, ethics,
walls. Therefore, in China the act of planning is and morality that were sorely needed, from
inseparable from the very first act of city making, the period of the Zhou Dynasty, the Warring Period
and both are explicitly guided by written docu- (c. 475221 B.C.), to the Qin Dynasty (221206
ments. The decision to found a city was decreed B.C.).16 Unsurprisingly, the teaching urges loyalty
by the emperor, exemplifying the expectation to a central authoritythe emperorto avoid civil
that the state would take moral leadership in all war. It advocates that the state should be guided
aspects of life on earth. It is my argument that to by compassion and benevolence and should set an
accommodate in advance the multiplicities of life, example of virtue, as a father does for his family.
the city must be conceived as a pliable, adaptive, Confucius believed that moral standards should
and aggregative structure. This is the city con- not be imposed through force but imitated out
ceived and reified as a common framework. of respect and admiration. Therefore, the practice
The closest Chinese counterpart to Aristotle, of li () for every individualin his or her relation

Common Frameworks, Part 1

Xunzi () (Wade-Giles: Hsn Tzu, ca. 312 to others, within the family, community, and state
230 B.C.), accounts for the origins of society and is imperative for the formation of a harmonious
the state: society. A philosophy that urges self-commitment
to the community, Confucianism is also a system
If men are to live, they cannot get along of secular humanism and ethics that promotes
without a social organization. If they form a social cohesion and harmony through social
social organization, but have no social distinc- responsibility, not religious beliefs.
tion, they will quarrel; if they quarrel, there In Confucianism, the family unit is inher-
will be disorder; if there is disorder, they will ently harmonious, since it is the natural training
disintegrate; disintegrating, they will become ground for morality, and it serves as the bridge
weak; and being weak, they will be unable between individuals and their society; the family
to dominate other creatures. Hence they will is therefore the model for the state. This differs
no longer have palaces and homes for habita- significantly from the viewpoint of Aristotle,
tion. All of which means that people cannot who made a clear distinction between the space
abandon the rules of proper conduct (li) or and interests of the household and those of the
standards of justice (yi ) . . . there is no polis. The former is bound by blood relations; the
way of human living which does not have its latter by the common good that must be derived
distinction (bian); no distinctions are through politics.
greater than those of social distinctions (fen Besides Confucianism, the architecture of
); no social distinctions are greater than the Chinese city is greatly influenced by Daoism
the rules of proper conduct (li); there are and its core concept of yin yang (). Like
no rules of proper conduct greater than the Confucianism, Daoism arose in response to the
Sage kings.14 collapse of prefeudal society during the Eastern
Zhou Period (770475 B.C.), an era characterized
In this account of the coexistence of human- by moral decay and political and economic chaos.
kind, Xunzi () adopts a utilitarian approach to Unlike Confucianism, Daoism is a philosophy of
stress the importance of hierarchy and conduct non-interference (wu wei ). It was promulgated
(li). A disciple of Confucius (551479 B.C.),15 by Laozi (), a librarian of the Zhou Dynasty
Xunzi () was a realist philosopher who revived imperial court, and emphasizes the acquisition of
and applied Confucian teachings to the critique knowledge via reasoning, sequential thought,
of state institutions. The most important concept and logic. Its core concepts, yin yang () and qi
borrowed from Confucius was li (). The meaning (), relate to cosmic harmony. The preservation
of li () in ancient China was very wide, signifying of harmonymaintaining an equilibrium between
present-day politeness and courtesy as well binary opposites in all aspects and categories
as proper conduct, good manners, and customs of environmental, social, governmental, and aes-
to be followed by individuals, institutions, and thetic productionis fundamental. The duality
the state. The teaching of Confucius stresses of yin yang () translates to female-male,
uprightness through the practice of li () as the cold-hot, mountain-water, and so on, and finds
basis for a harmonious society. It flourished after its harmon-ious relations in the conduct that
17 shapes and binds society to all forms of artistic
Both Confucianism and Daoism draw heavily
from the ancient Chinese understanding of the
environment. The term natural environment
() is associated with morality, human behavior,
and ethics. Ancient Chinese artistic production
attests to the enhancement of the natural and
cosmic environment. Traditional Chinese society
views humans and nature within a single system;
their survival is mutually dependent. The society
and behaviors of humankind suit the natural
environment, seeking equilibrium. Therefore in the
The City as a Common Framework

imperial Chinese city, the presence of the natural

environment is paramount, exemplified always 11
by the placement of the city between moun- Sebastiano Serlio, Noble Scene, 1611

tains to the north and water bodies to the south.

This differs significantly from Western models,
which suggest detachment from the immediate
natural environment as the source of survival. As
pointed out by Franois Jullien, Greek philoso-
phy treated binary poles as formal, exclusive, and
confrontational categories.17 Aristotle exalts the
polis as a finite space for association, education,
and contemplation, one that is separate from the
expanded territory made up of agricultural land
and wilderness. Sebastian Serlio, in his Five Books
of Architecture (c. 1537), depicted the city in three
scenes: noble, comic, and satiric.18 The first is
an orderly composition of the monuments of Rome,
the second is a chaotic amalgamation of shops
in the market, and the third is a foreboding scene 12
of a village on the verge of being engulfed by Sebastiano Serlio, Comic Scene, 1611

nature (figs. 1113). In the Enlightenment, with the

rise of Newtonian science, nature was something
to be understood, harnessed, and thus subjugated.
For the Chinese, the maintenance of equilibrium
between oppositesperpetual alternation rather
than confrontation or displacementis the feature
that binds the teachings of Confucianism and
Daoism. Both influenced architecture and city plan-
ning and used the concept of yin yang ().
Confucius promoted formality, symmetry, and
human dominance over the physical environment
(yang ). Laozi () favored informality and the
irregularity of the natural terrain (yin ). In the end,
architecture followed the way of Confucianism,
gardens Daoism.19
The ideal Chinese imperial city was first set 13
out in the Kaogong Ji (; Record of Trades), Sebastiano Serlio, Satiric Scene, 1611

a section in Zhou Li (; Rituals of Zhou), during

the Zhou Dynasty, in the late second millennium
B.C. The text described the plotting of King Chengs
city of Luoyi () under the supervision of the 18
duke of Zhou:

The jiang ren () builds the state capitals,

leveling the ground with the water by using a
plumb-line (to ensure the posts verticality),
and using their shadows as the determinators
of a mid-point. He examines the shadows
of the rising and setting sun and makes a
circle which includes the mid-points of the
two shadows.
The jiang ren () constructs the state
capitals. He makes a square nine li on each
14 side; each side has three gates. Within the

Common Frameworks, Part 1

Wangcheng, Henan zhi as preserved in Yongle Dadian (), capital are nine north-south and nine east-
juan 9561
west streets. The north-south streets are nine
carriage tracks in width. On the left (as one
faces south, or, to the east) is the Ancestral
Temple, and to the right (west) are the Altars
of Soil and Grain. In the front is the Hall of
Audience and behind, the markets.

This short passage clearly stipulates the principles

and components of the ideal Chinese city. It
describes the consideration of the natural forces
involved in the preparation of the site, which
adheres to the practice of feng shui (; the
Chinese art of site selection and adaptation). The
text also reveals the importance of a geometri-
cally planned city that uses the midpoint as the
generator and explains that the rulers city is
constructed from scratch, conceived as a whole,
and defined from the outset with clear boundar-
15 ies. Edged by four walls, the city should be square,
Wangcheng, Nalan, San li tu, pt. 1, juan 4/2b although in reality it is often rectangular. The
three gates on each wall lead to major routes.
The excerpt also pinpoints the locations for the
imperial palace, ancestral palace, altars of soil
and grain, hall of audience, and markets.20 When
this description was reproduced in later works,
it was accompanied by a diagram of the ideal city;
the two best-known versions are from the early-
fifteenth-century encyclopedia Yongle Dadian
() (fig. 14) and San li tu () (fig. 15).
Both encapsulate the principles from the original
text, but with one important addition: the imposi-
tion of the imperial palace in the middle. All
imperial cities in China, over a thousand years,
adhered to these propositions.
The city conceived through these ideas
evidences the ethics and culture of Chinese civili-
zation. The genesis of the city manifests the rulers
authority to lead in all spheres of human existence.
19 Although it requires the labor and expertise of its
citizens, the imperial city is not possible without
the tacit involvement of the emperor. The city
is thus the construction of the complete reified
universe: all under heaven. Clear parallels remain
between the ethics and culture through which
the city is urbanized today and those of imperial
cities: the impetus for construction is state driven.
The difference today is the degree of control over
the architecture of the city that can be imposed
by the state (central and local government). Plan-
ning has been largely confined to resource alloca-
tion, and the form and building types of the city
The City as a Common Framework

are driven not by the ethics of the city but by the

logic of the market. The urbanization of the city
has become a tool for real estate speculation.
Every imperial city, without exception, is
bounded by four walls to form rectangles;
additional walls within enclosed the imperial
palace complex. As an artifact, the city contains
eleven features: four-sided enclosure, gates,
defensive projections, clearly articulated and dir-
ected space, orientation and alignment, the ward
system, accessibility to water, vast size, huge
population, siting, and building order.21
In contrast to the architecture of the historic
European city, with a deep structure that can
be understood as the dialectics of rule and
exception, the Chinese city is constructed from
one dominant type, the courtyard house, and 16
its corresponding deep structure, the courtyard Quadrangle house, Beijing

wall. The Chinese courtyard house should not

be confused with other courtyard configurations.
Here, the courtyard void is not carved out but
actually built up by the construction of one- or
two-story pavilions (fig. 16). The courtyard houses
themselves aggregate to form entire neighbor-
hoods (hu tong , as they are called in Beijing)
with very narrow lanes (fig. 17). The Chinese
courtyard house does not have an articulated front
facade, for it is not intended to be viewed from a
distance. It is experienced instead in sequence, as
a visitor moves from wall to courtyard to pavilion
to yet another courtyard. The sequence of open
and closed space, nature and dwelling, adheres
to the yin yang () concept of alternation.
This singular deep structure defines the entire
city at various scales. For instance, the city of 17
Beijing (from the Qin Dynasty onward) has been Courtyard houses forming a hu tong , Beijing, 2010

defined by city walls. The outermost delineates

the extreme border of the original city while
another, on the south, outlines the extension of the
city (fig. 18). At ever smaller scales, walls surround
the imperial compound, then neighborhoods, 20
and finally the courtyard house. All share the deep
structure of walls enclosing an agglomeration
of pavilions. It is worthwhile noting that the deep
structure of the city is independent of program.
That is to say, the same courtyard forms served as
family dwelling, administrative office, school, clinic,
clan association, and so on. An enlarged courtyard
form serves as the Forbidden City (fig. 19).
In the house, the organization reflected family
hierarchyquarters for the elders had high roofs,
those for children and servants were lower. In
the Forbidden City, the tallest buildings, with wide
spacing and big pavilions, reflected the emperor

Common Frameworks, Part 1

as the father of the country. Yet the organization is
the same. The city thus physically represents the
18 ethics of Confucianism and the importance of
Historic extension of Beijing unity, community, harmony, and balance. The ideal
society is one that has strong moral values based
on the family; individuals are conscious of their
ethical responsibilities. Unlike a traditional
European city, which has centers of concentration
and is marked by an architecture of exception,
monuments set apart from housing, the Chinese
city can be viewed as a monument in its entirety.
Its singular deep structure acts as a self-similar,
fractal organizing structure, a neutral form that
defines and accommodates all the plurality of city
life: a common framework (fig. 20).

The recourse to the origin and history of the city
to uncover its very essence is not anachronistic.
The city, by definition, is a space of plurality, and
the multiplicities that define the life of the city
have architectural and spatial counterparts. The
globalization of the contemporary city has cast
it even more acutely as a space contested by
conflicting demandsa pluralistic space par
excellence. To think about the ways in which archi-
tecture can respond to the task of defining what
is common, through idea and deep structure,
is in itself an attempt to create the city as a pro-
ject. This attempt recognizes that the task for
architecture is not to articulate multiplicity
through accentuating differences, through an
architecture of novelty, but to focus on common
19 ideas and structures.
Forbidden City, Beijing
Despite the epistemological and metaphysical
differences that separate European and Chinese
conceptions, the city remains a manifestation
of the idea of coexistence, a common artifact or
framework. An alternative interpretation of Aldo
The City as a Common Framework

Aerial view of Beijing, 1943

Rossis early architectural projects offers a way to artifact of civilization. It is the sum of the culture,
locate the ideas that are common to the city; then politics, and history of its citizens. However, the
the corresponding deep structure advances an traditional European city, composed as it is of
architecture of the city. contrasting architecture, of the rule and the excep-
The most important concepts put forth by tion, cannot be read as a whole. To resolve this,
Rossi in his Larchitettura della citt are urban Rossi proposed the term urban artifact to refer to
artifacts and collective memory. The book was the architecture of the city that is both permanent
written in part as a critique of modernisms naive and propelling. In other words, the urban artifact
functionalism, in which he claims that the utilitar- must both persist over time and participate in the
ian and unitary master plan of the modernist continuous transformation of the city. Through its
city has lost its validity in the face of the realities constancy the artifact becomes a structure that
of urban life.22 Rossi returned to the historic accretes the memory of the city. The urban artifact
European city as a site for architectural rejuve- for Rossi is both the housing and the monuments
nation. The city, through its architecture, is an of the city. The former contains the memory of
everyday life; and the latter, its unique characteris- 22
tics, events, and collective will. The urban artifact,
sanctioned by use and acceptance over time, is
thus the repository of collective memory.
Rossi cites the Palazzo della Ragione in Padua
(fig. 21) as an example of an urban artifact: over
time, it has contained a multiplicity of functions
that are entirely independent of its form.23 The
building has the character of permanence as well as
of force. In other words, the palazzo is an urban
artifact because it is transparent in terms of function
and independent of any programmatic failure;
it is a permanent element because its physical
presence remains even as its function changes; it

Common Frameworks, Part 1

is propelling because it continues to evolve and
contribute to the growth of the city despite its
21 permanence. Although Larchitettura della citt did
Palazzo della Ragione, Padua not contain any architectural proposals by Rossi,
the concept of the urban artifact would influence
his seminal Gallaratese Housing project in Milan
Conventionally, Rossis projects are read as
monuments, representing a collective memory
that is difficult to verify.24 This reading owes to the
Palazzo della Ragione, the example he cited as
the urban artifact. However, what is often missed
in critiques on Rossis works is the plan of the pala-
zzo, which is reproduced next to the photograph
of the building (fig. 22). This plan represents
the deep structure that was crucial to two of Rossis
early projects, a pavilion for the thirteenth Milan
22 Triennial (in collaboration with Luca Meda) in 1964
Palazzo della Ragione, Padua, ground floor plan from 1425 to (fig. 23) and the Gallaratese (fig. 24). The walls
present, according to reconstruction by A. Moschetti; thirteenth-
century walls are in black of the palazzo display the same organizational
structure as those of the pavilion and the housing
project. This was made partially evident in a set of
typological diagrams (schemi tipologici) published
in the article Due Progetti in the Italian journal
Lotus International in 1970 (fig. 25).25 It shows the
three projects reduced to their most distribu-
tive descriptionsthe irreducible structures that
denote a specific organization of the gallery and
the courtyard. Included are the pavilion for the tri-
ennial, the upper and ground floors of Gallaratese,
and the San Rocco, a competition submission
for a housing project in Monza (1966). This
transposition was both possible and necessary
for Rossi. It was possible because, for him, the
urban artifact is transparent to functionits deep
Aldo Rossi, pavilion for the thirteenth Milan Triennial (in structure is organizationally precise but program-
collaboration with Luca Meda), 1964 matically indeterminate, that is, typologically
specific. Hence the same deep structure can be
used for divergent functions. And it was necessary
23 because Rossi wanted to forge a connection,
through his concept of collective memory, between
architecture and the city. Transposing the deep
structure of the palazzo would create that continu-
ity between the past and the present, between the
city and the singular architecture project.
Crucially, it is not the image of history that is
re-created here, that is, a wholesale replica of the
palazzo, but an architecture that is analogous to 24
the elements of the city: the gallery/street coupling Aldo Rossi, Gallaratese Housing, Milan, 196973

for the Triennial pavilion and Gallaratese and the

grid/courtyard for San Rocco. All three projects
encapsulate in one deep structure a primary ele-
The City as a Common Framework

ment from the city and a building type. Gallaratese

is a slab house or housing slab block that is also
a street (fig. 26). The same is true of the pavilion:
it consists of rooms of varying sizes fronting a
street, or a pavilion in the form of a gallery/street.
The defining element in the deep structure of
the gallery/street is a series of parallel walls. These
are varied in their distance from one another and
also in their length, creating differential depths as
well as two rows of piloti-walls. The pliability of the
deep structure demonstrates a potential for differ-
ent degrees of containment, from full enclosures
to partial and implied enclosures. The Gallaratese,
182 meters long and 12 meters deep, has a portico
on the ground floor at two heights. Connectedto
an upper gallery by a staircase, the portico is made
of walls three meters deep and pillars one meter
deep; both are 0.2 meters thick. Four 1.8-meter-
diameter columns mark the entrance, and the entire
slab is structured on a bay of 3.5 meters. The
rationality that governs this disposition is inherited
from the modernists but driven by an analogical,
not a techno-scientific, determinism. It is no longer
tied to the idea of mass production of a standard 25
product or object type. Rather, repetitive ele- Aldo Rossi, typological diagrams: pavilion for the thirteenth Milan
Triennial (top), Gallaratese Housing upper and ground floors (center),
ments form a regulative framework, as common San Rocco (bottom)
elements for the domestic spaces and for the civic
space for meetings and encounters in the giant
portico (fig. 27). Although Rossi recognizes the
plurality of dwelling requirements,26 he makes a
deliberate distinction between distributive indiffer-
ence and typological precision and fixity. That is
to say, the private and domestic space of the dwell-
ing must fit within an overall common framework,
as do the civic spaces. It is precisely in the con-
stant tension of this spatial arrangementrule and
exception, housing and monument, dwelling and
street, private and civicthat it is possible to
see Rossis projects as a common framework and
not merely as individual monuments.

Common Frameworks, Part 1

Aldo Rossi, Gallaratese Housing: upper-level plan (top), ground plan (center), elevations (bottom)

5. the work is produced. It also validates the rel-

Any attempt to recuperate the idea of the historic evance of the works of architecture outside their
Chinese city with the goal of rethinking the develop- own discipline.
mental city can be informed by Rossi. To define Not all dominant types are common frame-
what is common in the city through dominant type works, but they have the potential to be. The first
touches upon the very reason why the question task in attempting to create a common framework
of type is raised in architectural theory and history. is to identify the dominant type and its deep struc-
Type as a heuristic device uncovers architectures ture. The deep structure can be defined as the
connection to society through a discursive under- irreducible structure that is weathered by use, by
standing of what is common at every juncture time; it bears the traces of daily life or exceptional
in history when the universal principles of archi- events. More important, it holds the potential
tecture and its accepted conventions have lost to organize new functions while maintaining a
their validity. The notion of what is common precise spatial arrangement. For instance, the
cannot be reduced solely to a formal or tectonic walled courtyard of Beijing can be used as a family
similitude, like a prevailing style of architecture, dwelling, a temple, or an imperial residence. What
nor can it mean just public property or space it lacks in programmatic specificity it compen-
(as opposed to private). sates for in organizational precision: the walled
The dominant type is both the element that courtyard maintains an alternating sequence
constitutes an idea of the city and a reification of of covered space and open area, with a gradation
the idea of what is common. For this dominant of privacy along its circulatory path; domestic,
type to be common, it must persist over time and religious, and administrative activities unfold in
take part in the continuous transformation of the the same organizational configuration. The deep
city. Through this capacity to remain permanent it structure thus acts as a common framework,
becomes a collective artifact or framework, for it not only as an administrative tool for the forma-
is sanctioned by its acceptance. The capacity for tion and management of the imperial city (which
permanence mirrors Aldo Rossis conception of the emphasizes central control and authority) but
urban artifact. While Rossis argues the perma- also, crucially, as an embodiment of the collective
nence of urban artifacts through the notion of the culture that underlies Chinese ethics, culture, and
collective memory, and uses the historic European artistic production.
city as the site for the identification of the urban Because deep structure is transparent to func-
artifact, the dominant type is found rather in the tion, it is inherently a projective element. That is
context of a globalized production of architecture to say, the same deep structure can accommodate
and is focused on the organizational potential of new uses and thus may be transformed in terms
the deep structure. To draw a connection between of program without any change to its configuration.
type and city is to establish a link between works Using the deep structure of the dominant type
of architecture and the wider milieu in which offers the opportunity to discover what is common
25 without resorting to the re-creation of an image of
the past, a tendency all too oftenand wrongly
associated with a typological approach.
So what does a common framework look like
for the contemporary Chinese city? It is not what
it looks like that is important, precisely because
a common framework is an architecture that acts
as a background. It is a framework that accom-
modates the plurality of city life and is in constant
alternation with its natural environment. It must
maintain a certain formal and organizational
coherence, and it must be repetitive and scalable
to be recognizable. The common framework is
The City as a Common Framework

conceived as a singular discursive idea but real-

ized through addition and accumulation. It is most
identifiable when it is shared, lived, experienced,
and viewed as a whole, as a cityas a collective
work of art.

Aldo Rossi, Gallaratese Housing
From Due Progetti
1 Manuel Castells, Four Asian 8 In recent years, foreign Philosophy, vol. 1, The Period 26
Tigers with a Dragon Head: A urban design and architectural of the Philosophers (From the
Comparative Analysis of the practices have been engaged by Beginnings to Circa 100 B.C.),
State, Economy, and Society city planning bureaus to design trans. Derk Bodde (Princeton:
in the Asian Pacific Rim, in the megaplots. The preparation Princeton University Press,
States and Development in the of master plans, in contrast, 1952), 27997.
Asian Pacific Rim, ed. Richard is closed to foreign consultants
P. Appelbaum and Jeffrey due to national security 15 Confucius is the Latinized
Henderson (Newbury Park: concerns. name of Kung-fu-zu, or Master
Sage, 1992). Kung, who is credited as the
9 Peter Calthorpe, Low founder of Confucianism. A
2 Rem Koolhaas, Singapore Carbon Cities: Principles and scholar, teacher, and official,
Songlines, S, M, L, XL: Small, Practices for Chinas Next he served as an adviser to
Medium, Large, Extra-Large Generation of Growth, Duke Ding of the small state of
(New York: Monacelli, 1995), < Lu (in present-day Shandong
100989. files/China%20Design%20 province).
3 J. C. Oi, The Role of the Local accessed January 30, 2013. 16 Heerlee Glessner Creel,

Common Frameworks, Part 1

State in Chinas Transitional Confucius: The Man and the
Economy, China Quarterly 144, 10 This view is related to Myth (Westport: Greenworld
113249; as cited in Fulong Wu, Aristotles belief that every Press, 1972), 1321.
Jiang Xu, and Anthony Gar-On human being has a telos. The
Yeh, Urban Development in Post- concept that links his Ethics 17 Franois Jullien, A Treatise
Reform China: State, Market, and Politics is that everything on Efficacy: Between Western
and Space (London: Routledge, has a purpose, goal, or final and Chinese Thinking (Honolulu:
2007), 1112. end. For instance, an oak tree University of Hawaii Press, 1996).
produces an acorn; the acorn
4 Wu, Xu, and Yeh, Urban has a natural tendency to grow 18 Sebastiano Serlio, The
Development, 5. into a tree. However, not all Five Books of Architecture: An
acorns will grow into trees. It Unabridged Reprint of the
5 There are two primary land must first encounter the right English Edition of 1611 (London:
markets in Chinaone used conditions. Thus the telos for Dover Publications, 1982).
by the state to allocate urban the acorn is to become a tree,
land, one used by rural collec- and to fully understand what an 19 Gideon Golany, Urban
tives to allocate collectively acorn is we must see this goal Design Ethics in Ancient China
owned land. Land reform can or end. Aristotle believed that (Wales: Edwin Mellen Press,
generally be divided into three human beings too have a telos, 2001), 6667.
stages. From 1979 to 1986, and that human beings are
coastal cities tested the paid meant to be happy. To be happy, 20 Nancy Shatzman
use of urban land. From 1987 a person has to lead a virtuous Steinhardt, Chinese Imperial
to 1997, land experiments were life, which requires the fullest City Planning (Honolulu:
legalized in the constitution. use of his or her capacities; University of Hawaii Press,
From 1998 onward, the central the most important capacity 1990), 2936.
government on numerous is logos, which means reason
occasions restricted local gov- and speech. An individual can 21 Steinhardt, Chinese
ernments from allocating land only fulfill his or her telos and Imperial City Planning, 12.
to cool down the over-heated live a full and happy life within a
market. Wu, Xu, and Yeh, Urban well-constructed political com- 22 Pier Vittorio Aureli,
Development, 28. munity, or polis. Difficult Whole, LOG 9 (winter/
spring 2007): 3961.
6 The 1989 City Planning 11 Aldo Rossi, Larchitettura
Act employs a five-tiered plan- della citt (1966); The Archi- 23 Rossi, Architecture of the
ning structure, involving the tecture of the City, trans. Diane City, 2961.
National Peoples Congress, Ghirardo and Joan Ockman
State Council, Ministry of (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 24 Rafael Moneo, Aldo Rossi:
Construction, local Peoples 1982), 136. The Idea of Architecture and
Congress, and local government. the Modena Cemetery, trans.
The act stipulates the compre- 12 Roland Martin, LUrbanisme Angela Giral, Oppositions 5
hensive function of urban dans la Grce antique (Paris: E. (1976): 10534.
planning: defining the size, eco- de Boccard, 1951).
nomic orientation, and struc- 25 Aldo Rossi, Due Progetti,
ture of the city; preparing a 13 Rossi, Architecture of the Lotus International 7 (1970).
rational city plan; carrying out City, 137.
construction; determining size. 26 Rossi, Architecture of the
See Wu, Xu, and Yeh, Urban 14 Xunzi () in 32 Chapters, City, 70.
Development, 16465. c. 298c. 238 B.C.; see H.
H. Dubs, The Works of Hsn
7 Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter, Tzu (London: Probsthain,
Collage City (Cambridge, Mass.: 1928), ch. 5. See also Fung
MIT Press, 1978), 5085. Yu-lan, A History of Chinese