An Interview With Neville Mars

Neville Mars started his career working for the architectural firm OMA in Rotterdam. Since 2004 he has been the creative director of the Dynamic City Foundation (DCF), a small, Beijing-based research and design institute focusing on the rapid transformation of China's urban landscape.

The Chinese Dream is an amazing accomplishment. Can you briefly talk about how the book evolved?

In the summer of 2003, I came across a small article on the internet from the Chinese minister of Civil Affairs about a big mission. He stated China should build 400 new cities by the year 2020. That struck me as such a bizarre statement I set it do a research project investigating urbanization in China. After a year we had a full team of researchers, designers and planners and the money to set up the foundation and go to China to do the project. The results have just been published as The Chinese Dream - a society under construction. We set out to do one in-depth research at each scale running from the level of national policies, to the region, the city, the block to the level of the individual citizen. After each research we produced a design proposal that responds to the findings; a business-as-usual scenario versus a dream scenario if you will.

What exactly is the Chinese Dream? Whose dream?

The Chinese Dream is the aspiration of a new urban consumer-driven society. The underlying forces are increased prosperity and the mass-migration of over four hundred million farmers to the urban regions. Like the American Dream of the fifties individualization and a flight to the suburbs are shaping urbanization. Only in China this occurs at unseen scale and speed and it happens at a time when the West has come to terms with the drawbacks of this form of development. It produces socially segregated neighborhoods, congested cities and a fuel-dependent lifestyle. Unlike sustainable visions mainly based on reduction, China has to find a way to channel its growth along an entirely new path before the building boom and the construction of roughly the same amount of buildings as the European Union has been completed.

What role are you playing in the construction of the dream?

Our first objective has been to take the time to analyze the current urbanization trends and then to consider. As growth is happening under so much market pressure no one is taking the time to conceive long-term strategies or even to consider what the consumer might desire tomorrow. This has been our privilege, to seek real solutions freed from acute profit-driven motives and to imagine ideal living China could aim for.

Since 2004 you have been the creative director of the Dynamic City Foundation (DCF). Can you describe a typical working day?

Well, now the project is finished we no-longer apply for funding to do new research. Instead our work now consists of half time lecturing to explain our theories both in China and in the West. The other half we are working hard to realize our concepts in practical architectural and planning projects for the Chinese market. Currently we are working on a green master plan for the CBD of Tianjin and a pavilion for the Shanghai Expo 2010.

Beijing is a modern city with a past. I like to compare the erasing of structures in the capital and the building of new ones to a palimpsest. What new image or vision is Beijing and China trying to offer?

I feel the analogy of a palimpsest is still too forgiving. The relentlessness of Beijing's overhaul has erased all traces of cities past. There is still a small historic center (though still corroding) and renovation and restoration projects have also emerged (though maybe not with a Western sense of authenticity). The problem is that urban renewal is so pervasive and immediate no traces of any urban intelligence remain. We argue the city needs is the result of an evolutionary process. It reinvents itself and updates to new requirements by trial and error, bit by bit building on the experience of the past. China has little affection for its recent history. Even a old metropolis as big as Beijing is perceived as a tabula rasa ready to be cleared. The new cities planned on top are of different breed; slick cities that look and feel smooth, but do not perform smoothly. The term over-planning describes a form of urbanization that burns clean the pre-existing and replaces it with inflexible mega-structures set in a sterile landscape.

Beijing has a number of modern signature structures which stand out in stark contrast to other 'lesser' structures in the city. What are some of your favourite structures?

From my apartment I look straight onto the new CCTV Tower and it's very impressive. It too contributes to these urban and social problems such as congestion and forced relocation. But it also elevates the mind-set of a young nation to a level far beyond what we could have imagined to be possible only a few years ago. Then of course the Watercube is impressive, how it - like CCTV - is able to radically break with architectural convention.

Who are the movers and shakers in Beijing's urban planning and development?

Unfortunately, this is a fairly easy question to answer. The dominant players in Beijing's real-estate market are still the government and the developers, and their roles are often difficult to distinguish. If China is indeed ready to build a 'harmonious' society it will have to include the wishes of the individual, particularly the growing group of urban home-owners. This in turn requires developers to give more to the architects and designers, which can stimulate architectural diversity that can adhere to rapidly changing demographics and offer more specific, more local design solutions. Without loosing momentum - typical of the slow Western planning debacles -these four groups, government, developer, designer and resident will have to conceive the new cities together.

Many parts of the 'old Beijing' have been razed and relegated to a kind of memory palace. What role are foreigners playing in the preservation and conservation of the city's cultural past?

Foreigners are amongst the most vocal advocates of preservation of courtyards and hutongs in Beijing. They are also well organized making them a formidable force looking at the center on a plot by plot bases. At the same time the hutongs are arguable most valuable as biotope for a traditional urban lifestyle and culture. The reality is many of the best courtyards are owned or occupied by foreigners or wealthy foreign Chinese. The hutongs are rapidly gentrifying.

The character 'chai' ('tear down') branded on old buildings, shop fronts and other dilapidated structures across China not only vividly depicts an ever-changing landscape, but serves as a metaphor for changing mentalities. What changes have you observed among the Chinese people since you have been in China?

Only the changes of Chinese society outpace the urban transformation. The emergence of a new Chinese mentality is faster and more profound than we often realize. Within years, young farmers turned first time urbanites adapt to a new life and new future in the city. In one generation, factory workers shrug off their collective past as producers to become a global force of consumers. Brand-unconscious and passionately looking for new identities, the population of Chinese society is also a tabula rasa.

What will Beijing look like in ten years time?

With the Olympics the city had its major growth spurt. The icons and main infrastructure have been put in place. Now the residential and commercial areas and the leisure industry will take hold over the development. This will define an increasingly suburban environment with sub-centers aimed to take pressure of the core. No doubt the city will have impressive moments, but they will be hard to reach as you are most likely stuck in traffic.

What will Neville Mars be doing in five years time?

I'll be in China (possible no-longer in Beijing) and hopefully we will have realized a green urban plan and few green buildings that could inspire people what is possible.

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