Category Archives: architecture

Review: Urban Spaces and Cultural Imaginations in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Films of Beijing

Zheng, Yiran. (2016). Writing Beijing: Urban Spaces and Cultural Imaginations in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Films. Lanham MD: Lexington Books.

In recent years, the dialectic relationship between tradition and globalization has become even more visible in the urban spaces of Beijing. In the majority of news reports highlighting economic and cultural attractiveness of Beijing, we may find seemingly disconnected expressions, such as ‘greatness of imperial history’ and ‘rising center of global economy.’ This implies that there is a significant temporal gap taking place, and thereby, and points to the drastic urban transformation of the nation. Yiran Zheng’s recent book, Writing Beijing: Urban Spaces and Cultural Imaginations in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Films (2016), also acknowledges this presentation of Beijing. The conceptualization of Beijing as “the fusion of “traditional” Chinese city and a modern international metropolis” is one of the central themes that is constantly brought up in the book.

Writing Beijing (Zheng, 2016)

By this point, it is also important to note where all those urban spaces are located in the spatial structure of Beijing. According to the author, the area showing a concentration of typical Beijing buildings or courtyard houses is geographically located near the center of the city. Then, the next layer of architecture that loops outside the center is dominated by three to four story military compounds constructed under the guidance of Soviet experts. Thereafter, in the outer layer loop, there is new architecture and urban spaces that were built in the global era. Based on the three types of urban spaces identified above, the book largely consists of three parts: the first part focusing on military compounds (chapter 1,2,3), the second part concentrating on the typical building or courtyard house (chapter 4,5,6), and the third part exploring some examples of Beijing’s new architecture and urban spaces (chapter 7,8,9).

However, when considering the geographical map of Beijing and the structure of the chapters in the book together, Zheng does not fully explain why she organizes the three parts in such an order; namely, starting from military compounds to typical traditional Beijing housing, and ending with contemporary buildings. In the introduction, Zheng notes, “Beijing has been transformed from a traditional imperial capital city to a political center of communist China, then into a cosmopolitan metropolis (p. x).” The structure of the book does not seem to illuminate this transitional and changing character or flow of the city, but captures the configurations of the city in specific moments framed within the specific literary works. In that sense, to meet the author’s aim of this book, it is more persuasive to organize the parts and chapters in a geo-temporal order, moving from the central area of traditional housing to the outer area of contemporary buildings developed in present day China.

Each part of this book has three sections (chapters). In every first section, Zheng explores the architectural and spatial qualities of specific urban spaces. Then, Zheng discusses some representative writers and filmmakers in every second section, and finally in the third section, the author analyzes the configuration of the city in the literary works. Throughout the parts and chapters, Zheng uses different sources from different disciplines, such as urban studies, architecture, literature, cultural studies, history studies, and sociology. And Zheng also makes a balanced use of sources between foreign and Chinese authors. Zheng’s cross-disciplinary and cross-national use of sources is what makes this book interdisciplinary and allows it to retain a more balanced point of view.

In this study, the methodological framework is inspired by Lefebvre’s theorization of space. Lefebvre (1991), in his book The Production of Space (1991), proposed the spatial triad to understand the production of space and its embedded power relations. The triad divides space as: spatial practice (producing physical space), representations of space (conceived space), and representational space (lived space). According to Lefebvre, our spatial experience in space consists of these three interrelated elements (Lefebvre, 1991). Zheng specifically points to two of the spaces in this triad, representations of space and representational space, to formulate her methodology.

Within this framework, she emphasizes the intermediary role of artists (writers and filmmakers) between these two spaces. To be more specific, writers are influenced by urban spaces and architectures that are the “representations of space”, reflecting the ideology and expectations of designers. At the same time, writers and filmmakers respond to and reflect on those “representations of spaces” through their use of symbols, signs, and images in their literary productions. Thus, they create literary and filmic texts that refer to the space lived in by artists, “representational spaces”. However, except for brief explanations about the framework in the introduction and conclusion, the author actually does not conduct an extensive engagement with spatial theory, which she bases her work upon. It would have been more helpful if Zheng had continued to connect her discussion to her framework while discussing different type of urban spaces. By doing so, it would have been more apparent how the dialectic relationship between the three moments shown in Lefebvre’s spatial triad can be manifested and applied in this study as well.

Most interestingly, as noted in the beginning of the book, the concept of the coexistence of local and global in Beijing is an important issue for Zheng. This is clearly addressed when the author says that “the “ideal building” should be both modern and Chinese.” (p. 99). Zheng’s personal voice and position towards the relationship between the local and global in cityscape becomes especially prominent in Chapter 7, where Zheng discusses modern and postmodern architecture in the global era. These include the “three new symbolic architecture” in Beijing—National Centre for the Performing Arts (the Giant Egg), National Stadium (the Bird’s Nest), and CCTV New Main Building (the Gate).

In Chapter 7, Zheng is concerned about Beijing becoming “a common metropolis with no distinct cultures” (p. 91). According to Lefebvre, the urban spaces of Beijing produced within the context of global capital are Abstract Spaces, which are homogeneous and transparent, showing the orders and power hierarchies of capitalism (Lefebvre, 1991, pp. 50-51). The Abstract Spaces of these new contemporary buildings of Beijing are shown in their symbolic architecture marked with the dominant activities of the cities (Castells, 2005). The three new buildings mentioned above are examples of the symbolic architecture that Zheng criticizes for its disconnection from the surrounding local context and environment. In that sense, Zheng also demonstrates that these designs are not “Chinese” because they were built by “non-Chinese” designers, which I thought was a bit difficult to understand (p. 102). Although this may be partially true, the concern should not lie in the nationality of designers, but with the strategies used in incorporating this symbolic architecture within the local city at large.

The book is, in general, interdisciplinary in its approach and provides a broad socio-cultural and political context on urban issues of Beijing. In addition, the book is approachable because it does not use discipline-specific academic jargons and is written in an illustrative and descriptive manner. It is clear that Zheng wishes this book to be read by broad range of students and scholars who are interested in the city of Beijing. Zheng also achieves this by consistently and systematically reiterating the important points throughout the introduction, the beginning and at the end of each chapter, and the conclusion; the structure of the writing is easy to comprehend. Finally, the book is very narrative and poetic in that it smoothly introduces us to the artists’ world of imagination. Thus this book creates another “representational space” that is lived by its readers, who have or have not been to Beijing, and encourages them to engage with the mode of imagination of the urban spaces of Beijing.

Jeongwon Gim (University of Alberta)


Additional References

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The Production of Space. Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Castells, M. (2005). Space of Flows, Space of Places: Materials for a Theory of Urbanism in the Information Age. In B. Sanyal (Ed.), Comparative Planning Cultures (pp. 45–63). New York: Routledge.

Museum Gallery Spaces

art-agenda has a thematic examination of gallery spaces online every two months, with the current feature being underground spaces.

Vienna Sezesion

Not so underground… Vienna Sezesion CC-NC 2014 Rob Shields

Barbara Sirieix notes that underground galleries include purpose built spaces such as the Städel Museum in Frankfurt as well as parking garages and appropriated and converted basement spaces where many artists also work because of economic considerations.  These spaces often become part of artworks and installations.

-Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Dictatorship by Cartography

Naypyidaw, capital of Burma. Guardian Cities March 2015

In 2007, writing for Himal Southasian magazine, Siddharth Varadarajan called Naypyidaw, the underpopulated capital of Burma, built by the military regime, “dictatorship by cartography, geometry”:

Vast and empty, Burma’s new capital will not fall to an urban upheaval easily. It has no city centre, no confined public space where even a crowd of several thousand people could make a visual – let alone political – impression.

The building of cities is a massive infrastructural undertaking, a spasm that reflects and requires the concentration of political, economic and affective power.   Are cities where there is no “right to the city” by the people cities at all?  Materially perhaps but not in intangible, virtual terms: While constructed like cities, they lack urbanity, the quality of the urban.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Re(building) to heal: La Loche, Residential Schools, Reconciliation in Canada

By Adriana Boffa

How does one heal a community after trauma? A difficult question, especially after the horrific events that occurred on the afternoon of January 22, 2016 in the small north-western Saskatchewan community school of La Loche where four people were killed and seven were injured by a young boy of 17, who is also of that community (La Loche Shooting, n.d.).

Now is the difficult time, where questions are being asked and a search for someone(thing) to blame begins; the answers do not emerge easily and are evasive. La Loche is a small isolated North-Western Saskatchewan Dene community that has experienced great amount of trauma, and not solely from this incident. It is a community that has been living the intergenerational effects of colonialism; many in the town have been directly and indirectly affected by the legacy of residential schools (Residential Schools, n.d.). As such, La Loche is a community where a people are struggling to find their way back to their Dene cultural and historical roots. It is also a community where: the young are beginning to outnumber the old; there is little hope or opportunities in town for their youth’s future; the social supports and resources are continually lacking and being cut back (Tait, 2016); and, they suffer one of the highest suicide rates in the province (Tait, 2016; O’Connors, Hall, & Warick, 2016; Mandryk, 2016; White, 2016). This community needs to heal in more ways than one.

Where does one even begin to heal?

One proposed way was put forth by Georgina Jolibois (MP for Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River) and by La Loche’s acting Mayor Kevin Janvier, both calling for the demolishing of the school (White, 2016; Tait, 2016). Georgina states, “Tear down the building, rebuild the building. There’s so much pain, so much trauma. They need to rebuild. The families are hurting, the youth are hurting, the community is hurting. The north is hurting” (Tait, 2016).

Dene Building, La Loche Community School, La Loche Saskatchewan

Is this the answer? How can a place hold such power over a community’s healing? A potential response might be found in the newly released document by the Government of Canada, the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada‘s (TRCC) report, detailing the injustices of “cultural genocide” (p. 55) committed upon the Indigenous peoples of this country through their forced assimilation and absorption via the residential school system. According to this report, residential schools are responsible for a “loss of pride and self respect” of and for Indigenous peoples in Canada (p. VI). This “loss” and “cultural genocide”, as can be surmised by engaging with this document, is firmly connected to a profound disconnect from place, which consequently led to a disconnect from history, culture, language, and family.

Residential schools that are still left standing remain an imposing fixture (physically and emotionally) in various Indigenous communities. While some have been re-claimed and re-purposed by the community, others lay empty acting as ghostly reminders of a horrific past. These structures are places of great trauma and unsettling memory. They are not merely buildings; rather, they are places that conjure temporal and spatial disturbances for all who are in their presence. The school buildings evoke memories, recall histories or pasts, generate affects (physical and emotional), transform the spaces around them, and create potential becomings (positive or negative) for all who engage with them.

Beauvais Indian School during construction 1931, Northern Saskatchewan

The heart of the TRCC report is regarding reconciliation, not only for the survivors and their families, but also for Canada as whole. It is about developing a mutual respect, reciprocity, and a recognition that we are all interconnected in this process of healing that requires all of us learning from our shared and difficult past. Reconciliation is not just one thing we do to make ourselves feel better, it is something that needs to be adopted into our ethics of how we might engage with life differently. Therefore, one needs to do more than just talk about reconciliation, “[one] must learn to practice reconciliation in our lives” (p. 21).

In terms of reconciling and healing through the tragic events of January 22nd, there is a need to look beyond this single event and realize that it is not a simple fix and it requires a look at the past – no matter how uncomfortable that will be. It is a realization that this community school building is not just a simple building, rather a conduit to the past, present, and future of and for this community. Reconciliation begins with how we enter a place and interact with it. Healing, therefore, might also being with how we choose to engage with this community and respect their path towards reconciling their trauma. Georgina Jolibois, stated “when you listen to the community, when you listen to the youth, when you listen to the elders, and the pain – they will say that [they wish the building to be demolished] also” (Tait, 2016, n.p.). The fate of the building is tied to the community and listening to the community is where one might begin.

Adriana Boffa (University of Alberta)


La Loche shootings: The victims, the town, the school and the tragic tale so far​. (n.d.). Retrieved January 26, 2016, from

Mandryk, M. (2016, January 26). La Loche shooting tragedy seemed almost inevitable. Regina Leader Post. Retrieved from

O’Connor, J., Hill, A., & Warick, J. (2016, January 25). La Loche fights to find hope. National Post, In Edmonton Journal, pp. NP1-NP3.

Residential Schools – History of La Loche. (n.d.). Retrieved January 26, 2016, from

Tait, Carrie. (2016, January 24). La Loche turns to forgiveness, healing in wake of shootings that killed four. Globe and Mail. Retrieved from

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future: summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Retrieved from

White, P. (2016, January 24). La Loche: A beautiful town with a rough reputation. Globe and Mail. Retrieved from

London’s NeoColonial Skyline

The Guardian’s architecture writers have been fretting for a number of years over the “jumble” of highrise office towers that have gone up in close proximity to each other.  The Guardian provides a flash interactive view here, built on a 3D model of London created by Vertex and currently shown on their homepage.  The focus is on sightlines at ground level.  However, missing is a more direct social analysis of the buildings and gardens high aloft the ground as inaccessible, private vertical enclaves.  Even the blocking of solar access will one day come to be seen as a major gap in the reporting.

This “tortured heap of towers” seems to be exactly a continuation of the ad hoc quality of the development of London over centuries.  The unifying elements of brick, building height and the twisting streets, were most disturbed in the the modernist mid-century. This is both good and bad.

In the twenty-first century, the shift in height and use of glass as building cladding is the most obvious provocation, not that they jostle together in a tight group.  The domestication of brute forms through nicknaming buildings in the media, such as the gherkin or cheese-grater, is a relatively unique London phenomenon amongst megacities.   Cute names elide the identity of building owners and builders who are amongst the worlds “least environmentally friendly companies” according to the Guardian and major purchasers of land globally.  In as much as cute names obfuscate the extraction and destruction of resources in one place and the creation of profitable facilities and environments elsewhere, the architecture of highrise office developments could come to be seen as a symbol of neoliberal economic relations that have a neocolonial quality.  It would be nice to see this level of analysis which spells out some of the implication.

The popularity of this naming distracts from the unifying idea of a skyline, however.  The skyline could be thought of as a kind of 4th dimension not captured in the 3D flyover.  New York promoted the skyline of Manhattan but is still coming to terms with the destruction of the World Trade Centre and the filling back in of this cavity in the vista.  In this sense, the buildings do overshadow London, not only physically but in the virtual world of media and place-images.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)