This essay introduces the evolution of the city from its beginnings until nowadays highlighting socioeconomic relations and scientific innovations that mostly affected on giving impulse to changes and creating new conformations and structures that promised to be paradigmatic for the city of the future. The introductory part synthesizes the work of Soja on the history and development of the city and its current conformations leaving room to ideas of other authors so as my personal ideas. The central part, after briefly introducing the various phenomenon of urbanism in Asia, focuses on sociopolitical, economic and structural characteristics of China and in particular to that of the Pearl River Delta Region to find out peculiarities in urbanism so as in architecture. The conclusive part considers these specificities through specific structuralist hypothesis trying to identify viable hypothesis for the XXI century’s urbanism.  

Copyright 2010 ©marcocaterini

”The catalogue of forms is endless: until every shape has found its city, new cities will continue to be born. When the forms exhaust their variety and come apart, the end of cities begins. In the last pages of the atlas there is an outpouring of networks without beginning or end, cities in the shape of Los Angeles, in the shape of Kyoto-Osaka, without shape.”

Italo Calvino, Le città invisibili

The first phenomenon of protourbanization began about 10.000 years ago in Southwest Asia thanks to the development of new technologies which allowed people to settle in one place and pursue a different economy based on agriculture instead of hunting and gathering. Clusters of villages grew in the fertile flat land of Tigris and Euphrates where the soil was favourable for agriculture and breeding. Historians named this phenomenon of allocation and organization as “First Urban Revolution”, the first step into civilization.

As time goes by, villages merged with other villages or began to attract population from outside enlarging the scale of the village up to a city. This multitude of people began to structure more complex social relations over the basic layout of the patriarchal family structures still proper of the village; a high concentration of people brought new typologies of works and needs, new problems to solve but also new technologies and ideas and an exponentially increased speed on processing it. Commerce became dominant in the economy of the city and the invention of writing facilitated the exchange of information and goods which began to flow between cities which in turn organized  themselves in a network. With the invention of writing human kind largely increased its capability of structuring and organizing commerce, politics and social relations, moreover we first acquire an historical dimension by accumulating and transmitting knowledge and the city became the center of production of this knowledge. This passage to a technical organization and structure of the city is addressed by historians as “Second Urban Revolution”, which is a real radical change in the socioeconomic organization of the city. 

In the First and Second Urban Revolution technology drove agriculture which was central to strengthen urbanization. In fact during the first period people who lived in the village-city were the same who worked in agriculture, since about 7.000 year ago this condition has changed and cities became center of exchange and control over the county and satellite villages. In both periods the centrality of the plant of the city reproduced the central power that governed it, the flow of things run from outside to inside and the projection of power from inside to outside and from the main center to the satellite villages and dependent areas. During the Classic period and Middle Age cities multiply and extend their dimension and complexity according to the same principle of centrality. 

During XVIII and XIX century new scientific innovation and technological development produced radical change on manufacture, agriculture, metallurgy, transportation etc., that in turn re-structured the socioeconomic order of the city. The “Third Urban Revolution” rose in fact from the  “Industrial Revolution”, more in particular from industrialization, its consequential urbanization, and the new social dynamics rising from this processes. 



The passage from cities to modern metropolis is not only related to the growth in dimension of the city due to the binomial industrialization/urbanization, but also to the creation of new forms of micro and macro control forces on territory that operate in the urban space and for extension from the influence and relation that the modern metropolis established with and over other cities. Forms of this control are for example the growth of Nation-State, the fabric, the school, workers and local associations, the family, etc. Urban industrial capitalism develops new forms of discipline of the territory, it structures spaces of segregation of proletariat from the bourgeoisie and the growing middle class, creating new dynamics internal to the city and centrifugal forces pushing towards the periphery through concentric zones. 

Since half of XX century city space is subject to another process of re-structuration which will open up plenty with the turn of millennium. The concentric zoning of the city starts to break up further by producing different centers with relative areas of influence, more or less specialized and self-sufficient. The centrality of the plant in use since protourbanization began its decline under powerful forces of capital accumulation and further technological development in telecommunications. In fact the “Age of Communication” conceivably opens the “Fourth Urban Revolution”, the city becomes cabled and it begins to work in real time and links with other cities as a computer in a network. Centrality became almost superfluous as post-modern city can work simultaneously as a sole unit, without dependence from location and together with other cities, even far distant; the apparatus tends to dislocate its function in different areas of the city and, in a larger scale, even in different cities and countries. Urban spaces become nodes of intersection, entities more difficult to define and map conventionally as the city starts to work at two different levels – the real and the virtual – with different speeds, making it difficult to separate what is in and what is out or defining the edge between the two.



In the postfordist industrial metropolis production of goods decreases and information from being the tool which facilitates the exchange of goods became the good of exchange. Labour forces became specialized and divided themselves in units of production with the consequence of political  fragmentation and loss of collective identities. Banking, finance, corporate, advertising became the backbone on the new capitalist economy causing a vertical re-structuration of power and a re-conglomeration of sectors. The city is configured by new methods of accumulation reassessing from the crisis of Fordism, the deconstruction and reconstruction of this methods made the plant of the city more fluid and flexible but also vanishing following the example of capital.

The global vision of the city instead introduces us to the conceptualization of space in relation to time. If until XIX century velocity of goods and information was about the same and not more than the speed of the horse or the boat, during the XX century things gradually change, as for goods the maximum parameter of relation become the plane and for information is the speed of light, up to the switching point, in the late ‘80s, when networks of computes work in real time. 

Our perception of space relates to our ability to use speed, the more the speed increases the smaller the space conceptually becomes. From the scale of the village to the city-state first, then from city-state to nation-state; at this point the city began its internal revolution of space, at first by restructuring itself in functional area and finally, following a sharp erosion of time, by reconfiguring spatiality in a new economy of its elements, where a region of cities behave like a single city and each city of a region’s city as internal part of the old city. Nations began to behave as region (i.e. USA, EU, ASEAN), playing a closer role in the world order, but at the same time loosing consistence in them identity and ideological boundaries. The capitalist market as the most robust and globally better rooted system drove globalisation as main force on redistributing global labour and capitals; in a similar kind of gentrification as it is for the city, capitalism restructures functions of world’s countries or zones, thus while some areas deindustrialize others are industrializing and/or providing cheap labour, or specializing in some sectors. However, the growth in scale is not homogeneous, capitalism reproduces units of function of its system scattered inside the city as around the world in a similar manner and in both cases with sharp edges. 

In the vision of the city as Fractal City this unit contains in its part “self similar part of the whole” (5), inside the city and around the world dichotomy proper of the XX century (as bourgeoisie-proletariat and East-West ideological blocks) starts to decline and live room for a more articulated social geometry and (unequal) local and transnational redistribution. Power became fluid moving in an irregular matrix across time and space following a logic of maximum exploitation.

Flow of power means also flow of information, the Cybercity become functioning in its internal structure as a computer and externally as an organized network. Numerically controlled individuals control a computer structured society, operating as minimal unit of data inside subsystem of influence. Information became the main “object” of exchange and performances are measured mostly by quantifying the capability to process data than in the ability to produce things. New cities not only conceptually subside to the methapor of the computer machine, but it seems to me that new cities in China and around the world are more and more resembling in appearance to the electronic computer motherboard. The mimesis of buildings and infrastructures is astonishing if we compare the satellite photographs of the new chinese cities and the slot memory and transistor on the printed circuit board.

Two main factors are incisive in this processes, the first is again the speed of information which from real time linear communication steps to networked communications, it erodes further the margins of space that from the annulment of linearity proceeds into the implosion of networks. In second instance thanks to the image projected in real time we face what Baudrillard theorised as the “precession of images” and creation of “simulacra”. It poses epistemological problems on how the reality and space is build and perceived but brings us also to rethink again how to criticize, conceptualize and represent urban space. The Hypervisual Asian City and the merging City-Region of China are mainly a consequence of this broad processes. In China, thanks to the erosion of space, cities start to conglomerate in regions, complex urban and organic structures: they extend for kilometers enclosing nature between centers linked by streets, rails and optical fibers. In a relation of proximity and rationalized distribution of work cities reinforce each other enhancing the single potential of each one and of the region overall. This new configuration extended on space and over time acts as a sole organism which, according with systems’ theory, with the changing of a component the others re-adapt; as in the structure of the language where the meaning of one word defines also the ones with nearest meaning in a relation of interdependence with the whole system.

The end of cities is written in their beginning. Eager to achieve perfection, the planners of Utopias only hasten they demise. Their efforts reveal how the history of cities is (only) a series of ideological frames, a dialectic between failed vision and renewed beliefs. Endless  combination of the idea of the city – the result of ever faster changes and a search of technological adaptability – have brought the role of the cities, as stable, self-governing communities, to the brink. After having lent their urbanity – they genetic code – and the potential for change to even more unrestrained formula, to sprawl, cities seem prepared to disappear at the very moment when urbanization have arrived to its apogee. Just as ideology vanished underground, cities seem ready to write their last chapter.

Mihai Craciun, Great Leap Forward

The world population will probably rise to 7 billions within this year and is forecast to arrive to 9 billions in 2045. During the 70’s only three cities exceeded 10 million habitants, today there are more than 20 megalopolis in the world and most of them are located in Asia. In the last 30 years we witness a huge phenomena of mass urbanization which interests mainly undeveloped and developing countries of Africa and Asia, while in Europe and Russia are experiencing a decline in birth-rate and USA an increase mostly due to immigration. Asia has become the main area of urbanization and urban development, shifting away the barycentre from the west axe Europe-USA which has been largely dominating since the Industrial Revolution. The reasons for this adjustment are many, probably the most incisive is the end of the Cold War and East-West blocks. It facilitates processes of deregulation and privatization which was going on almost everywhere in Asia in the ‘80s and ‘90s, international capital flew into new markets often making urban growth and urbanization index increase hand in hand with FDI (Foreign Direct Investments). Globalization plays a vital role in the rise of XXI century’s city, but in Asia are relevant also the strong political regime and circumstances as cheap labour available in most asian countries.

In Asia there are four main areas of urban conglomeration, the first are the technologically advanced cities of the Far East grouping in the axe Tokyo/Osaka-Seoul-Taipei, with Tokyo-Osaka that excel in urban area, population and density. The nation of South-East Asia presents a solo major capital city which tends to gather all administrative, economic and cultural functions of the country, examples are Bangkok, Manila, Jakarta. On the other hand, the South is characterized by cities with a high level of population growth that tends to extend outside the urban margin and to produce large metropolitan areas that influence the surrounding regions. Examples are Dhaka, Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Karachi. Last but not least the fast-growing urban regions of costal China, polynucleated areas formed by territories in proximity of the main Chinese costal cities, Shanghai and Hong Kong. In China we are facing a new typology of urban development that differs from all others for amplitude and grade of metamorphosis, it opens new questions about the route architecture and urbanism will take in the XXI century. 

China is a nation with a strong traditional culture that permeates all levels of daily life, but in the last century events addressed chinese people to form an attitude of renewal which is pragmatic and experimental. The cultural vacuum created by the internal Cultural Revolution is the basis on which has grown the force of social renewal in the years of communist ideology of Mao. After Mao Zedong Chinese people were driven towards a “progress” and “innovation” brought into the country by capitalism, a further eradication of years of Marxist-Leninist ideology to follow an opportune Nationalism. China is a fertile land where significant breakthroughs can happen, it is metaphorically the “white page”, the “tabula rasa” where every inspirational architect would like to draw and build; indeed, the chinese government hired many of the internationally eminent architects to build official buildings in recent years of renovation of China’s image. From their side, international architects are delighted to work in China for the freedom of intervention due to two reasons: less tied to respect than in UE and US in construction regulation and mainly for the bottomless budget China reserves for buildings and infrastructures. 



Regarding capitalist market, Deng Xiaoping opted for “One country two system” politics, it is designed in one side to make China able to join the benefit of the free market, but at the same time to keep the country stable and productive thanks to the advantages of a one party regime structure. To preserve the nation from the negative effects of capitalism, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) decided to geographically limit the opening of national territories to capitalist market and to experiment it in coastal zones that have always been practised by foreigners for commercial exchanges. Shanghai and Hong Kong, as former colonies and well travelled harbours, strategically located in the Nippo-Korean and Southeast Asian commercial routs, were favoured by the introduction of the new system. 

The Pearl River Delta Region is an area adjoining Hong Kong and Macao and surrounding the Pearl River estuary, it was seen from the CCP as highly exploitable for the pre-existing colonial capitalist market inherited by England and Portugal, thus they decided to use this land as “experimental field of the reform”. In the plan for the Pearl River Delta (PDR) handed in 2008 from the National Development and Reform Commission we read that the regions today “took a lead in the market-oriented reform and established a framework of socialist market economy at a rate early stage, having consequently become the region with the highest marketization level and the most complete market system throughout China.” The PRD experienced in the last thirty years a superb economic and urban growth, becoming an important center of manufactures first and then reconverting to the service sector; urbanization raised to an impressive level, as for example in Shenzhen, whose population in thirty years increased from almost nothing to 9 million residents.          

The PRD region comprehends a cluster of nine municipalities in Guangdong Province, named Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zuhai, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Foshan, Huizhou and, to the extreme points of the delta, Macao and Hong Kong. Especially after the massive urbanisation of the last twenty years, the PRD tends to be considered as a whole metropolitan area, reaching about 50 millions of people it classifies as the most populated territory worldwide. Since Xiaoping reforms the infrastructure networks within the region has been taken into serious consideration by the chinese government and cooperation between municipalities has been largely supported. For example, the enormous project of a 50 kilometers long bridge connecting Hong Kong-Zuhai-Macao, more than becoming a significant landmark, it will improve the macro socioeconomic structure of the PRD linking the most active centers of each side. In fact the PRD area is structured over two poles, Hong Kong-Macao, which are separated by a large section of the river delta, a third pole is the Guangdong Province capital city Guangzhou which together with Foshan forms a point of a pyramid heading at North, in convergence with the two sides of the delta. Before the politics of “One country two system”, Hong Kong and Macao were kept in a situation of confinement, but Hong Kong was convenient to China to secure foreign currency and the import of technologies inside the country. Guangzhou was at the time the sentinel over foreign cities and around them there was almost nothing. After the “Politics of Opening” and the regained sovereignty over the two colonies, Guangzhou was not enough to contain the influences of the ex-colonies and a more complex organization was needed to exploit at best the economic and social gap between the mainland and the new Special Administrative Zone (SAZ) of Hong Kong and Macao.

The Special Economic Zones (SEZ) of Shenzhen and Zuhai worked strategically as a cushion area between the SAZ and the inner China with a doubled effect, first as a door allowing commerce, enterprise and technology to flow across the borders; secondly as a filter between the mainland and the foreign ideologies spreading from the Special Administrative Zone. SEZ and SAZ become in a different grade the exclusive-inclusive places where chinese communist ideology meets the capitalist market, geographical spot of conjunction between two systems, a territory where the party can experiment, observe and evaluate unconventional social and economic formations. 



The different administrative status of this territories works as an articulate apparatus that offers different grades of freedom and intervention on the structure of PRD (as for example differentiated tax regimes, frontier immigration controls between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, the Municipal Residency Permit [Hukou system], etc.) Zoning and different levels of autonomy and intervention are essential for the regulation and development of the PRD and indispensable to let the capital flow through the region without overflowing the country.

Thus Municipalities, SEZ and SAZ play a vital function in the organization of the PRD region as they are the articulated joint between a Marxist-Leninist based ideology and advanced capitalist market. Two forces traditionally in opposition seem to work paradoxically at an exceptional level if diluted and catalysed together in order to utilize advantages of both sides. This experimental multilayered megastructure of organization of urban spaces is able to produce high performances for its elevate interconnection and flexible administration but also for the synergy of forces that such scale and organization can originate through untouched levels of complexity.  

The PRD do not only face innovation to an administrative and structural level, but also the architecture and the city are mutating in something that Rem Koolhaas calls “Generic”. The Generic City is not only typical of China it grows almost everywhere in Asia and also in Europe and America, from which it comes from. Koolhaas addresses the Generic City as “liberated from the captivity of center, from the straitjacket of identity. […] reflection of present need and present ability. […] city without history. […] Discarded product of westerner civilization.

In the PRD region echoes of a colonial identity still resists to erosion in Hong Kong and Macao, if Guangzhou maybe uncertainly retains some of its past and “chineseness”, Shenzhen is the city that most embodied an attitude to the Generic. A Chinese in Shenzhen is not a Capitalist nor a Communist and the key probably is that a citizen of Shenzhen must be in part both; to be Generic became a precondition to raise two otherwise irreconcilable ideologies. Koolhaas continues saying: “All generic cities issue from tabula rasa; if there was nothing now they are there; if there was something, they have replaced it. They must, otherwise they would be historic.” Shenzhen does not have a history apart the one that links the city to Hong Kong and the new political order of “One country two systems”. It rises in the place of a village and nothing is older than thirty years. Its architecture does not have a particular character apart being performative for the given use, all seems to be the copy of the copy of the copy. CAD 3D has become the new “perspective box” of Chinese architecture “Renaissance” which is leading to a predetermined automated mannerism. In fact due to an high demand of buildings and the limited number of architects, projects are made overnight working with more computers. Fast planning, quick capitalization, adaptability, architecture in China is a matter of performance and gainings. New buildings are never designed from zero but redesigned over old projects and adapted for a new use or location, the aesthetic of the Generic City proceeds for similarities instead that for differences. The city resembles more and more the devices that project it, their way of conceiving so as in their appearance; meanwhile it seems tending to the inorganic and the mathematics abstraction of the algorithm its structures seem to conceal something completely different. The 2004 Beijing Architecture Biennale offers us a catalogue with a peremptory title: “Fast Forward, Hot Spot, Brain Cells”. If the first term seems to conceptualize the condition of city planning and architecture and the second the condition of China and its cities, the third word “Brain Cells” prefigures the organic as a new trend, but which is actually liable to underlying the processes of formation above examined. 

Having said this, I do not wish your eyes to catch a distorted image, so I must draw your attention to an intrinsic quality of this unjust city germinating secretly inside the secret just city: and this is the possible awakening – as if in an excited opening of windows – of a later love for justice, not yet subjected to rules, capable of reassembling a city still more just than it was before it became the vessel of injustice. But if you peer deeper into this new germ of justice you can discern a tiny spot that is spreading like the mounting tendency to impose what is just through what is unjust, and perhaps this is the germ of an immense metropolis … 

From my words you will have reached the conclusion that the real Berenice is a temporal succession of different cities, alternately just and unjust. But what I wanted to warn you about is something else: all the future Berenices are already present in this instant, wrapped one within the other, confined, crammed, inextricable. 

Italo Calvino, Le città invisibili

The technologies we use for our progress have always been influencing the development and organization of our culture and, as we saw, of our cities. The era of the machine has dehumanized the city and our styles of life with the rhythm and discipline of the fabric, the era of computer is apparently doing even worst with the control of the computer-aided numerical calculation and a continuous separation from the reality. But we can also see a tendency to re-humanization and the acquisition of the paradigm of the organic, for example in the conception of new technologies as artificial intelligence and bio–computers and in the sciences like bioengineering, bio-cybernetics, bionics, synthetic biology, engineering cybernetics, homeostasis. 

Authors like Peter Russell noticed that at a structural level the global network of computers (and therefore of cities) is organizing itself like a biological organism. In his book “The global Brain” Russell highlights that evolutionary patterns appearing in chemistry so as in biology are repeating also in the development of human brain. Russell also notices that the same patterns of aggregation of neurons in human brain are repeating themselves with the network of global connections. The Net, says Russell, as rejoins us in a sole and more complex thinking organism could bring human kind to the formation of a global conscience that opens us the way towards a subsequent evolutionary stage. 

Holistic theories are spreading more and more over the Reductionist ones in all the fields that connect in some way to the theory of systems: from biology to engineering, from chemistry to sociology, psychology and language, but also to urbanism and architecture.

In architecture and urbanism the researches of Christopher Alexander are pushing in the same direction. The approach of Alexander to architecture develop on structural bases and tries to define universal laws, or “patterns”, that regulate the organization of “living structures” – living organism or complex systems (i.e. urbanism) – that, if applied, would produce an architecture (or a world) in harmony with our psyche from which it also derives. The theories of Alexander are bases on the evolutionist concept of “Unfolding” or rather, as he calls that, “structure-preserving transformation”. In other words it is a “dynamic process that through ciclic incremental progression preserves and/or increases the basic structure strengthening its wholeness”. This permits to architecture and urbanism to come out of the Cartesian paradigm of an approach focused on the study of things and to enter in a systemic one which indeed considers relations between things.

Under the structural perspective the evolution of the proto-urban village to the Mega-Urban Regions is not more than a series of Unfolding, structural adaptions that order depending to the forces in reserve in a certain moment, that in our case are cultural forces and among those the most important at an evolutive level, the technology at our disposal. In fact, if the Second Urban Revolution derives only partly from technological progress that serves as an input to strong socioeconomic changes, the other two rely more clearly on this principle. 

Therefore, following Alexander’s concept, the PRD presents itself partly as a partially “natural” conformation, as it follows atavistic structures of our knowledge that originate from the deepest order of all the things, biological and not; but conforming also through  the incisive alteration of cultural and historic elements, that are proper mostly of the human kind, as for examples economic-social systems and technologies.


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