Beyond the City: Resource Extraction Urbanism in South America, by Felipe Correa, University of Texas Press, June 2016, 192 pages, $40.
Dragons in Diamond Village: Tales of Resistance from Urbanizing China, by David Bandurski, Melville House, October 2016, $27.99.
Two excellent new books, Beyond the City, by Felipe Correa, director of the Urban Design Degree Program at Harvard University, and Dragons In Diamond Village, by David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong, offer contrasting but fascinatingly connected analyses of resource-extraction urbanism.
In Correa’s case, the extraction is literal: his work describes a series of ex novo urban and regional projects in South America sited and designed to facilitate the mining or harvesting of natural resources. This arresting group of incarnated dreams offers a vivid alternative—or critically supplementary—history of the modern city, embodying an aspirational possibility in which both creating an urban design and realizing it can be imaginative and literal all at once.
The story begins with Belo Horizonte in Brazil, a new capital for a region rich in coffee and iron, built from scratch in the 1890s: its elegant “progressivist” baroque/city-beautiful plan by Aarao Reis was an obvious precursor to Brasilia. Clearly under the influence of Haussman, Ildefons Cerda, and—especially—Pierre L’Enfant, the design exemplifies the way the circulation of utopian planning ideas saturated the creative atmosphere, penetrating even to the South American hinterland. Correa cites, among others, Vincenzo Scamozzi, Robert Owen, Arturo Soria y Mata, Patrick Geddes, Clarence Perry, and Le Corbusier as part of a richly mixed parentage, mating paradigm, purpose, and place.
If Belo Horizonte is a “classic” set piece, the city of Maria Elena, built in 1916 in the Atacama Desert of Chile, is a node within a vast network of nitrate mines, oases, rail links, and coastal ports, an immense territorial urbanism consecrated to a single purpose.
A similar mono-economy characterizes the towns of Judibana and El Tablazo, products of the explosive petroleum-driven growth around Lake Maricaibo in Venezuela, which moved from squalid camps to highly planned settlements seen as “messengers of modernity.” Judibana, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1948, merges a company town—characterized by a dominating employer, stratified housing types, and “rational” zoning—with something more elegantly prospective, the U.S. suburban dream.
At the eastern edge of Venezuela, Ciudad Guyana—with the help of planners largely based at Harvard and MIT—developed at a nexus of iron and bauxite mining and hydroelectric potential. The city has a linear layout, stringing neighborhood “units” designated (like Chandigarh’s) with maniacally segregated socioeconomic formal typologies.
Correa judges the city a considerable success for the accommodating logic of its spinal organization, the transformation and mixing of use in its constituent zones, and its growth from an original population of 50 thousand to its current 1 million. The book concludes with a discussion of the 1962 Vila Piloto (“pilot city”) in Brazil’s Parana River basin, part of a TVA-scale program for a chain of dams. The circular town is remarkable for its pie-graph organization and for the intention that it be dismantled when the nearby dam was done.
The most arresting elements of Correa’s book deal with a variety of infrastructures–some at continental scale—that have conduced to extraction urbanism in its “pure” form: not conventionally planned cities but the spontaneous proliferation of settlements drawn to highways, electrification axes, ports, waterways, mines, oil fields, and plantations. The author’s evocation of the urban and the territorial is acute and revelatory, a nuanced analysis of the interaction of formal ideals and the aggressive extraction of the earth’s resources.
Dragons In Diamond Village is a mesmerizing description of another form of extraction city, the runaway development of so-called urban villages in China. These are the result of the exponential expansion of Chinese cities to surround—and physically absorb—agricultural villages on their peripheries. The key wrinkle is the easily exploited ambiguity of ownership that has resulted from the post–Deng Xiaoping devolution of power to a condominium of municipalities, state institutions, and private developers relying on rent as the primary basis of their economic self-interest. However, in a system that still retains collective ownership for rural settlements, these “villages-in-city” have found themselves with fields that yield far higher returns from real estate than from sorghum, cucumbers, or fruit trees.
In what has become a typical pattern, communal plots are developed hyper-densely with small apartment buildings, the primary residential option for the millions of “floating” migrants from the countryside. These people labor at the bottom rungs of the new economy, fixed in status by the houkou system that makes many basic services unavailable.
Bandurski’s richly ethnographic tale is a gripping account of both the nominally informal system that has generated this urbanism and of its effects on local communities and individuals. Focusing on a village in Guangzhou, his sympathetic engagement with its struggles to resist the corruptions and social dislocations of the development steamroller are remarkably detailed and researched. We’re shown suicides, houses rigged with defensive explosives, and Kafkaesque legal maneuvering. Framing the narrative are descriptions of the covert building and launch of village dragon boats in the face of official attempts to thwart the villagers, and the beautiful, if pyrrhic, victory they won.
Bandurski offers a riveting account of a civil society struggling to be born, with deep insights into a culture we too often read as an impossibly monolithic juggernaut. Like Correa, he portrays a crudely extractive urbanism but in its most rarefied form: in the urban village, the cash crop is space itself
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