Chongqing II (Chinese Cities)
Calligraphy of street life.
The all-embracing window walls.
The near absence of solar heights (invisible from the streets below).
Bits of ‘new-old’ Chong Qing are still on sight. The stone parts, mainly on the upper levels - from before the war and after… Like Pipashan Houlu - now becoming gentrified… A typical thriving, balcony-ridden, overladen, multi-faceted mash-up of detail as life, as the inhabitants‘ goods and possessions, spread out from the small rooms within and hang in the air, balanced high above the passing traffic and pedestrians below… High, high, above the tumbling cliffs and vertiginous drops that suddenly appear as the geography plunges towards some forgotten black space, lightless and dank, perhaps once a passage to the river below; the stairwells that were once the arteries of the old wood and stone city. Such tenements (of which most have disappeared) usually comprise from 2-5 floors; compared to the 15 floors of the new city (built in the 60/70s, and also disappearing fast); compared to the 50 or 150 of the ‘new new’ city - which now replaces even those structures which were only built a few decades ago… From the city of wood, to the city of stone: to the city of concrete and glass… All in the space of a generation. Chongqing is a 21st century city.
The wooden city; the lower levels, the ‘old-old’ lower depths, near water; now gone, demolished, flooded, or dismantled… What is there still to be seen/ The last bits… Where? Around Pipashan; now fast disappearing, in Matijie or Shancheng Disan Budao, now preparing for commercialization… (Gentrification might have been a better model of development and preservation… there is some of this, and attractive too - but let’s see how many of the original structures survive…). For then there is the ‘alternative’; ‘new old’, or old-like new… A reconstruction or theme-park. Hongyadong. All new. A ‘Disney-type’ food alley (a previous genuinely old bit, ‘Shibati’, is now gone). The loss of a world of wood-based improvisation. The improvisation of brute survival. Wooden bricolage. Remnants of the ‘old, old’ city. Level on level; climbing up the steep banks, stone path fringed by wooded dwellings. A grid based on vertical rising passages, with horizontal side paths – the opposite of new roads, an inversion based entirely on the horizontal as the main artery, with the extended curves and tight bends to cater for the rising slope – the verticals, designed for pedestrian use almost vanished (the new horizontal mode designed primarily for cars – not particularly pedestrian-friendly, the intuitive mode of up/down replaced by often massive detours…). Once the world-over, it was wood that dominated or augmented stone. Class and status, and role markers… all configured in the combinations of these two basic materials, Some cities in South-east Asia are still built this way: but they are also disappearing fast… Living with concrete is more convenient…
The concrete heights, the city’s ‘solar portion’, the upper level of the built environment, of city life, visible only from clear space (or cleared space), through empty space (or emptied space), the unencumbered view found from the banks of one the rivers that cross at Chong Qing, or from a bridge (also numerous) or a hill top or (making use of those concrete heights themselves) the top of the tallest skyscrapers (and some do offer the possibility of a vista, of a top floor with views, but, of course, here, you must,… ‘pay to view’…). Or from the empty space above a hole in the ground where once a building stood, like a tooth removed, leaving a gap through which a view may be glimpsed. But a gap, a hole, soon to be ‘filled’.
So few solar decors, so hard to see. Yet they must be there. The skyline as seen from the ground or from a window is an experience of limited extension, not normally an overall or broad view; windows offer the opposite curtain wall and only rarely, usually requiring that one is very high up and not hemmed in by yet taller buildings, to see at length, to see above, to see architecture touch the sky, to see earth touch sky: the tops, the top level, the solar portion of Chong Qing. Even the roads, as not built to a grid-design, like most Chinese or most modern cities, curving (like Rome) around the contours of the hills on which it is built, offer no extended vista, no stretched-out vanishing points, no receding horizon. A short view along to the next bend. But when you ascend, to one of the open heights, one of the privileged places of extended vision… then more than a glimpse is caught of the hitherto invisible heights… The concrete forest and its surrounding ‘valley’, the sudden surprising absence of structures -with a glimpse of the shinning river below- and, on the horizon, the encircling mountains. And from above it is surprising to see how many of the tallest buildings have heliports, a circular disk sitting on top of the building; but logical if you consider the logistics of accidents and fires in a multi-storey tower… but less decorated on top that one might expect; because unseen… Buildings with a base that is the most decorated level… Places of shopping and eating - and outside, the living, moving strip of everyday life…
Bridges and the openness of rivers and the nearby heights (‘mountains and waters’) as ‘the space above water’, the place offering views of a breathtaking openness, to completely contrast with the enclosedness of the narrow streets and their towering wall-malls, the shopfronts and the rising dwellings above them. So the bridges and hills are making up for the lack of squares… (The pedestrianized centre acts as a kind of open public space, but there are no views, life as lived within the canyon, at the bottom of the valley, walled in… Otherwise there are the parks (Pippashan, Erling) and the open space between the modern forms of the Three Gorges Museum and the traditional design of the Renmin Dalitang (but due to its geography, a heat bowl…).
And the subway/light overland railway; one of the best places for a view of the city’s valleys, the river far below and the human habitat that sprouts like a multi-towered variegated concrete coral on its banks, towering above. At night illuminated.
And in this lies the difference of Chong Qing: lying just beyond the streets and shoppers, the fare of any modern city; the vertigo of vertical ascent and descent, the opening up onto a sunlit, river-bottomed, chasm.
Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2019