Chongqing (Chinese Cities IV)
Somewhere between Hongkong and Istanbul, the city of Chongqing is built up on the confluence of rivers and the mountains that separate them, like HK the towers climb slopes and rival the heights of Nature with man-made gorges and cliffs… like Istanbul the ‘Golden Horn’ is the site not only of an ancient city but also a kingdom, site of centre whose surrounding city spreads out over the slopes of the hills that make up the opposite banks (once even deeper and steeper, covered in the wooden city, now drowned or replaced by concrete, that flourished here before the water levels were raised by the Three Gorges dam project).
In a city baked by the sun. In a summer furnace. Steamed in summer rain. Like cooking in a sauna.
Plunging chasms. Calligraphy of street life. The all-embracing window walls. The near absence of solar heights.
Here, the city experience lies in contrast of the ‘fronting’*, the ground floor strip and the rest, mainly the middle as soaring, the solar exists as an occasional glimpse, same for scene, landscape, horizon all close range unless high up, or by river with open view… Horizon almost occluded: natural landscape vanished, contours alone left in the pattern, of wave-like, rise and fall of concrete towers… Intense life and soaring walls, full of windows… between up, the cube of sky, or tangent if in square etc; below the rare rhomboid of descending ‘between space’ dark, damp, stones, and forgotten descents, left behind ( unfilled) between the rise of towers so vast they can ignore the natural curve of the land – the concrete cure for geography. A city built on slopes.
The Middle is everywhere the natural wall of the realm of vision, enclosure of the senses, eyes raised to the cliffs of glass apertures, raising all around (each a life, or lives, a family or an office – life as lived). Seldom do the eyes wander further upward, hypsosis denied; city skyline forestalled (one must seek out special places, for any view, privileged viewpoints, for a sight of the ‘whole’ of a skyline and a sense of extended identity – otherwise all is ‘in your face’ shop fronts, things, food and people - all enclosed by vast canyons of metal and glass). The Middle is everywhere but is topped by the natural limit of the realm of vision… the top, a glimpse of which is rare…
The solar top of the city is a rare experience, when seen obliquely or at an unkind angle; decorated in newer buildings, simple repetition of previous levels in ‘older’ structures (earlier tower blocks) as per modernism as usual… Partial views from open slopes (the cube of land in front not yet filled with the screen like wall of a rising tower), from the bends of roads, rapid consciousness of open sky and the tops of buildings, the ‘solar’ realm, the skyline , at once precious, and so hard to find, or a trip to the other side, the other banks of the river, to look over to see the rising towers and there completion… serried ranks of upward growth, crystals on a petri-glass slope, pointing, - as any Gothic-styled structure would point… The landmark building taller than the others, distinctive in some way, useful in navigation, but rare to glimpse. Often concealed by the sheltering trees, lining roads and providing a roof to the life world teeming below on the ground floor levels, But rare, to be sought out… or surprised by … more often we hide from the sun… or the rain.
The wall of the Middle. Strange how the physical geography of the city mirrors the change in class formation of modern societies, prefiguring China’s own ascent to a country of the middle class, leaving behind the industrial and farming, an agricultural past for city life and jobs needing training and education, the Big Middle of modern (post-modern?) mass societies, bearer of a mass culture, and fruit of a mass market (flanked by a rich elite, ever more distant, perhaps part of the new international post 2008 global oligarchy? On the one side, and on the other, a service class fed by the influx from the countryside, (so not yet the welfare underclass of the declining industries of the post-industrial counties of advanced capitalism…). Architecture as the mirror of society or a foretelling of its future… (or, in a declining area, mirror of its once glorious past, and its continuing descent…).
Looking at the wall of windows we know what goes on there, for we live there ourselves, at various levels and in varying states of crampedness or luxury. Or work in office space, or service sector employment, all, squeezed into the (usually lower) floors of the towers, whose urban geography, commercial environment, or inner zoning; meaning the shops below and restaurants too, are often part of an extended a Lower level, zone of commerce, up to the 6 or 7th floor before giving way to residential space; the concrete tubes that, customized, make up living space. And despite knowing how ‘they ‘ life (for ‘we’ too are ‘they’) nevertheless the old itch of curiousity makes itself felt (as when we overlook others, others windows or balconies, and can cannot resist watching, speculating… staring: nothing new, but still life, and live…(‘as it happens’, the secret of ‘reality’ shows…). The desire of the Middle, our never-ending curiosity about each other… driven, to be sure, by recognition desire (here only indirectly operative, as we are voyeurs) and sexual desire, as our ever-present white noise back ground of the imagination, stimulated, (fore-) grounded, by the sight of others’ lives…
Rising as trees rise on the side of a mountain. Some of the same species, grouped together as if grown from the same seed (the same blueprint) some unique, mutations, variation from the norm, the skiamorph or the concrete high rise, to flower or disfigure the scene of sky-seeking, surface seeking, concrete coral reefs, each with their many cells, and many inhabitants.
Shops and more, more shops, and more restaurants, and yet more, the endless rows of eateries, open to the street or on the street, or closed inside, second floor windows open releasing the scent of cooking, or closed to facilitate air conditioned life, with all around the air full of (火锅味儿) huoguowei-er, the smell of spiced oil, the bite of dried red chillis in the air, most effective spur to appetite in a hot and humid place. The lower floors (usually two (more in the square where the eyes’ reach is extended, a more open view exists) covered, literally drowned in signs, in the varieties of style of presentation (the ‘means of expression’!) of Chinese characters. The goods of sale and the signs of goods, the food and their representations, the objects, things and their written equivalents. Jostling for space, each the advert of the others; script with the ‘thing’ as complement. All in an endless relationship of metonymy (no space for the secrets of metaphor). With the endless flow of humanity past, stopping, arguing, debating purchase or choice of dish, weighing quality and price. The time of labour to be exchanged and the time of consumption of the objects - food eaten on the street or behind a table with chilled beer in a place with qifen/atmosphere (气氛)，renao (热闹)/buzz, and in chairs under trees in small squares or shady spaces, protected from the sun, people congregate to chat and loll, wilt, or relax…** These generally older, the younger congregating on malls or in cafes, but all, yes all, in the restaurants to eat the unfailingly spicy, ‘hot’, strongly-flavoured food that it this city’s hallmark and glory.
One strip, one (or two) floors among many; the flow of what we see, as our eyes sweep before us, an amateur hand-held film, taking in people and shop frots, commodities and bodies, and faces…
(And the lower depths) …glimpsed (just as the sky is glimsped) in between the rest; between the middle and the ground floors flickering strip of life, the ‘meat in the sandwich’ where all life in concentrated. (And the lower depths) glimpsed over walls and barriers and through fences, dark unused space that is what remains of the old city (where not preserved or reproduced, ‘Disneyfied’ as food malls or salutary (political) reminders of the poverty of the past… enchanting wooden architecture no one would want to live in now… as part of a parallel process that has swept the world, , leaving the last traces of the once ubiquitous culture of wooden architecture, in villages or more generally in South-East Area as a disappearing form of life…). Most often we see stairs that descend… to we know not where, only the older generation know, reminders/reminders of the way the city traffic communicated in the past, steep stairs rising and falling through many levels of dwellings, many tens or even hundreds of meters, to reach higher levels. Often the drops are sheer, showing stone work from previous generations of building, archeology or city history, city development… the dark opposite pole of the burning light above, symbolic geography indeed. And suspended between the fragments of light and dark… the rest, the life world on the ground levels… and the wall of the windows, arrayed cells of monastic proportions, containers of life ‘machines for living’). Private space. Small bits of chopped-up space for people hide away in.
Foundations, the blind corners of forgotten space (history). Shadows. Echoes… (…history…)
Life-world (and underworld), grid and sky. Eye-rising…
It is from its many bridges that the best views of Chongqing may be had. Beginning to cross, crossing, arriving at the opposite bank and turning to view the landscape behind; all give the view over water to ‘the other side; mystifying, the place just out of reach (and symbolically, always out of reach, optically non-existent, because present only as a view, existing only from the place where we are; the place when arrive at, lived in, looks, will look, and feel, different). And from when we stop at mid-crossing: looking out across the broad slow-flowing river with its steeply-rising banks: sky and water frame land and architecture; the texture of human habitation; sky is reflected in water, their shared light setting off the darker masses of the land, the two shores with their coating of an accreted city, inch-deep surface strata of human culture. Like vast beasts rising out of the waters, their skins bearing a forest of civilisation. Or like twin teeming continents viewed from afar.
Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2017