A New Tradition of East Asian Cities; The Dualistic Urban strucuture

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Pilwon Han / Professor of Department of Architecture, Hannam University

East Asia, mainly consisting of China, Korea, and Japan, is on the rise as a target of interest and research for not just East Asians but Westerners as well. East Asia seems to have the potential to generate alternatives to the Western-dominated civilization of the 20th century.

The issue of this article is the urban structure of East Asian historic cities that have evolved over a period longer than half a millennium, even though historic cityscapes have largely disappeared. In historic cities, the urban structure is an object upon which the history and the culture of a society are reflected. So, one effective means by which the unique socio-cultural characters of East Asian cities can be understood is a critical review of their urbanism and architecture.

Issues of the built environment, including cities and architecture, are approached and understood differently according to viewpoint. Westerners may view East Asian cities and architecture from a perspective of cultural curiosity or economic marketing. It is hard to deny that Koreans and Japanese share the same viewpoint when seeing Chinese cities, chiefly because their countries have long been isolated from China diplomatically, politically, and economically. Unlike European countries, there was a long period during which East Asian countries did not have open communications and cultural exchange with one another. For example, Japanese movies were illegal in Korea as late as 1999.

In this context, what meaning can be drawn from the tangible structures of East Asian cities? This question is especially relevant for the inhabitants of East Asia. An answer can be found in the following two points:

First, such a review can help to diagnose phenomena which are common in East Asian urbanism, and it can be the first step to finding clues for future development of East Asian cities. Experience has shown that useful solutions are more often found inside the problem than outside.

Second, such a review is needed to critically evaluate the urban and architectural strategies that were mainly developed in Western countries. As countless examples attest, such theories and methodologies have proven inappropriate to the East Asian context. Regional alternatives are urgently needed. For these reasons, it is crucial to re-examine East Asian cities and their architecture.

Let's dwell for a moment on the former point. The present condition of East Asian urbanism and architecture may be briefly described as 'chaos' or 'high entropy'. Of course, outsiders may find vitality or interest there. However, dwellers living in such an environment are distressed by the negative aspects of their complicated urban lives. First of all, the contemporary urban environment of East Asia is one of the chief sources of stress for its citizens. Therefore, it seems to be not because of their cultural preferences or vague dreams of the so-called 'advanced model' but because of the poignant realistic problems they face that the East Asians are so willingly fascinated with West-European cities whose conditions are quite different from theirs. The problem is, however, that the so-called Western model may not be a good answer for their cities.

The urban problems that now aggravate East Asia have been mainly derived from the drive for the modernization or Westernization in the latter half of the 20th century. For the present, it is a major task of East Asian urbanists and architects to tackle these problems. To be effective, it is crucial to diagnose the problems with regionally-developed tools applicable to the East Asian condition. Such tools can be extracted from the urban structure, hidden beneath the modern veneer, formed over the course of the city's history. Fortunately, there is a growing recognition of this problem in East Asia. It is in this context, in spite of the perennial suspicion of Japanese style expansionism, that studies on the East Asian historic cities, especially Edo period Tokyo (1603~1867), are booming in Japan.

Let's pause for a moment to consider the latter point. Almost all influential theories of urbanism and architecture are based on West-European models, particularly those derived from West-European medieval cities. For example, Kevin Lynch, who is famous for his book, 'The Image of the City (1960)', has criticized American cities using a model derived from West-European cities. The theory of Aldo Rossi, which is found in his famous book, 'The Architecture of the City (1982)', can be said to echo Lynch in that its analysis is confined to Western Europe. Such theories are becoming increasingly obsolete in the 'Age of Globalization' because of their limited scope. Global theories of the future must include results of research in East Asian cities as well.

How then, can the situation of East Asian cities be improved? Should we limit ourselves to studying the existing theories or the so-called advanced cases which are confined to Western cities? Considering that the Western theories of urbanism and architecture are grounded in their own historic cities, it is not unreasonable to assume that the problems of East Asian cities can be handled by means of the theories and methodologies derived from the reality of these cities.

The rapid urbanization of the 20th century has destroyed or distorted the features of the East Asian historic cities. Through the process, however, East Asian cities have come to have a conspicuous character whose bud has already pushed out in their history. Though disorderly at a glance, we can discern a dual structure if we view them in a spatial-structural perspective. By dual structure, we mean that there are concurrently two dramatically contrasting elements of a city: the cosmopolitan and the local. And it should be noted that the dual structure is formed and maintained by means of a hierarchical street pattern.

There are various territories in the city and they are connected by streets. In East Asian cities, monumental architecture such as palaces have their own territories with clear boundaries. However, the ordinary urban areas are organized around streets rather than territorial systems. Unlike Western cities which use public squares as major public open spaces, East Asian cities use streets as the venue for public activity. The streets provide most public space in East Asian cities, and they function as integrating elements rather than edges or boundaries of districts, which is contrary to the ideas of Kevin Lynch. The streets often stand for the cities themselves in East Asia. Machi, which designates the street in Japanese, means "the city".

The streets themselves have a dual hierarchy in East Asian cities. They can be classified into arterial roads and alleyways, which are called golmok in Korea, hutong in China, and roji in Japan. The main roads are the primary lines framing the city, and the inner (alleyway) roads are woven into the urban planes. In East Asian cities, these urban lines and planes generally coexist side-by-side, though they don't have spatial or ordinary relationships.

Presently, the main roads are defined by high-rise offices or commercial buildings. These lines, the basic framework of the East Asian city, have been gradually framed with mega-structures whose styles can be called American or cosmopolitan. It may be said to be an inevitable result of Late Capitalism. In this aspect, even Suzhou is not an exception. Suzhou is one of the most beautiful historic cities in China, often compared with Venice, Italy. On the Renmin-lu, the central south-north street of Suzhou, it is nearly impossible to recognize Suzhou's unique urban tradition.

Fig.1: Traditional housing area of Suzhou

On the contrary, the urban planes are mainly filled with urban houses, parts of which are often occupied by retail shops. Unlike the urban lines, these planes still have regional tradition or identity. We can find the urban planes with strong regional tradition if we step inside a layer in any East Asian city: Seoul in Korea, Tokyo or Kyoto in Japan, Beijing or Shanghai in China ...... Though the old buildings have been partly replaced by new ones, the urban tissue and logic have been sustained in the urban planes. It is true that East Asian cities and their architecture have been transformed dramatically through the modernization period by external factors such as redevelopment and new urban planning. However, through the struggle against external pressure, the historic logic underlying the individual complex phenomena has remained largely intact. It is these very planes that contain the potential of East Asian cities, and which distinguish East Asian cities from one another.

This kind of duality contrasts with the urban structure of European cities which are considered desirable by many East Asians. Generally, there is no such dramatic duality in scale in European cities since the multi-family housing blocks which enclose courtyards define concurrently both main roads and planes behind them. And, there is not such a planar differentiation of building uses in European cities where a building has both a commercial part on its lower floors and a housing part on its higher floors.

Given that the identities of the East Asian cities are found in the urban planes within the urban lines, we need to look to the planes to critically understand East Asian cities. The planes are mainly composed of urban houses whose types contain the characteristics of the urban structure. The urban house types in East Asia are common in that they have private individual courtyards: An-madang in Korea, yuanzi in China, and niwa in Japan. The urban house types represent the features of the cities in which they are found. Compare the typical urban house types - siheyuan in Beijing, lilong House in Shanghai, hanok in Seoul, and machiya in Tokyo - and you can discover differences of the cities, not to mention those of the house types themselves. Therefore, the urban house types are worth examining to clarify the individuality of any East Asian as well as the common identity of East Asian cities.


Fig.2: Hanok area of Seoul                   Fig.3: Siheyuan area of Beijing


Fig.4: Lilong House area of Shanghai     Fig.5: Machiya area of Tokyo

The duality of the East Asian urban structure has been strengthened in the latter half of the 20th century. It is considered to be positive in that it forms a spatial frame to house both the cosmopolitan and the local features of a city. It is deemed to have potential as an East Asian model. Therefore, it is worth being sustained and strengthened in the future, and it can be called a 'new tradition' of East Asian cities. The new tradition also has the potential to be used as a tool to criticize the development of the East Asian cities, especially those of mega-cities, in the end of the 20th century.

Korean cities have pursued a homogeneous development model, or a development of a monolayer, following the lead of many Western cities since the 1960s. In Korean cities, the 'new' buildings in size and type have been introduced into the urban planes, not to mention into the lines (the major streets). This has resulted in a crisis of identity for the whole city. Chinese cities have pursued a different direction to sustain the splendid historic tradition in the forms of almost all kinds of buildings. Such an extreme intent to introduce traditional elements into almost all types of buildings, especially monumental ones, denigrates the major streets of Chinese historic cities, demoting them to the level of exhibition spaces of immature retrospective architecture. Any attempts to organize entire cities on a uniform pattern are neither desirable nor feasible in East Asia, regardless of the model the city adopts. Such attempts are probably the primary reason for the increasingly disordered situations in East Asian cities today.

The new tradition established in the last century in East Asian cities is thought to be a good foundation for future development. This is a realistic urban framework to contain the inevitable conditions of East Asian cities such as an extremely high density. East Asian cities are now at the brink of losing their beautiful traditions. Now is the time that an East Asian model of urbanism and architecture should be sought. In the pursuit of such a model, the dual structure of urban lines and planes which has been argued here should be respected. And the methodologies supporting the structure need to be developed. East Asian cities are clearly at a crucial turning point.

Fig.6: The dramatic contrast of high-rise buildings and  traditional urban houses, and high density in Shanghai


About the contributor;

Pilwon Han, Ph.D. is an associate professor of the architecture department at Hannam University in Korea. He has researched the traditional dwellings and settlements of Korea, China and Japan for 16 years. He manages an Internet site, ATA - Asian Tradition in Architecture (http://ata.hannam.ac.kr) - offering relevant slides and articles.