Big Road Architecture

In Asia, the megaprojects that have been celebrated as symbols of human progress are preceded by the road. Prior to the road there is no architecture. As the Thames defines London; the Seine, Paris; the Hudson, New York; so too the road grants not only the place to architecture but also meaning and experience. In the first instance, waterfronts are geographic givens, discovered by explorers keenly sensitive to the attributes that constitute a natural harbor. Only later do waterfronts undergo the dramatic transformations of land “reclamation,” dredging, and expansion that creates much of the most highly valued real estate in the world. [Singapore, Rotterdam] In contrast, big roads in Asia take form in the abstract on maps, not on the ground. Their paths are determined neither by prior roads, nor topography, nor geographic features. Rather the abstractions of planners and land values are the forces that drop big roads into position. Successive ring roads at certain approximate radii from the Central Business District generates a zone within which the actual trajectory of the road is pinned down through a calculus of land values, ownership rights, and the geometry of travel at 100 kilometers an hour.

Motivated by and experienced from the road, the meaning of modern architecture in the emerging cities of Asia is inextricably tied to the forces behind the construction, maintenance and expansion of major roadways.

The great streets of Asian cities have created some of the great experiences of Asia. [Maliaboro, Shanghai, Orchard Road, not Century Boulevard, Kyoto, Shinjaku, the Great Streets of Asia, Solo-Jogjakarta Ring Road induced travel, Japanese aid World War Two reconstruction and reparations, Bangkok, Manila, Jakarta, Banda Aceh]

Green house gas emissions is the number one problem. But the white elephant in the room is that the largest single source is untouchable. “The American way of life is non-negotiable.” Just as no politician would survive a proposal to limit then decrease the income levels of her constituents, nobody is likely to declare a freeze on the historic rise in annual kilometers traveled per capita. For a vast majority of the worlds population poor and rich alike, mobility is prosperity. The exception is the extremely rich who can afford to hunker down in luxury and stay put. One response is accessibility over mobility. But this is likely to prove as false as the prediction that the telephone would eliminate the need for face to face communication. Instead it had the opposite effect: it increased communications in general including the face-to-face. The other response is to increase mobility while decreasing its impacts. For better or worse, the impact of automobility is so great, that it is not a difficult goal to achieve.

For better or worse, what America does and does not achieve in terms of sustainability matters only to the extent that it influences the success or failure of efforts in China, India, Indonesia, and the rest of the developing world. The achievements across the continent, not only in Beijing but throughout the vast constructed geographies of Asia, are undertakings of great mass and expense. The driving force was to assert a place on the global stage, an identity worthy of international respect, etc. As massive as the concrete, steel, glass, earth and asphalt remain, there is a corresponding lightness to the lessons available in the wake of 20th century modernism in the west.

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