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Shanghai Symbiosis capsules at the non-places

The future city is older than we might think. The present Chinese City has many different levels of social realities old and new unfolding a certain poetic and vitality to the street. They undergo a transformation and shift through the fast reconfiguration of the city space. One of the most mobile are the people who facilitate the streets with all kind of services and products. They adapt with a very low tech, but efficient and therefore innovative way to a changing environment. When we want to discuss

the future city Shanghai in the Expo 2010 these domains of the Chinese City must be included. The high tech inspires fantasies, makes curious, but there is also a technology and knowledge that is so naturally embedded in our daily life that its mutual presence is not recognized. It is going to be there in the future anyway. It just might be interesting to find out what kind of potentials they bear already. The Chinese City including all these levels has the advantage to make use of it. 3


“…We don’t live in the Network but in capsules. All networks, from the train network, over the motorcar network and the aerial transportation network to the telephone network unto the worldwide web - all networks function with capsules. … I propose capsule here as the most general concept for every closed off and pluggedin entity, which as a sum makes the networks what they are. No Network without capsules...” (De Cauter)

Intro The future city discussed in this article is not the one where new technologies solve future challenges. It rather tries to look at the present. While new technologies find their way into every pocket and home, like mobile phones and computers, the majority of the tools we use can be traced back to the first settlements. Examples are the chopsticks still everybody uses in Asia as an extension of the hand, the containers to preserve food, or the wheel as an ease for any kind of transport. Each one of them moved human kind into a new stage of relation. But as the last century has shown us, it is more the appropriation of the tools, or more general termed capsules, that is transforming our society. In the last century the modernist movement declared the machine to the dominant. Technologies developed high rise buildings, airplanes, photography and film cameras, extended the perception of men so impressively that it was hard to free him from it. Le Corbusier declared that “the home was a machine for living”, movie director Sergei Eisenstein said “the cinema is a machine”, and Marinetti, the Italian Futurist “a poem is a machine” (Kurokawa). There had been early critique like Bergson’s on the inhuman machine time in “Time and Free Will”, but most movements did see the possibilities in it rather than the inhuman. In general any kind of knowledge was relating to a broad cultural shift of every day life. But not only cultural and intellectual protagonists’ works and words were carrying the machine age into daily life; it was also the machine itself, unfortunately, not only in a positive way. World War One brought a new dimension of killing and destruction. While the one side was hoping that the machine is offering the solutions to the suffering of the people, this war resulted in a new civil suffer and trauma. Second World War did even exceed any imaginable. Human use of technology, methods and thinking was able to kill systematically millions. New weapons became so powerful to endanger the entire human species. This experience could be one explanation for a new


generation of thinkers that formed a broad knowledge after WWII to revise the paradigm of western centred philosophies.

Theory An important representant is Kurokawa, a Japanese philosopher and architect. He uses Asian thinking to develop a framework describing the turn from “the age of the machine” into “the age of life” of 21st century. Forming the Metabolism group in the 60’s he describes with the concept of symbiosis “the relationship of mutual need, while opposition, competition and contradiction remain.” They distinguish it from “the images projected by harmony, coexistence, amalgamation and compromise.” (Kurokawa) He is still active as a writer and architect. In 2006 Zhengdong City in Henan Province, China has been design by him. There is another theorist I want to mention before I move to the issue of facilitation in Shanghai. The younger Belgian De Cauter is relating his thinking to metabolism theory. He claims that the general entities of any network are capsules. The capsules as a sum are making a network of relations in a city. The capsules are culture, identity as well as a tool that enables or restricts. Both offer a model of thought particular relevant for China. While the development of the Chinese Cities is many times described as “modernisation”, their future cannot follow the same path the so called “developed cities” have taken. This kind of “Modernisation” is not replicable, but also not the solution for future challenges towards a sustainable society. I suggest that it must be seen as a narrative that has to be written. An important part in “Modernisation” plays the call for new technologies that offer the solutions for our problems. But the Chinese City not need the same technological standards it has effective alternatives to offer. It might be turned around. The “developed” city can learn and reflect through the observation of the “undeveloped”.


One great example is the facilitation achieved by a network of individual initiatives using simple but innovative, energy efficient capsules. Shanghai has a rich service distribution without any central or even polycentric steered administration. The Facili. City Shanghai is presently run in great parts by lower income population using the street to offer their services. It provides them with the basic income. By doing so they build a symbiotic relationship with other inhabitants, the capsules they use and the urban landscape the move through.

Simplicity In Shanghai many inhabitants have to adapt constantly to their surroundings. By doing so, a large group of the population relies on resources that are simple appropriated. Simple means access to material without large investment, use of technology without a highly specialized knowledge. As an example, the many street kitchens are constructed of tools every household uses, integrated in a handcart of wood and metal. They are part of the Shanghai gastronomy not only by number. Food is served nearly 24 hours in most districts because they share space over day time with local services. While the restaurant closes its doors, on the street a mobile hot food stall is set up nest to it. Another relation is to complement an offer at the same time. Fried bakery next to the soup kitchen, hot noodles next to the “All days” supermarket. Relations and cooperation is formed. The mobile entities function because they can so easily access the spaces that are temporary available in the city. They appropriate, complement what cannot be foreseen in a plan. Such places become symbiotic spaces of a very heterogenic society.

Administration This possibility for such an informal activity is attractive. The mobile capsules form a facility network and distribute similar services all over the city. This system is not initiated by a central authority, but has to be enabled. This is of major importance and makes it different from other models for the facilitation of cities.

While the waste management is done central in Western cities by big companies employing worker, in Shanghai many people rely on the income from transporting the waste, sorting and reintroducing it into the recycle process. Centralization would take away the income of the poorest people. In general it gives the individual the possibility to become active. The effort to regulate the facilitation of Shanghai by controlling space and time is energy consuming. The amount of people and speed Shanghais city space is transforming make that even more difficult. A central or polycentric authority has a disadvantage to those who appropriate by their own initiative. It cannot react as fast as the individual can.

Planning Planning seen as enabling can do something very important for the facilitation of Shanghai. While land is privatized the state can guarantee a certain level of accessibility to space for its inhabitants through regulations, policies and master planning. An intermediate space must be distributed in a way that it establishes consecutive corridors where the different socio-economic activities can link. The more variety, the more social mix is at one place the better. Distances between the groups must be short. Handcrafted transport can only be remained when the route can be gone. Otherwise a next level of technology is necessary. That would be a motorized vehicle consuming energy and making the service more expensive. The competition is limited. Not everybody can afford the investment. A technical standard that does not primarily make the whole more effective. General planning attributes define a city that is providing space for symbiosis. They are variety, social mix, short distances and intermediate space to enable peoples initiatives. I want to illustrate some examples and relations for further analyses.




“We are now questioning Darwin’s theory of evolution. We must challenge the claim that human being - that is, the human species - exists at the peak of an evolutionary climb and that the economic prosperity and technological culture fashioned by our reason may rightly serve as the means of natural selection for other living beings. Labeling stage of development, such as undeveloped nations, semi-developed nations and developed nations, represents a notion of progress that is similar to Darwin’s theory of evolution.” (Kurokawa, 2006)

Korukawa is arguing that the concept of our development underlies a general false estimation. A very technological and economical centred way of rational thinking delimits the way we evaluate progress. The stage of development of a nation and a society can be questioned as an ideological label. This is very important for the internal and external evaluation of the future city. The so called “developing countries” might be more developed as it is acknowledged by those forces who promote the “developed” culture.

The call for “the age of life” instead of the “age of the machine” is therefore one concept that draws attention to the relationship of the individual to its human and non human environment. The capsule seen as an extension of the human body is determining this relation. This makes sense when we keep in mind that it is not the object that defines the level of development or culture, it is men itself. The tool might be high or low tech, the challenge is how society is conditioning life through it. So what is innovation then?

Environmental pollution, global warming and the distinction of other species through a certain culture of economic prosperity and technological achievements is destabilizing not only nature; it is also leading to social tensions in society. The issue of capsules moves from the extension of the body’s cells to one that has global reach. Exclusion in our evaluation can be observed in two strands. The first one is oriented toward the role of capsule body environment relations. The second one is about which domains are observed at all.

“We must move from an age of economic assistance offered by the developed countries to the developing countries, and of the forced introduction of the cultures of the advanced nations to the “less developed nations” to aid aimed at the creation of a “developing”. The idea of technology transfer, too, is another manifestation of the domination of the advanced countries, an extension of the “universalism” of the age of the machine. In the age of life it will be necessary to transform the technologies of the advanced nations and discover ways for them to exist in symbiosis historically existing traditional technologies of other regions.” (Kurokawa, 2006) 8


Age Succession

Face to face stretching into modernity and out. Facilitating a city deals with the basic ontological security. Different dimensions of time and space are involved in routine encounters and daily existence. The Giddens model of traditional and modern societies shown below does illustrate the impact of modernity but can be criticized of neglecting a psycho biography where fears and threats are differently experienced by the individual (Layder, 2006). Another problem of the model is the differentiation into ages. The terms might be missleading for the evaluation of Shanghai. Instead of succeeding, such social realities exist mutually in the city. traditional societies

modern societies

high presence availability face to face

social relations stretched over time and space

social control

technologies of surveillance

Mutuality 9

... and systems innovate...

source spot, well and collector

line channel, pipe and connector

... toward miniaturization and extension

container loading station and carrier 10

rays transmitter and receiver

Shanghai Capsules

The future city has to provide many different systems when it is going to keep to accelerate its speed and reach. Fast Shanghai is challenged with the integration of many social domains, an advantage as well. It can be seen that there exists a culture of initiative and cooperation between the people that is actually highly innovative and efficient. One is energy and resource use. Materials are recycled and integrated into the demands, as far as possible men power is used for practise. Secondly, the city scape is constantly reused. Small markets do arise during a certain day time. Socially cooperations are formed between them. During the day at one street corner magazines and newspapers might be sold, at night time a street kitchen is selling food, both services opposite to a 24 hour fruit market. A share of space over time. Others simply gather to a vegetable market and extend there single offer with other competitors. This makes the place more attractive for costumers. Shanghai is through such variety and density a very convenient city, offering services 24 hours close to nearly every home. This indirectly makes the drive to the big supermarket not necessary. As well the flat tire is fixed at the countless bicycle stations on the walkways. It is a symbiosis that cannot be planned but enabled and integrated in the way the city is faciliated. Parts of the Chinese City can be a good model for a sustainable society. 11




Capsules, networks and the non-places


neighbourhood and the car free street

The smallest and simple capsules all over Shanghai have many commons that make them interesting as a system for the future city. Especially their use of human power to be moved, the simple materials, their size and their adaption to the requirements is resource efficient and space saving. Because they are so easy initiated by the individual they become a very important part in the social balance of Shanghai, allowing the poorest to appropriate space that becomes a expensive value.

urban fabric. Walking deeper into the old neighbourhood many of these carts and vendors can be found. The concentration at this place is larger in number. Costumers are people walking mainly, probably living close in the remaining parts of the neighbourhood.

The side street to Tibet Road is leading to one of the poorer areas of Hongkou district. Parts of the housings are already demolished. At this crossing a market has formed with a huge variety of different products. The carts are even placed on the street. No traffic is interfering. The scenery of demolished houses illustrates the changes in the Shanghai 15

public light sources

The light is an important well for any service at night. Sometimes it is a street lamb, the illumination of a display or the shop windows light which allow a second or third party to appropriate space. Both pictures are taken in Hongkou 10 minutes walk distance.


The first is a side streets of the residential areas between Tibet Road and Baoshan Lu.

commercial light sources

The second is at a major crossing of Baoshan Lu, a with cars frequented street with larger commercial centres. The two kitchen stand at the staircase to the elevated pedestrian way.


complement and extend

Shops, supermarkets, restaurants are many times complemented. The localization can have many reasons. One could be that it simply is an attractive place being frequented by people, another that it serves a similar need offered next by. Sometimes the individual adds a small offer, the many similar a whole market to the place.


On the picture the vegetable vendors stand in front of the pole barriers of the walkway on Wujin Lu. The reasons why such an agglomerate exists can be functional. But being a situated activity it can also relate to local habits relating to former and present contextual resources. It can be that a market had existed close and is relocated, or a group comforts the company. It does not mean that the conditions have to be ideal. The pedestrian way would provide better space, but is for different reasons not accessible.

disappear and cooperate

Waste is the part a city is never keen on having. It better disappears. Instead of a centralized management in Shanghai single collectors with bags, carts or bicycles collect every material that is recyclable. For the very poorest it is an important income to resell it. The Shanghai architecture does not have to norms for responding to waste disposal trucks. Many small carriers access every unit. The urban fabric does not need to integrate the transport but only the storage spaces. Intermediate space is necessary.

The advantage of the temporary small intermediate spaces is that they utilizes the capacity the city space offers. We have to put in mind that every city does produce waste and stores it somewhere. It is a social and spatial issue how it is collected.

A second station in the circle is to store and sort materials before they are sold. Most of the time it is the hidden spaces, a temporary accessible construction place, or as in the picture a wall next to the dead end of the metro line 4. To collect, store and sort cooperation is necessary. 19

network access



Both pictures are taken only a few meters from one another. At the restored Duolun Lu in Honkou several shops with antiques, books and handcraft are complemented at dark with food vendors inside the gates. A certain continuity for the evening and night use enabled a further step. While the food stands do serve better and better accommodation they improve also their performance. Some plug into the electricity system, others use mobile energy storage. Routines enabled the temporary to innovate.

electric cycle they draw off the energy for two light bulbs. It shows how innovation and efficiency rely on a continuity temporary use. A symbiosis might be more based on trust and communication than technological inventions. This is the vivid, resource efficient, innovative Shanghainese street life.

As a local resident I could observe the development for several months. Until the week the picture was taken, the woman sold the boild sticks always in the dark next to the gate. The new vendor located right next to her offered not only a sweet dish but also an energy source. Using the battery of his 21

Capsules in Commercial streets


Pudong is symbolic for Shanghais development into a capital oriented market economy. Besides the skyscrapers photographed from the Bund there are many projects that are a raw model for Shanghai lifestyle. One considered best practise example is Da Mu Zhi Guanchang. Instead of a enclosed shopping mall the developer built a shopping street hosting many international companies like Starbucks, Carrefour, to name the most famous, and some regional branches. The commercial centre serves one of the most attractive residential parts of Pudong, accessible by car or taxi from the next Metro station. It is a popular spot under Shanghai citizens.

As the picture show there is a border between public and semi public space for agencies. On the one side there are capsules of one person agents, and on the other the shopping carts and promotion stands provided by companies. On the commercial streets is event marketing and promotion, while on the bicycle parking lane mainly goods for entertainment are sold. On the forefront the mobile flower and balloon vendor


Shanghai Symbiosis  

a study about the faciliation of a mega-metropolis