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Neon Skylines

April 8, 2012

Anyone who visits China these days, especially those who stray from the few historically preserved areas that have maintained traditional architectural forms, will be witness to a landscape dominated by forests of new skyscrapers.  It’s literally jawdropping to see this kind of frenetic building across China, and there’s no way to convey the scale of construction adequately in words.  It really takes many hours hours of driving up and down the Eastern megalopolis to understand exactly what’s going on in Chinese building and architecture.   Had we access to a small airplane or helicopter, that might be the ideal method for capturing visuals that elude mere snapshots or verbal description.

We have visited only a few cities during our eight weeks here: Shanghai, Nanjing, Xiamen, Hefei, Jiujiang, and Hong Kong, although we’ve had a chance to see all of them during night and daytime hours.  Later in the Spring, we are hoping to travel more widely, including my lecture trips North to Qingdao, Beijing, and Harbin, West to Chongqing, and to a few locations closer to Nanjing.  By no means have we logged enough travel to draw final conclusions, of course.  Most of the places we’ve seen so far, with the exception of areas near Xiamen (Fujian Province) and Hong Kong, are located along the Yangtze River valley, in east central China.  But especially outside of the very prosperous coastal areas, which feature glamorous and adventurous buildings in places like Shanghai and Xiamen, the overall built environment we have seen is largely concrete gray and sometimes the mirrored surfaces of skyscrapers in the wealthier parts of big cities, and that’s the visual impression one gets during sunlit hours, or at least those hours when the sun tries to light things up.  Touring the daytime countryside and cityscapes, we are awash in a visual palette of concrete gray buildings whose edges fuzzily merge with the sky.  Many of these structures are the endless rows of utilitarian apartment buildings, most of which appear to be in the range of about 30-40 stories tall.  But when the sun is up, it can be difficult to tell where apartment building ends and sky begins.

Gray structures, on the vast majority of Chinese days, emerge from gray skies muted by extremely dense “haze.”  As many Asian commentators have noted, the air pollution in Eastern China is terrible and frequently registers at levels dangerous to human beings, and so the overall landscape can seem relentlessly gray, especially in the early part of the day, when the sun is low and fog, smog, haze, dust, and mist combine to shroud everything in a muggy blanket of soupy atmosphere.

Hefei skyscrapers.

Nightime is a different story, however, as modern architects have figured out ways to use relatively efficient LED lighting to spectacular effect, as have architects in other Asian cities and in Western cities like Toronto and others.  Rows of skyscrapers lit with neon-like LEDs from top to bottom create a kind of fantasia of color reaching to the sky.  The cities here in China are just a lot more interesting visually and geometrically vivid at night, once they get massively plugged in and eyes feasting on colors can neglect the haze of daytime.

Neon in Hong Kong

Our tourist adrenaline races faster when the sun goes down, as the sharper shadows of evening throw formerly indistinct Chinese skylines into dramatic relief.  Shanghai is probably the grand champion of LED skyscraper lighting, but Hong Kong is not too far behind and other Chinese cities make excellent use of large-scale architectural lighting, sometimes static and other times dynamic with pulsing, rippling patterns of neon-colored LED strips.  There are some differences though, in how the night lighting is deployed.   In the old cosmopolis of Hong Kong, with its unapologetic market capitalism and free trade, a longer tradition of nighttime neon appears to be aimed frankly at advertising its goods for sale.  It’s easy to see the brand names lighting the tops of Hong Kong Island skyscrapers from vantage of Kowloon or on the ferry ride across Victoria Harbor.  In Hong Kong, brightly lit buildings mean business (of all kinds) above all.   A somewhat newer trend — most evident in Shanghai but trickling into other Chinese cities — is to light things up just because the awesome new architecture is simply more beautiful when sculpted into a vibrant spectrum of midnight geometries.  The lighting technology seems to exist for this purpose, as do the frequently stunning buildings created by Chinese architects of the past several decades.  Skylines that are practically invisible in afternoon smog have the capacity to come to life, with the best of new Chinese buildings (and in the wealthiest of neighborhoods), as fantasias of cutting-edge architectural invention.  But, until the air is clear, only after sunset.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Thomas Argiro permalink
    April 9, 2012 3:11 pm

    It’s an interesting issue, the influence of lighting engineering on the way that one perceives one’s social surroundings. Certainly, contemporary lighting displays confirm a culture’s movement toward and commitment to all of the technical sophistication that attends upon modernity, and the eye-binding effects of such a panoply of optical enticements lures the mind of the viewer into an aesthetic contemplation of the cityscape as a field of electrified and imaginative pageantry. Yet as Burton Cummings once put it in the song “American Woman,” “colored lights can hypnotize,” by which I believe he meant that neon has a seductive quality that may obscure its very own artificiality, behind which lies the further artifice of making the material realm seem innocently surreal. Such a display is made for the benefit of concealing the fact that the social domain does not serve the aesthetic contemplation of life, but the very opposite, the naturalizing of a life that places aesthetics at a far distance from a society’s political pursuits. Coupled with more recent architectural forms, this theatrical profusion serves as mere window dressing for the machinations of capitalism, or in China’s case, for the prefigured objectives of a corporatized statist nationalism bent on impressing via dazzling images while denying deeper political and cultural contradictions. The lights are, of course, very modern and artistically beautiful, but their presence may be more pragmatic than their initial impression conveys.

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