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Practical Utopias: Global Urbanism in Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, and Tokyo

Center for Architecture, New York
Through January 18, 2014

There is something aggressive about the title of this exhibition. When prompted, curator Jonathan Solomon responded, “Any student of history — or of architecture — knows that the aspirations of utopia are always shadowed by the specter of dystopia.” That specter is pronounced in the projects that populate this small show, made up of extremely large, even monstrous, works: supertall towers, central business districts, mixed-use superblocks, and transportation infrastructure. Collectively, they represent the impatient urbanism that has flourished throughout Asia over the past 20 years, the built results of the efforts of five cities — Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, and Tokyo — to assert their place in a “global economy.”

These projects often defy comprehension. One characteristic description: “Marina Bay Sands is a mixed-use integrated resort made up of a museum, two 4,000-seat theaters, a 2,600-room hotel, shopping mall, convention and exhibition spaces, and a casino.” This Singaporean development is labeled Fun, alongside the exhibition’s other categories: Green, Dense, Thick, and Connected.

Although this sort of thematic grouping is standard for recent architectural exhibitions, it comes up short here because the interest of the projects is not their visible surface but the inordinate complexity of underlying systems — mechanical, structural, and organizational. A more forceful curatorial approach might have focused more on the show’s best drawings — cross-sections and bird’s-eye cutaways — that reveal deeply layered infrastructures.

Nevertheless, the scale and intricacy of these islands of congestion are enthralling and nearly unbelievable. These projects swallow the city and reproduce its complexity within their boundaries, producing new spaces that we can call “utopian,” at least for the time being.