Constructing Urban Futures in Asia

Growing prosperity and ongoing rural-urban migration have been feeding an unprecedented building boom across the cities of East, Southeast and South Asia, often coupled with a renewed appreciation of built cultural heritage. Thereby, Asia is taking the lead in the growth of global construction, which has been less affected than other sectors by the pandemic. Not only is this transforming political economies; it will also create the signature metropolises of our century and challenge Euroamerican hegemony over notions of the urban. Profits are as enormous as the risks involved, as the current slump of the Chinese real estate market demonstrates. With so much urban space being created and remade, what does this hold in store for current and future urban governance, commerce and human lives – is the social fabric transformed as thoroughly as the physical one?

Headed by Christoph Brumann and building on his experience in studying the tensions of conservation and development in Kyoto, Japan, the research group is a joint endeavour of the departments “The Anthropology of Politics and Governance” (led by Ursula Rao) and “Anthropology of Economic Experimentation” (led by Biao Xiang). Different from prior studies that focused on people displaced by re-development or the experience of new residents, the group will focus on the actual builders of these cities – planners, architects, engineers, conservationists, real estate agents and other professionals in the construction sector, all of whom have received little ethnographic attention so far, particularly in Asia. What are their concerns, strategies, aspirations and compromises and how do they deal with the multiplicity of political and economic actors populating the field? These questions will be addressed through workplace ethnography.

Political science and economics tend to neglect the city as a unit of analysis, but populations, value creation and political power are centred here, and urbanisation and urban real estate are key storages for capital and labour surpluses. The group will therefore address the political economy of building, given its “heaviness” that invariably makes it more local and grounded than other industries, with ties between developers, contractors and public officials correspondingly close – municipalities themselves set up development corporations in China or Vietnam. Construction can also be intensely symbolic, charged with celebrating the political elites’ vision and prowess, as the current wave of relocating capitals in the region demonstrates. We expect all this to create challenges for professionals navigating their course between state officials, developers, building firms, customers, neighbours and prior owners and residents. To what degree do they serve their clients’ and their own interests, and do they aim to contribute to the built environment as a shared space, an urban commons with an impact on everyone who moves through it? Do they dream up an innovative future or do they ground themselves in the past, linking up with local built traditions? Do they see their modernity as “Western”, given the origin of modern building forms and technologies, or are Asian developments in such places as Shanghai, Dubai or Singapore the primary frame of reference? And how do they deal with the ecological challenges of urban building and its massive carbon footprint? Postdoctoral research projects will focus on smart-city development in Hangzhou, China, and real-estate financialisation in Kochi and other Indian cities. Doctoral researchers are currently being recruited.


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