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David Harvey’s Thoughts on the Travelling Urban Form Proposed by Lu Duanfang

David Harvey’s works in geography and anthropology are well known throughout the world. His stance on neoliberalism and the effect of capitalism on geography is perhaps his most notable contribution to the academic world. Harvey contends that the organization and distribution of an area is a principal feature of capitalism. He has been able to merge Marxist ideologies with his own resulting in a unique and distinguished approach to the seemingly different topics of geography, architecture, capitalism and economics. His works have garnered popularity and are among the most cited works in the world. However, his theories have led to widespread antagonism from scholars who consider themselves anti-neoliberalists[1].

Lu Duanfang is a renowned professor of architecture and her works on Chinese architecture over time have transformed our understanding of the topic. Her works candidly point out that the generalizations that have been used to explain the architectural transformations that have occurred in other parts of the world cannot and should not be used to describe China’s change. Instead she explains that there is more to China’s transformation over the years than the global waves of architectural change[2]. The neighborhood unit scheme was formulated by Perry in the early 1920’s and it has ‘travelled’ throughout the world over the years. This scheme was created as a proposed framework for urban architects struggling to create functional residential neighborhoods for the rapidly industrializing towns and cities. In most cases, countries directly borrowed this idea without modifying it to fit their needs. This has, however, not been the case in China.

Having undergone tremendous industrial development with an associated significant increase in the population, China has had to recreate its architecture particularly the residential neighborhoods, Duanfang explicates that even with these increased pressures, the neighborhood concept in china has been adapted through a continual process of selection, combination and reinvention. She highlights China’s struggle to maintain a balance between its socialist ideologies and the new ideas proposed by third world modernity. She claims that the contradictory relationship between scarcity and socialism led to the gradual transformation of the work unit to a wholesome unit that incorporated social services like hospitals and schools, work and housing[3].

Harvey’s ideologies are not in complete agreement with what Duanfang suggests. He does not support the theory that China’s architecture was governed by the need to maintain their traditional beliefs and practices. While this may play a role, it is probably a small one. Instead he believes that capitalism drove the transformation in Chinese cities[4]. Over the last few decades, china’s economy has exponentially grown. This has led to the establishment of more industries which in turn needed more labour. These individuals required homes, something the country did not have enough of. Therefore, in response to this demand, the housing sector in China grew. Harvey’s theories propose that the need for housing overcame the presumed need to create neighborhoods that preserved their heritage. The rate of industrialization and economic growth was too high for the housing sector to catch up if they focused on the assimilation of their culture into urban planning and architecture[5]. Consequently, the travelling urban form as represented by Duanfang is not in line with Harvey’s neoliberalism theories on the interdependence between capitalism and architecture.















A comparison between Chungking Mansions, the shantytowns and the Shikumen residences

Chungking Mansions, despite the name, refers to a solitary building in Hong Kong popular for its affordable accommodation, restaurants and shops. It is considered the most common meeting place for minority groups in the city such as Africans, Southern Asians, Europeans and Americans. After its completion in 1961, its residents were mainly of Chinese origin but this has changed over the years. It is a 17 storey building that houses shopping malls, import and export businesses, guesthouses, restaurants and technology businesses. Most notably, Chungking has 1980 guesthouses which is the largest number of boardinghouses in one building[6]. The building being more than 50 years old is plagued with public safety issues such as unsanitary conditions, poor security, faulty electrical and telephone wiring. This can be attributed to the different ownership the building has had over the years. As a result, it has been nicknamed Hong Kong’s favourite ghetto. Chungking is a popular stop for backpackers and with the numerous businesses it houses, it is undoubtedly the most culturally diverse location in Hong Kong[7].

Shikumen refers to an ancient architectural style that originated in Shanghai in 1860. It combined specific Chinese and western influences which appealed to foreigners who moved to the newly established port of Shanghai for work[8]. It proved to be the best of both worlds as it had western elements which the migrants were accustomed to but also has a bit of the Chinese culture that was so popularly acclaimed. Shikumen were built along alleyways and comprised of two or three storey buildings which featured a narrow front lawn and high walls made of bricks. The presence of a characteristic and prominent main gate is the other distinguishing feature of the shikumen[9]. The storied building style was largely western but the presence of lawns was in line with traditional Chinese homes which had courtyards. However, in order to make the shikumen more urban, the lawns were made smaller than the traditional ones.

The shikumen are classified as the old and new types based on the period they were built. Shikumen residences since the 1980’s have been demolished and replaced by commercial buildings leaving a handful of them intact. When compared to the Chungking mansions, there is one glaring difference. While the mansion is an illustration of modern architecture, the shikumen had some traditional Chinese influence. This is based on the general outlook of the buildings. However it is important to note that despite the time difference between these two works, they were all used by foreign individuals who lived in China. Chungking houses individuals from ethnic minorities while the shikumen were largely occupied by migrant labourers who worked in Shanghai.  However, it is important to note that the foreigners who occupied the shikumen were middle class working individuals while the ones currently occupying the Chungking are from the lower class. This is proven by the fact that it is referred to as the ghetto within a building. Additionally, native Hong Kong citizens were initially afraid of visiting the mansion due to the reports of insecurity.

The shantytowns in Shanghai refer to the constellation of small huts that make up the slums in the city[10]. These shacks are characterized by congestion, poor sanitary conditions and deplorable housing. They are located on the city’s periphery. Most dwellers are rural immigrants who left their homes in a bid to secure better jobs and resultantly a better life. However, chronic unemployment plagues these individuals. For the shantytown dwellers, factory jobs are highly coveted since with the salaries provided, one can move into better neighborhoods[11]. The huts are poorly constructed with materials that are extremely flammable. They also do not protect their inhabitants from extreme weather conditions such as heavy rain and strong winds. Sanitary conditions are deplorable as the water and sewerage systems are open and uncovered with no clear distinction between the two. Additionally, residents keep pigs and chickens in their tiny houses which worsen the sanitary conditions. Lack of proper garbage disposal leaves the shanties constantly reeking of decaying animal wastes and garbage. Dwellers in the shantytowns are commonly considered outcasts by Shanghai’s residents. The Chinese government has consistently tried to demolish these shanties but the dwellers have remained adamant and refused to leave their homes. The shantytowns in Shanghai offer a blatant counterpoint to the high class and foreign residential areas in the city[12].

The shantytowns offer a unique insight into the lives of the Chinese poor. While the Chungking mansions are frequented by backpackers from all over the world and the shikumen were reserved for foreigners in shanghai, the shanties provide a different reality. They show the deplorable living conditions rural immigrants endure. However, despite it all, they refuse to leave the slums because they know that the moment they leave, better and more expensive housing will be constructed which they will not afford. Flagrant variations are evident between these works of architecture from the basic materials used in construction and their locations. One similarity these works all share is that they are portrayals of urban spaces though from different time periods. However, the Chungking mansions are the true depiction of an urban space while compared to the shikumen and the shantytown in shanghai based on the presence of a vibrant and diverse culture. It exemplifies globalization at its best whereby a large population of people from various places in the world is able to live in harmony despite their numerous differences.
























Cochran, Sherman. 1999. Inventing Nanjing Road. 1st ed. Ithaca, NY: East Asia Program, Cornell University.

Lee, Gregory B. 2012. “Ghetto At The Center Of The World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong. Gordon Mathews. Chicago And London: The University Of Chicago Press, 2011. Xi + 241 Pp. $19.00. ISBN 978-0-226-51020-0”. The China Quarterly 209: 252-254. doi:10.1017/s0305741012000288.

Lu, Hanchao. 1999. Beyond The Neon Lights. 1st ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.


[1] Mirowski, Philip. 2008. “A Brief History Of Neoliberalism, David Harvey. Oxford University Press, 2005, Vii + 247 Pages.”. Economics And Philosophy 24 (01). doi:10.1017/s0266267108001715.

[2] Lu, Duanfang. 2006. Remaking Chinese Urban Form. 1st ed. London: Routledge.


[3] Duanfang, 2006.

[4] Harvey, David, Matt Karp, Connor Kilpatrick, Nicole Aschoff, and Seth Ackerman. 2016. “Neoliberalism Is A Political Project | Jacobin”. Jacobinmag.Com. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/07/david-harvey-neoliberalism-capitalism-labor-crisis-resistance/.


[5]  Mirowski, 2008.

[6] Lee, Gregory B. 2012. “Ghetto At The Center Of The World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong. Gordon Mathews. Chicago And London: The University Of Chicago Press, 2011. Xi + 241 Pp. $19.00. ISBN 978-0-226-51020-0”. The China Quarterly 209: 252-254. doi:10.1017/s0305741012000288.

[7]  Ibid

[8] Lu, Hanchao. 1999. Beyond The Neon Lights. 1st ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[9]   Lee, 2012.

[10]  Ibid


[11] Ibid


[12] Ibid


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