Dreamscape, tranquil landscapes in air-conditioned nightmare


Dreamscape? A frieze that can be qualified as unusual, at the very least. It consists of dozens of photographic prints set edge to edge with alternating images – some with views of newly erected high-rise blocks in Shanghai in the People’s Republic of China, alternating with others showing a variety of landscapes, again taken in Shanghai where they screen off the building sites. In fact, they’re posters of thick forests, waterfalls, little houses in a meadow, tropical coves, ethereal blue sky or a majestic bridge spanning a sound… Running in a continuous strip along the bottom of the frieze are photos of a long wall whose linearity unifies the whole thing, though not in uniform manner. In some places, it’s been rendered, whilst in others overlapping stones show through, or it’s covered with wire netting; the overall effect gives a certain rhythm and metre to the work, as if to help the viewer’s gaze move easily from an architectural shot or a landscape onto the following one. Then there’s the title of the work, Dreamscape, a contraction of dream and landscape, evoking a dreamlike landscape and by metaphorical extension, an ideal, something noble and uncommon, full of the extraordinary. This impression is taken even further by the monumental dimensions of the frieze (23 m. long, 60 cm. high)


An ideal on the cheap

Certainly nothing looks banal here – take the posters of screen-landscapes, for example. They offer variations on the sublime, a garden of Eden, the grandeur of nature in its wild state and the fusion of man and nature. Then the recurrent high-rise blocks - because they’re newer than new, proud new shapes on the Shanghai skyline (they’ve all been photographed at the end of construction, just before being handed over to their new occupants); they give some idea of the country’s energy in full spate, in the throes of a period of tremendous renewal, not only concerning housing but also in the material sense. Even so, this out-of-the-ordinary is a trap. Dreamscape is first and foremost an account of a subterfuge (how to enhance a completely ordinary urban building site) that involves having recourse to a tawdry simulation. Édith Roux confirms this whenever she presents her work: “Posters of landscapes as seen on the perimeter walls of building sites where work’s in progress are hung next to photographs of peri-urban architecture, giving a bank of Western-style international stereotyped images, almost like a series of picture postcards. These landscape posters, often idyllic, help to camouflage the real destruction going on behind the walls and project the city dweller into an idealized future full of promise”.
An idyll straight out of light opera, recourse to the aesthetics of coloured prints and ultimately, a nastily cheap process of idealization – this is what Dreamscape is really about. An account of the organised camouflage going on against a backcloth of economic growth in double figures and urbanization to the tune of the pneumatic drill. The starting point: traditional Shanghai before the feverish activity of Dengism, an unusual political model of liberal communism – a historic city, industrial, commercial, and post-colonial, where coherent living units and elements of the urban network, from the business centre in the Bund to the workers’ flats on the ring roads, continued to amass. The finishing point: Shanghai today, in the post-Deng period some twenty-five years on, ever since China yielded to the attractions of modernism and Western-style development. With the city taken over by building sites and the total reorganisation of ground space, nothing seems to deter the authorities from their ambition to make the former City of Concessions the capital of the 21st century, with everything that might entail in terms of showy window-dressing i.e. a radical rearrangement of the cadastral plan and a whole new traffic circulation scheme (the Los-Angeles style cult of the inner city motorway and subsidized cars), massive, congested re-housing of the local population, recent incomers from the country, swollen by the rural exodus (requiring large housing complexes), an attractive skyline (the Pudong district, the Chinese version of La Défense in Paris, as it is today). An exchange that took place between the mayor of Berlin and the mayor of Shanghai, when the former was on an official visit to China, gave rise to the following much-quoted anecdote – when the burgomaster of Berlin remarked with a certain pride to his host that he was currently in charge of some twenty major building sites in reunified Germany, the mayor of Shanghai replied that he had no less than two hundred in his city, in other words ten times as many…


A bad dream of over-development

The subject of Dreamscape is urbanization carried to an extreme and the immense damage it wreaks in geographical, human, aesthetic and cultural terms. Once again it’s a pleasing mask concealing half-hearted attempts to repair the distinctly unflattering appearance of certain property operations aiming at efficient high-speed completion. It also marks the separation between man and his environment, and particularly between Chinese culture of today and the vernacular urban tradition. It’s no coincidence that the title Édith Roux has given her frieze – Dreamscape – does not refer to the marvellous part of the dream, the better things to come; from now on they can only emerge in idealized form, not in concrete reality. Faced with the sprawling expansion of a city such as Shanghai, so grimly destructive and dramatic in the way every arm of the tentacular sprawl radiates its influence further (how the traditional popular housing units or lilong are being almost systematically razed to the ground), what else is there to do but dream? A dream in nostalgic mode of the city as it was in days gone by…Or a dream in nostalgic and ecological mode of some kind of interaction between man and nature, totally absent here. Otherwise, it’s a nightmare, the bad dream of over-development.

Hiding a building site behind a poster boldly displaying nature at its purest implies the low value placed on the subject of concealment has been recognized; it’s a well-worn blanket tactic used to cover something unsightly, combined with that of providing a substitute as compensation to comfort the onlooker. But it also means that nature itself is humiliated, confined there in the form of a screen to be looked at, nothing more. And the finality of nature? Seen as it is here, it’s a colour print, a flattering snapshot representation for decorative or commercial purposes (tourism). One has to imagine the modern Chinese city-dweller standing in front of this kind of mock-up of nature, bearing in mind that in the majority of cases he originally came from the country. He’s got no illusions whatsoever. The print summoning up the wide open spaces of nature hung like a giant screen to conceal the frequent spectacle of the new Shanghai in the hands of bulldozers and builders says nothing about conciliation or reconciliation between man and nature in the East. With nature reduced to the dubious role of a feast for the eyes, this type of artificial reproduction in poster form actually suggests the very opposite – a definitive rupture. The taste for Feng Shui so typical of the Chinese mentality, their respect for natural things stemming from the sacred status attributed to them, finds the symbol of its own failure in reality here. A failure in reality because nature is totally absent from the new city; and the symbol of this failure because the very idea of nature as such has disappeared, been cancelled out as the city sets about conforming to the norms of this Western Touch nature-less urbanization.



An eye-witness account

Any onlooker who goes close up to Édith Roux’s Dreamscape will easily spot certain imperfections in the form of blemishes, graffiti, and stickers marring the splendid views of nature and the wall photographed by the artist – details that don’t amount to much in themselves but which say a great deal. Proof of a lack of respect for a start – some Chinese passer-by has used these posters as a place to write or stick his personal message on, on the same principle as the dazibao. They’re proof too, of the lack of belief in nature as shown here. Disguised to be pleasing to the eye, these blemishes carry a message of abdication or abandonment (but what of? beauty? all things natural? the beautiful things of this world? And then, so what?). They also speak of the omnipresence of real life, full of obligations and their consequences; a real life we so easily tend to soil – the human race does indeed know how to induce entropy and maintain it.
Over and above its didactic significance, Dreamscape is also a photographic record. In the same way as the Bechers photographed industrial ruins or Ruscha urban zones in the most objective way possible, Édith Roux has straightforwardly set about photographing these soulless blocks of flats sprouting up across Shanghai like bamboos, thanks to the booming property business. Her record of what’s happening there takes on the value of an eye-witness account, a detailed description: this is how it is, the New Age signature of the same backward China that wanted to be new for so long but couldn’t make it, and now at last it is, and in no small measure. Her photographic document also provides food for thought, inviting us to reflect on the extremely impoverished nature of architecture born out of necessity, where the sole aim is to provide low-cost housing for the largest possible number. The end result has no value in architectural terms, it’s been erected with a garnish of circumstance, somewhere between kitsch and a syncretism of the cut-and-paste variety, with elements such as the high-rise tower block and the garden city borrowed from the West thrown together any-old-how with the oriental taste for ornamental décor and a few local details such as pagoda-type roofs. Yet another point raised here: the concomitant failure of so-called “ecological” architecture, so dear to modern architects and town-planners. Not that ecological architecture is out of reach, but it costs far too much and isn’t suited to the restrictions of a city in full expansion, so when it comes to putting theory into practice (high-speed practice at that), it’s a solution for the rich. (Note however some applications of the idea by Toyo Ito in Holland).

No doubt it’s always easy to conceive “Mirage Cities” (the Kaishi-Haishi project), in harmony with nature, in the manner of Isozaki, or, like the metabolists Kisho Kurakawa and Kinonori Kikutabe, who invented floating cities, emphasize the major advantages of living in cities that incorporate the natural ecosystem into their own fabric. Applied to the Shanghai Architectural Attitude, and more generally, to the landscape formed by real (as a pose to ideal) Asian architecture – which ultimately amounts to the huge complexes based, with few alterations, on those produced by Western Europe and the United States, over-exploited there to the point of abuse between the 1930s and the 70s, with the resulting failure we all know – this kind of position is not only elitist, it’s not part of reality. It’s quite simply outside the real world.


 Paul Ardenne

 (Texte d’introduction du livre Dreamscape, Editions Images en Manœuvres, 2004)