Florentia Village: Pastiche halfway between Beijing and Tianjin

IMG_5467IMG_5470Out along the high speed rail lines, somewhere between Beijing and Tianjin is the Italian themed outlet mall Florentia Village. The pastiche of Roman, Venetian, Florentine and Chinese styles, facades, walkways, and faces is replete with a miniature canal ride fit for a low budget Disneyland ride, a pizza chain, and Costa coffee. The stores are all name brands and luxury goods marked down for convincing consumption. The patrons stroll with bulging packages, paper and plastic bags that themselves have become mobile advertisements for Gucci, Tommy Hilfiger, Puma, and Omega. In the foreground is an attempt at misting the waters of Lethe over the shopping Chinese and occasional foreign denizen, to forget their troubles and their location; their worries will be put on hold by generating this ersatz holiday in Tuscany or Rome. It is another of China’s growing massive collections of the Other, the outside, the copied ruins and cathedrals, a riverside manse or an iconic tower. Here in Florentia village one doesn’t forget that they are in China, one is only reminded that China is a surreal place, where the cliche is still valid, that there are many Chinas and many of them are fake, or filled with fake things.

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IMG_5493IMG_5498But far in the distance a more real China is clearly visible, the soulless high rise apartments, built by migrant labor in a planned construction boom designed to appease a destabilizing labor surplus, extended to mostly state owned construction firms to hand out low paid work for China’s migrant working population. Here in the distance many of these apartments will remain vacant for years, but the shops of Florentia village are well stocked for now and nobody seemed eager to stare long outward, or inward, into China from Florentia.

The Scaffolding is Down

Bye Bye Beixinqiao Projects

RUIN PORN AND DERELICT DEBBIE

Image from Sophie Fiennes' documentary on Anslem Kiefer

“It’s romantic, it’s nostalgic, it’s wistful, it’s provocative. It’s about time, nature, mortality, disinvestment.” – Greco

Recently I came across an exploratory article on the voyeuristic art of “ruin porn.” In a somewhat humorous similarity of terms to riot porn, the ruin porn of today elicits the hedonistic drive, the aesthetic: both intellectual and sensuous, to hunt down derelict urban spaces, and rural husks, to explore the lost sides of development and decay, to find beauty in the cruelty of images. It can be an individualistic satori at the first sight and shudder release or an orgiastic experience for groups of urban explorers, chattering away to themselves about the good luck of the find. Exploring the abandoned, reclaimed, abandoned spaces, rich in texture-seen and superimposed by the metaphysics of Bachelard’s imagination, can present a number of fascinating distractions from the banalities of plastic commodified modernity. It can lead to pondering questions of permanence and beauty, as the planned beauty of great buildings falls to ruin a whole new subculture finds its truest beauty revealed.

In a January 6 Atlantic article Joann Greco examines “The Psychology of Ruin Porn” and the enthralling textures of Mathew Christopher‘s photographic autopsy of the American Dream. Greco writes:

“Pursuing and photographing the old is an addictive hobby. Dozens of blogs and online galleries share strategies for entry and showcase ever-bulging collections of moss-covered factory floors and lathe-exposed school buildings.

There’s no shortage of theories as to just why these images (in this case, a long-shuttered mental asylum) fascinate us. They “offer an escape from excessive order,” says Tim Edensor, a professor of geography at Manchester Metropolitan University who studies the appeal of urban ruins. “They’re marginal spaces filled with old and obscure objects. You can see and feel things that you can’t in the ordinary world.”

Len Albright, a 31-year-old Princeton post-doctoral student who’s tagged along with ruin explorers in Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, believes the experience is “more about the sense of ownership than anything else.”

He describes the derring-do involved in scaling urban ruins. “There’s this whole strategy for figuring out how to get in,” he says. “They start by hiding in the tree line at the edge of the property, checking for security guards. Then one of them dashes to the wall of the building. He starts looking for unlocked doors or busted out windows. There’s a lot of creeping and crawling, almost like a military operation.”

But for Matthew Christopher, the man who snapped the photograph described above, it was — at least in the beginning — more about curiosity. Only as he stood amid the eerily silent hallways and peeling ceilings of a similarly crumbling institution did he truly understand its role in the history of mental health. “When I visited the abandoned Philadelphia State Hospital, and then some of the others, I was able to connect the dots, to see the progress of treatment through the years,” Christopher says. “Architecture and the ethos of the times became linked for me.”

Image Source: Mathew Christopher's Abandoned America

Christopher’s work is well suited to elicit emotions and questions on time and nature, steel and earth, flesh and alloy. It draws the viewer into a texture rich world and, in much the same way as Anslem Kiefer, invites its audience to rethink the past and challenge accepted narratives of progress. Greco’s piece is a wonderful light into the tunnel of not only urban exploration and the photography of derelict spaces but an invitation to rethink physical space, urban meaning and the interstices of structure and significance.

Christopher’s work pulses with a kind of reanimated life, but I would also direct anyone interested in the visually stimulating urban reclaimation process toward the user generated forum at Derelict Places. This forum is for all those interested in the history and documentation of urban abandonment and decay, of dereliction from field to factory. It is a fantastic concept and one which brings a kind of prosumer, producing and consuming, legitimacy to the thesis underlying discussions of re-envisioning lost spaces as a new coming together of ideas and creation. It takes abandoned space and directs it into the visual collective consciousness of its viewers. By bringing lost segments of society, first hidden buildings, into focus a renovation in ideology on what it means to live together may too come into focus, a focus freed from the overzealous commodification of modern society-which brought many of these places first to life, only to let them die.

I took these final five pictures in Beijing in 2009.