Sze Tsung Leong

History Images

Cities are enduring and encompassing documents of history; traces of civilization are concentrated in their architecture. Their structure usually changes gradually and cumulatively over generations, centuries or even millenniums, unless this is accelerated by war or revolution. The effect of economic growth nowadays can be more dramatic. This is particularly evident in China, where the radical demolition of entire districts and the hurried construction of new quarters are rapidly changing urban space.

When Sze Tsung Leong visited Beijing in 2002, he was dismayed to find that whole areas of the city he had seen on his first visit a few years earlier were unrecognizable. In these areas, there was little to remember the past by, almost everything was new: the roads, the houses, even the inhabitants. The offer of a teaching assignment at Peking University gave him the opportunity to stay for a longer period of time to examine this transformation to China’s built environments more closely and document it in different regions. His large-format photographs show impressively how whole battalions of giant apartment blocks are supplanting the few remaining historic buildings. The atmospheric light in his work and the view extending to the horizon give the pictures an almost mystical feel. But they cannot hide the fact that China’s architectural history is just as much about destruction as it is about construction.

The apartment blocks no doubt provide new living quarters for the steadily growing population. They are particularly sought after by young people as they are more spacious and comfortable than the old houses; they have modern plumbing facilities, for example. But people with less money, especially the elderly, are forced to move out of the centers of cities and into the distant outskirts because they are unable to pay the higher rents. In this respect, the new architecture is a catalyst for demographic change. The desire to create a supposedly better quality of life and more room for inhabitants in an extremely short space of time comes at the expense of something more valuable: the city’s memory and its history. A limited shelf life is often the result of these low-cost, quickly erected constructions: The desire to maximize profits from the early planning stage means that these buildings are not intended to last an eternity, probably not even until the next generation. Because huge areas are being razed to the ground and rebuilt, the urban structures in many parts of these cities are highly homogenous and built according to extremely poor aesthetic standards. “There is certainly a very strong tendency to build this way in China,” says Sze Tsung Leong, “but when I look out of my window in New York and see what is being built there, then I think it’s a trend we will probably be seeing more and more of all over the world.”

Biographical information

1970

born in Mexico City

1993

received a B.A. in Architecture from University of California at Berkeley

1998

Master’s degree in Architecture from Harvard Graduate School of Design

2005

awarded with a Guggenheim Fellowship

lives and works in New York