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Chinese cities nowadays feel more dystopian than utopian

Interview with Sebastian Köbe, Robert Bosch Stiftung Lectureship Program in China, January 2018

What is Chengdu (成都)for you? 
I am part of the Robert Bosch Stiftung Lectureship Program in China and moved to Chengdu three months ago to start teaching German at the Sichuan University Jinjiang College in Pengshan. When I first arrived in Chengdu and saw its tall buildings and giant shopping malls I thought it would just be another one of the giant cities that you can find all over China. But behind the monotonous facades, Chengdu feels different from all other Chinese cities I’ve visited before. It almost feels like a small town where people are extremely easy-going and laid-back, especially compared to the never-ending hustle in other cities. The city itself is developing really fast, the rapidly increasing number of new tall buildings constantly changes the cityscape. But the people in Chengdu are not changing. Open air karaoke under the elevated highway, vegetable patches next to constructions sites, and places to enjoy food and drink tea are everywhere. No matter how many new and modern buildings are built, Chengduers always manage to reconquer their city. For me, this city and its people are absolutely fascinating. Chengduers know how to enjoy life and I believe that without the pollution Chengdu would be one of the most liveable cities in China.  
What role does citymaking and urbanization play in your foreign language courses? Do you use your sketches or sketching as a methodology for your teaching as well?
Urbanization definitely plays a big role in my foreign language courses simply because this topic is part of everyone’s life in China. I remember I once had a discussion with my students about urbanization and the pros and cons of urban environments and rural areas. My students could barely think of any advantages life in the countryside could have. Life in the big cities of China is the only way of life they can imagine. My students told me that environmental pollution is even more serious in rural areas and that there are no career perspectives and opportunities outside urban centres. I find this rather depressing, but it also makes me curious as to how China, and especially Chinese cities will look like in the future. Using sketches as a methodology for teaching is an interesting idea. I will try to integrate it next semester and I also want to raise my student’s consciousness for sustainable urban development and related topics.
What are your personal challenges as a lecturer in teaching German language in Pengshan?
I think the biggest challenge is to get used to the Chinese working culture. When I arrived at my university no one told me how things work here. You have to be really flexible and adaptable because sometimes things get planned or changed at the last minute without any warning. I was really glad that I already knew Chinese which made it much easier for me to find my way around this new workplace. Another challenge for me is that the behaviour of Chinese students during class is totally different from German students. They are used to a classical teacher centred lecture format and when I try to use different teaching methods they are sometimes quite sceptical and don’t know how to deal with it. But some students really enjoy these open teaching methods and therefore I still need to figure out how to best meet my students’ expectations and needs.
You do urban sketches as a hobby. When did you start focusing on urban sceneries?
I started focusing on urban sceneries when I arrived in Shanghai nearly three years ago. I was really impressed by this massive metropolis and couldn’t stop exploring it. I had never seen so many different buildings and architectural styles before. From the ultra-modern high-rises in Pudong to the colonial residential areas of the French concession, there was always something new to discover. Drawing these sceneries was my way of dealing with all these impressions.
Your drawings are colourful and diverse, but also extremely dense. Do you see the Chinese city rather as utopian or dystopian?
I feel that Chinese cities nowadays feel more dystopian than utopian. The permanent ant haze, omnipresent surveillance, and giant brand-new abandoned cities are only part of that dystopian reality. Recently, although the middle-class in China is expanding, there is still a huge wealth inequality – especially when you compare the living conditions of a migrant worker and a city resident. It is not as extreme as portrayed in the movie “Metropolis” where the wealthy residents live a luxurious and carefree life and the workers have to work underground to keep the city functioning. But there are parallels between this movie and the situation in China.
The architecture too has a dystopian vibe to it, some skyscrapers look as if they are taken directly out of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner”. But I have also come across new districts that have a totally different atmosphere. In these districts China is trying to test new green urban design and they are, compared to other districts, extremely clean and have many green spaces. Chinese cities are changing constantly. Today they may still feel more dystopian, but you never know, maybe in a few centuries China will be full of utopian cities.
Which urban elements are your source of inspiration? Do you relate to real physical structures or do you draw from memory?
In my spare time, I try to go out as often as possible and explore every corner of the city I live in. I do not only observe the physical structures of the city, but also try to grasp its atmosphere and vibe. This combination is my main source of inspiration. The cities I draw do not exist in reality, but when you take a closer look you will see some familiar structures. In one of my drawings for example you can see one building that resembles the Oriental Pearl Tower, one of Shanghai’s most iconic landmarks. However, in my version this building is part of an amusement park in the middle of the city where it serves as drop tower. I love to combine different real structures with structures that I just made up and thereby alter their purpose.
I draw all these buildings from memory, so they sometimes differ a bit from the original. But I think this is a great way to make these cities feel, in a way, more “Chinese”. You can find many buildings in China that have been modelled off Western architectural styles, sometimes even whole towns. However, these buildings still feel different, they have a Chinese flavour which makes them unique again. There are of course also many new innovative buildings in China that are absolutely jaw-dropping and therefore it seems only logical to me to mimic these structures and add my own touch to them to create new authentic futuristic cities.
Where and when do you take your time for drawing?
I usually like to draw at home, it is actually my main way of relaxation. Whenever I need a break I start to draw. I normally only have a rough idea or “feeling” of what I am going to create. 
What other artists in the field of city-making do you know that you would mention?
I really enjoy the art of Mateusz Urbanowicz. He captures the feeling of Japanese cities perfectly and I love his eye for details. There is also a bunch of animation movies that heavily influenced my work. One movie I need to mention is Tekkonkinkreet by Studio 4°C. The background art in this movie is absolutely stunning. They created a city that almost feels like a living being and this has really changed my view of cities as a whole dramatically.
If you could pitch a project idea in the frame of the Sino-German bilateral urbanization partnership, what would that be?
I realized that there are many abandoned and sometimes derelict buildings in Chengdu which have a unique charm. I would love to rediscover these buildings and spaces together with local artists and let them imagine how these spaces could be used in new creative ways. Then we could open an exhibition with all the different paintings to raise the public awareness of spatial resources in the urban context. And if possible, we could also realize some of the ideas.
Photo gallery: Drawings by Sebastian Köbe
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Sebastian Köbe grew up in Pattensen, a small village in northern Germany. He studied International Business Management in Hanover and Shanghai. Since 2017 he is a lecturer within the Robert Bosch Stiftung Lectureship Program in China and teaches German as a foreign language at the Sichuan University Jinjiang College in Pengshan, where he also carries out educational projects.