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RGS-IBG 2018 Annual Conference: Cardiff, UK, 28 to 31 August 2018


Session title: Is the present a “foreign country”? Modernity and urban space in comparative perspective

Organisers: Yimin Zhao (Department of Geography and Environment, London School of Economics and Political Science); Boya Guo (Graduate School of Design, Harvard University)


Session introduction

The hegemony of modernity has been rooted in a teleological temporality for centuries, where a linear time is upheld, exhausting the possibilities of our living experience as well as our envisioning of the future (Sewell 1996). Postcolonial critiques of historicism have been inviting us to “provincialise Europe” and its universal history (Chakrabarty 2000), aiming to unlearn the taken-for-granted privileges of Eurocentric traditions and at the same time learn from the “historical others” (Scott 2012). This dialectical process of learning and unlearning questions the nature of modernity and requires us to conceive different ways to acknowledge co-existing multiplicities.

Space matters here because our re-imagination of it might put forward a new perspective, through which we could “dislocate” modernity, recognise multiplicities, and drop such dichotomies as West/Non-West, modern/ traditional, and innovation/imitation (Massey 1999, Robinson 2006). But there are still challenges, empirically, to follow this call for spatialising the history of modernity with “ordinary cities.” For, the living experience and space (of the “historical others” in particular) are yet deeply inflected by the teleological temporality, which could be evidenced by Thames Town in Shanghai (Wu 2010), Norman Foster-facilitated utopian landscapes in Astana (Koch 2012), and the archaising reconstruction of the whole city in Datong, China (Zhou 2015), to name just a few.

Instead of labelling these stories as false/deviated/incomplete modernity, here we want to gather together critical interrogations of stories as such to advance our reflections on the present. After recognising these stories as symptoms of the hegemony of modernity, it is more critical to explore how the experiences of modernity are being shaped by local-historical conditions and politico-economic relations. Lowenthal (1985) once illustrates that “the past is a foreign country” since “they do things differently there.” We want to move a step further and interrogate if the present is a “foreign country” as well, where different conducts of “historical others” could be conceptualised as co-existing spatial differences rather than temporal sequences, and where the questioning of historical time could be contextualised in multiple and dynamic spatial practices.

The key question we want to put forward in this session is: how and how far has modernity been performed and enacted through diverse spatial practices in daily life, and how can we learn to be “modern” from the perspectives of “historical others”? All contributions related to the two keywords (modernity and urban space) are welcome; and we are especially looking forward to empirical illustrations on how to inhabit the hegemony of modernity spatially – and hence differently.


Session 1: Debating authenticity

Session chair: Yimin Zhao (The London School of Economics and Political Science, UK)

Session authors, presenters and titles:

1. Learning from Chinese copying culture: Borrowed or reinvented modernity?, Boya Guo (Harvard University, USA) (presenter)
2. ‘Urban utopia’ in modern China: from Haussmann’s Paris to Southern Song imperial town — A case study of Hangzhou, Yang Song (King’s College London, UK) (presenter)
3. 1933 Millfun Shanghai: from slaughterhouse to creative park, Shu-Yi Chiu (Goldsmiths, University of London, UK) (presenter), Wen-I Lin (National Taipei University, Taiwan), Justin Spinney (Cardiff University, UK)
4. Entanglements of ‘heritageisation’ and ‘modernisation’ in urban space, Chiara Valli (Gothenburg University, Sweden) (presenter)


Session 2: Interrogating modernity

Session chair: Boya Guo (Harvard University, USA)

Session authors, presenters and titles:

1. The Myth of the Communist Mansion, Wanli Mo (Tongji University, PR China) (presenter)
2. Peddling modernity: Territorial stigmatisation and land business in Beijing’s green belts, Yimin Zhao (The London School of Economics and Political Science, UK) (presenter)
3. Shuttling Between Heterogeneous Spaces: Two (Art) Projects in China, Xiaoyi Nie (Royal College of Art, UK) (presenter)
4. Conservation and Democracy: The aspirations and politics of the built environment, Javier Ors Ausin (World Monuments Fund) (presenter)
5. Discussion



  • Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2000. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial thought and historical difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Koch, Natalie. 2012. “Urban ‘utopias’: the Disney stigma and discourses of ‘false modernity’.” Environment and Planning A 44 (10):2445-2462.
  • Lowenthal, David. 1985. The past is a foreign country. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Massey, Doreen. 1999. “Spaces of politics.” In Human Geography today, edited by Doreen Massey, John Allen and Philip Sarre, 279-294. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Robinson, Jennifer. 2006. Ordinary cities: Between modernity and development. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Scott, David. 2012. “The Traditions of Historical Others.” Symposia on Gender, Race, and Philosophy 8 (1):1-8.
  • Sewell Jr, William H. 1996. “Three temporalities: Toward an eventful sociology” in The historic turn in the human sciences, edited by Terrence McDonald, 245-80. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
  • Wu, Fulong. 2010. “Gated and packaged suburbia: Packaging and branding Chinese suburban residential development.” Cities no. 27 (5):385-396.
  • Zhou, Hao. (Director). 2015. The Chinese mayor [Documentary Film]. London: BBC.