Materializing Urban Futures

CETREN Seed Grant 2015/2016

Materializing Urban Futures: The New City in Asia, Africa and Europe between Utopia, Neotopia and Dystopia.

Michael Dickhardt / Andrea Lauser

Modern cities have always played a crucial role in articulating promises and aspirations of better and alternative futures. In their attempts to realize and shape this future in and through the materiality of the cities, urban planners and architects have developed various models of urban spaces such as ‘new cities,’ ‘co-housing,’ ‘smart cities’ or ‘vertical urban farming.’ These models of urban futures differ in terms of their material conditions as well as in scale, ideological background and involvement in alternative lifestyle and / or consumer capitalism. The research project focuses on such models conceived of as different ways of materializing urban futures along a broad interdisciplinary perspective comprising cultural anthropology, sociology, history, cultural geography, urban planning and architecture. The leading questions are: How do urban futures become imaginable and realizable futures in and through these materializations? How do inhabitants appropriate, shape, change or reject these promises in and through these materializations? Is there still an utopia to be aspired or are there only neotopian pragmatic and technological solutions in order to escape from a dystopian reality? How are the city and its social, political, economic, moral and spiritual forms affected by these materialized futures?

In order to find answers to these questions, the research project is to be enfolded along three fields of inquiry: (1.) the processes of planning and realization as social processes and symbolic mediation, (2.) the social and political contexts of planned and designed cities and living spaces, and (3.) the lived experiences of the inhabitants as they appropriate, shape, change or reject the concrete materiality of these urban environments. A comparative perspective is to be developed within a transregional and a historical dimension on the basis of examples from Asia, Africa and Europe and their different histories of urbanization, and within a typological dimension. The typological dimension emerges from the different types of planned cities and designed living spaces and their concrete material forms. Of particular interest will be: (1.) Examples of modernist utopist planning such as Chandigarh in India (Högner 2015). (2.) The contemporary corporate urbanism of large scale ‘New Cities’ and highly technologized urban living environments. Konza Techno City near Nairobi ( [25.11.2015]), Saigon South in Hồ Chí Minh City (Douglass & Huang 2007) or Lingang near Shanghai (Goetze & Hoffmann-Loss 2012) are telling examples for such ‘New Cities,’ and concepts such as smart cities (Deakin 2014; Komninos 2015) or vertical urban farming (Despommier 2011) illustrate technologized futures. Seemingly alluding to utopian material practices aiming at an ideal future, the concrete reality of these new cities and new living spaces differs profoundly from older forms of utopian planning and designing. In many cases the public sector planning has been replaced by the private and corporate sector, and modernist utopist planning by corporate urbanism (Gotsch 2009). Privatization, commodification and consumerism are the determining conditions. Promises of a high standard urban lifestyle seem to meet the aspirations of an ambitious middleclass and status-conscious upper class residents. However, critical observers draw our attention to the negative effects of these kind of urban development: commodification of places and spaces; an erosion of the public space; a decontextualization in terms of social structure, cultural meanings and aesthetics resulting in a loss of meaning of the build environment; a socio-spatial fragmentation of the city as a result of functional and infrastructural self-containment, regulated access and high prizes for real estate and facilities (Douglass & Huang 2007; Gotsch 2009). (3.) Alternative forms of urban living such as co-housing, which refer to alternative ways of socially and ecologically sustainable living searching for solutions for the future of urban societies facing rapid aging, disruptive individualization, socio-economic segregation and environmental deterioration (Becker 2015; Wonneberger 2015).

References Cited

Becker, Annette (2015) Bauen und Wohnen in Gemeinschaft / Building and living in communities. Ideen, Prozesse, Lösungen / Ideas, processes, solutions. Gütersloh: Birkhäuser Verlag.

Deakin, Mark (2014) Smart Cities. Governing, Modelling, and Analysing the Transition. Abingdon, Oxon, New York, NY: Routledge.

Despommier, Dickson D. (2011) The vertical farm: Feeding the world in the 21st century. 1st Picador ed. New York: Picador.

Douglass, Mike & Huang, Liling (2007) Globalizing the City in Southeast Asia: Utopia of the Urban Edge - the Case of Phu My Hung, Saigon. International Journal of Asia Pacific Studies 3(2): 1–42.

Goetze, Nikolaus & Hoffmann-Loss, Fanny (2012) Lingang New City – Hafenstadt der Weltmetropole Shanghai. Versuchsfeld für eine Low-Carbon-Entwicklung in China. Informationen zur Raumentwicklung (5/6): 301–11.

Gotsch, Peter (2009) NeoTowns - Prototypes of Corporate Urbanism: Examined on the Basis of a New Generation of New Towns - by the Cases of Bumi Serpong Damai (Jakarta), Navi Mumbai (Mumbai) and Alphaville-Tamboré (São Paulo). Dissertation, Fakultät für Architektur, Institut für Orts-, Regional- und Landesplanung. Karlsruhe: Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.

Högner, Bärbel (2015) Chandigarh nach Le Corbusier. Ethnografie einer postkolonialen Planstadt in Indien. Berlin: Reimer, Dietrich.

Komninos, Nicos (2015) The Age of Intelligent Cities. Smart Environments and Innovation-for-all strategies. Regions and cities 78. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Wonneberger, Eva (2015) Neue Wohnformen. Neue Lust am Gemeinsinn? 2. Aufl. Edition Centaurus - Beiträge zur gesellschaftswissenschaftlichen Forschung. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

Modern Hanoi in 2012. Photo by Andrea Lauser.

Ho-Chi-Minh-City in 2011. Photo by Andrea Lauser.

Hong Kong by night in 2012. Photo by Andrea Lauser.

Singapore in 2011. Photo by Andrea Lauser.

Singapore Marina Bay in 2012. Photo by Andrea Lauser.

Singapore by night in 2012. Photo by Andrea Lauser.

Suzhou in 2012. Photo by Matthias Kracht.

Hefei in 2012. Photo by Matthias Kracht.

Prof. Dr. Andrea Lauser

Prof. Dr. Andrea Lauser

Professor, Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology

Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

Theaterplatz 15, 37073 Göttingen

+49 (0)551 39 7850



Since 2007 Andrea Lauser is Professor at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the University of Göttingen. Having studied at the Universities of München and Freiburg she holds a Master and a Doctoral degree in social and cultural anthropology from the University of Freiburg as well as a habilitation in social and cultural anthropology from the University of Marburg. She has done extensive fieldwork on indigenous cosmologies in the Philippines, with a special focus on power, gender, and generation among the Mangyan of Mindoro, the Philippines, and on Filipino transnational marriage migration. From 2006 to 2007 she joined the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle (Germany) with a research project on religion and ritual spaces in the context of transnational mobility and conducted fieldwork in Northern Vietnam. From 2011 to 2015 she was the spokesperson for the research program on the dynamics of religion in Southeast Asia

She co-edited among others the recent volumes “Religion, Place and Modernity in Southeast and East Asia. Reflections on the Spatial Articulation of Religion” (2016), “Haunted Thresholds. Spirituality in Contemporary Southeast Asia. Geister in der Moderne Südostasiens” (2014), “Performing Identity: Politics and Culture in Northeast India and Beyond” (2013 Asian Ethnology 72,2), “Engaging the Spirit World. Popular Beliefs and Practices in Modern Southeast Asia” (2011), DORISEA Working Paper Series

PD Dr. Michael Dickhardt

PD Dr. Michael Dickhardt

Senior Project Researcher

Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

Waldweg 26

+49 (0)551 39-21485



Michael Dickhardt studied cultural anthropology at the Universities of Frankfurt a. M. and Göttingen (1986-1992). He obtained his PhD in anthropology from Göttingen University with a research on cultural space in Fiji (2001) and his habilitation with a research on morality in East New Britain, Papua New Guinea (2010) He taught as Research Assistant (Wissenschaftlicher Assistent) (2001-2009) at the University of Göttingen and as a Visiting Professor at the Free University Berlin (2010-2011). As a Senior Researcher at the research network “Dynamics of Religion in Southeast Asia”  his research was focused on the entanglement of religion and modernity in urban religious places in the Ancient Quarter of Hanoi, Vietnam (2011-2015). Among his publications have been: Religion, Place and Modernity in Southeast and East Asia. Reflections on the Spatial Articulation of Religion with Modernity. In: Michael Dickhardt & Andrea Lauser (eds.), Religion, Place and Modernity. Spatial Articulations of Religion and Modernity in Southeast Asia and Beyond (Social Sciences in Asia), Leiden: Brill (forthcoming); Viti, the Soil of Eden: On Historical Praxis as a Mode of Connecting in Fiji. In: Oceania 75 (4), pp. 342-353 (2005); Creating and Representing Sacred Spaces as Processes of Symbolic Mediation: A Theoretical Introduction from a Cultural Anthropological Perspective. In: Michael Dickhardt & Vera Dorofeeva-Lichtmann (eds.), Creating and Representing Sacred Spaces (Göttinger Beiträge zur Asienforschung, Heft 2-3, 2003; Special Double Issue), pp. 7-33. Göttingen: Peust & Gutschmidt (2003); Das Räumliche des Kulturellen. Entwurf zu einer kulturanthropologischen Raumtheorie am Beispiel Fiji (Göttinger Studien zur Ethnologie; 7). Münster: LIT (2001).


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Georg-Universität-Universität Göttingen
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