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SE Asia! Look to Wakanda for urban inspiration

Jun 15. 2018
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By Curtis S Chin, Jose B Collazo
Special to The Nation
Los Angeles 

Thailand’s property developers and planners should take note of how city life is depicted in Marvel’s latest blockbuster 

Black Panther”, Marvel’s blockbuster early-2018 entry in its cinematic universe, has grossed more than $1.3 billion (Bt42 billion) since its release. That includes more than US$105 million in China, and some US$50 million in Southeast Asia with Indonesia accounting for more than $12 million and Thailand for some $9 million. Those box office numbers make “Black Panther” the highest-ever grossing film based on a single superhero. 

But more than setting a new standard for comic-book inspired projects, the film, set in the Marvel cinematic universe, has caught the attention of urbanists in its presentation of city life. Indeed, Southeast Asia’s property developers and urban planners should take note of how urban life in the film is depicted.

A good part of the film takes place in Birnin Zana, the capital of Wakanda, a fictional African nation protected from outside influences by the Black Panther, whose real identity is T’Challa, the king of the technologically advanced, but isolationist country. 

What is striking about Wakandan city life is how different it is from what we have become accustomed to see in movies offering a view of modernity, as well as in our own travels through the rapidly growing urban areas of much of Asean.

Architectural Digest’s Marc Malkin writes that rather than seeing the ubiquitous glass-and-steel towers and sterile street life that we have come to expect in the cities of tomorrow, we are shown in the film Black Panther a colourful cityscape infused with African textures, designs, and colours, organised to emphasise human interaction. 

All this contributes to the fictional capital’s unique, memorable “vibe” – one where skyscrapers rise from vibrant communities below. 

Southeast Asia’s cities

Sadly, the same cannot be always said about Southeast Asia’s cities. 

Well-intentioned zoning rules separating commercial and residential districts may well reduce a city’s vibrancy. And, what is clear in a journey through the region’s megacities is that the scale and direction of urbanization has led too often to reduced livability and burgeoning inequality between those who can and those who cannot afford the best that a city has to offer.

This challenge is likely to only grow, as more people move from rural to urban areas and inequality increases across the region.

A recent United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ annual World Urbanisation Prospects report projects that many of Southeast Asia’s cities will experience double-digit growth between 2015 and 2025. 

Manila, in the Philippines, is projected to grow 17.4 percent, from 12.9 to 15.2 million people; Jakarta, in Indonesia, 22 per cent, from 10.3 to 12.6 million; and Bangkok, Thailand, 11.2 per cent, from 9.3 to 11.0 million.

This rampant urbanisation has come at the expense of the region’s architectural richness and cultural fabric. Gone are the traditional forms of architecture such as the wooden homes with their gabled roofs, built on stilts to evade the seasonal floods. 

Street vendors have been banished in parts of some cities as urban planners seek to impose a new, cleaner, but perhaps more sterile, vision of the modern city. And, as street life has disappeared, the longstanding, vibrant communities that made these cities unique have also come under threat if not vanished.

What replaces many a cityscape is a generic blandness. This “mallification,” punctuated by the existence of a generic mega mall that is transplanted from country to country, too often draws little or no design influence from a country’s legacy. This is all too sadly evident even in a region that is home to many Unesco world heritage sites, such as Thailand’s ancient capital Ayutthaya. These sites draw thousands of visitor each year for inspiration, but seem to have been relegated to the past.

This harsh division of past and present has not always existed in the region. One need only to look to Cambodia’s “Golden Age” of the 1960s as an example, when Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann fused building features of the Angkor Empire with modern design elements to help launch the “New Khmer Architecture” movement. His works were hailed for its synthesis of style and tradition. 

By looking back, Molyvann’s forward-looking designs remained authentically Khmer. Sadly, many of his works have succumbed to Phnom Penh’s breakneck development and to a vision of urbanisation that seemingly emphasises size over authenticity. 

It is this authenticity, however, that is among the critical ingredients in what goes into designing a healthy city. That’s according to The Philips Center for Health and Well-being, a Netherlands-based think tank focused on improving the lives of people around the world thank. Rather than ignore its history, urban planners and developers should embrace a city’s heritage, culture and environment to create a unique sense of place and identity. This uniqueness, of seeing something we have never seen before and that exists nowhere else, is what we also react to when we see the vibrant streets of Wakanda on screen. 

Spoiler alert! As the movie Black Panther draws to a close, Wakanda’s leader, T’Challa, informs the United Nations of his decision to reveal the true state of his country’s advancements and development. The scene concludes with a foreign official responding by asking what Wakanda has to offer the world. 

Here is one clear answer. Wakanda shows that there need not be a default setting for what urbanisation looks and feels like. Dynamic, resilient living cities need not simply be Hollywood make-believe. Cities everywhere will continue to grow, but they can also do so by embracing their rich pasts while building a vibrant, unique and inclusive future. Our hope is that Southeast Asia can show the way.


Curtis S Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group. Jose B Collazo, a Southeast Asia analyst, is an associate at RiverPeak Group. Follow them on Twitter at @curtisschin and @josebcollazo.

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