14 September 2016

The Vapid Urbanisation of Western China

14 September 2016 - Written by Laurence Cornet

Julien Chatelin explores the perpetual development redefining China’s natural world as rural landscapes give way to sprawling cityscapes.

© Julien Chatelin, from the series, China West

“In western China, the pace of economic development has ushered in a new unprecedented period of transformation, one that has radically redefined the topography of the country while displacing significant parts of its population from rural areas to vast, newly-built mega cities”, Julien Chatelin writes about his project, China West.

Numbers are staggering, failing to grasp the reality of the mutation and its constant pace that causes dizziness and rushes China into the Promised Land of the future. When the temporary result of this relentless quest is a man sitting alone in the middle of an empty metal-framed shopping mall the size of a neighbourhood, facing a life-size depiction of a heaven-like waterfall landscape, the contrast is troubling.

© Julien Chatelin, from the series, China West

“What is striking there is the lag between the intention and the reality. They develop ambitious projects that struggle to become life spaces. It is characteristic of these grey zones. They are still undefined, not fully inhabited”, Chatelin explains.

His intent is not to draw a dark portrait of the situation. Rather, he focuses on the notion of cycle. “China West complements the series that I did in Egypt and Detroit, USA. It’s a continuation of my work on places that are at the edge of cities: on the border of development”, he continues. “I am interested in how a territory can carry the promise of a better future and 50 years later be turned into a no-man’s land due to various economical or political situations.”

© Julien Chatelin, from the series, China West

In a context where disproportion is the measure of scale and time, Chatelin looked into the non-instant. “I worked for many years about people and situations and I wanted to explore the opposite of the decisive moment. What does define the moment then?”

It’s a frozen time captured within the frenzy of development. People often appear very small, disconnected from their environment, and the rare trees planted here and there at the foot of giant towers look like small lead soldiers who have capitulated. “It feels like the country is under perpetual construction. You think you arrive in a village and you are actually in a city home to 5 million inhabitants. I returned 3 times to Lanzhou over the course of a year and a half. Entire neighbourhoods had emerged, radically transforming the landscape with 20 skyscrapers or more, and gardens in the middle of the desert”, he recounts. “These are the new green areas, even though it’s synthetic grass.”


Julien Chatelin is a French documentary photographer living and working in Paris. In 2000 he co-founded the award winning French photo reportage magazine, De L’air.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

Written by

Laurence Cornet

Reading time

3 minutes