If you read Inhabitat on the regular, you’ve probably heard about Archtober, but did you know that the month-long celebration of architecture extends far beyond the borders of New York City? Case in point: The AIA New York Center for Architecture recently unveiled a new exhibit entitled Practical Utopias: Global Urbanism in Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore and Tokyo as an exploration of the mega-building boom in Asia. The immersive show, curated by Jonathan D. Solomon, Associate Dean of Syracuse University’s School of Architecture, delves deep into the architecture and urbanism of these five Asian super-cities, pulling out similarities and differences as well as over-arching trends influencing architects and city planners in NYC.

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Practical Utopias presents projects by more than 20 firms including Gensler, Kohn Pedersen Fox, Morphosis, Steven Holl Architects, Safdie Architects and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, but it isn’t just your standard show-and-tell. The exhibition is organized to cluster common themes in a way where even those who have never visited these cities can begin to form ideas about how they relate. The five different attributes tying each of the five Asian metropolises are: Connected, Dense, Thick, Fun, and (one we were particularly interested in) Green. As we walked through the show, we saw that each theme was color-coded, giving the models, photographs and text a visual pop with contextual significance.

The title of the show, “Practical Utopias”, has a nice ring to it, but you may be wondering what it actually means. “On the one hand, Practical Utopias refers to the utopian ambitions and practical expertise that converge at the projects on view,” Solomon, who came up with the name, explained to us.

“On the other hand, it is a door into a critical approach to what the projects might mean or portend. Any student of history – or of architecture – knows that utopia is always shadowed by the specter of its opposite: dystopia. Many an experiment in the former has come to result in the latter. There is a yearning and an aspiration implicit in the utopian that is balanced by the venture, or risk, of the future: a complexity that has charged the 20th century and, through works such as those in the show, the 21st.

Indeed, practical utopias are complex, and even contradictory: They provide freedom of movement for populations whose freedom of assembly may not be assured. They invest in sustainable technology in environments where air and water quality may be degraded. They provide lavish venues for new cultural experiences in communities that see older cultural practices pushed aside.

Practical utopias are compelling precisely because we do not know the future of the city, and how the visions pursued by global architecture in Asia will fit into it. The question of public space is central to this future. Practical Utopias includes large-scale infrastructure projects that have resulted in spectacular civic space, such as the Bund Reconstruction in Shanghai and Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon; dense private developments that are none the less filled with public life, such as Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills, Hong Kong’s International Financial Center, and Singapore‘s Marina Bay. In the contemporary Asian metropolis, space is made public by its user, not its designer. With seamless links to transit, vast diversity in programming, and extraordinary density practical utopias will test the flexibility of global space when occupied by local users.”Jonathan D. Solomon, Associate Dean of Syracuse University’s School of Architecture

We were actually caught a bit off-guard when we saw “Green” on the list of common attributes describing these Asian mega-cities, but in a good way. The exhibit’s breakout of sustainable projects is a testament to the fact that energy and material conservation is no longer just a trend in Asia – it’s becoming a baseline standard. “Green is both a critical component of global architecture in Asia and a result of some of the other themes of the work,” Solomon told us. “As a component of global architecture, the green posture is now expected of large scale developments for international clients, particularly and paradoxically in cities where the natural environment is under the most threat, such as Hong Kong or Shanghai. Sustainability is also a product of density, connectivity, thick sections, and diversity of uses. Environments such as these require less travel, share resources, and reduce the travel times associated with urban sprawl.”

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“This exhibition is a great opportunity for New Yorkers to see the impressive work being done abroad and to better understand the urban issues and ideas that may influence the way we shape our future in New York,” said Jill N. Lerner, FAIA, 2013 president of AIA New York and principal of architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates. “There is a very direct exchange of ideas between New York City and places like Shanghai, Seoul and Singapore. The ideas trading places include new approaches to public space, transit-oriented developments, construction technology and energy efficiency, among others.”

Practical Utopias will be on view at The Center for Architecture (536 LaGuardia Place, New York, N.Y.) until January 18, 2014. Gallery hours are Monday – Friday 9am to 8pm and Saturday 11am to 5pm.

+ Practical Utopias: Global Urbanism in Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore and Tokyo