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‘Quantity is rarely matched by quality’

Back in 2008, China’s focus on rapid expansion left architecture in the slipstream

Originally published in July 2008

‘To get rich is glorious,’ declared Deng Xiaoping, an architect of economic reform as well as political repression, and his phrase (apocryphal or not) has become a mantra in China. A frenzied construction boom began in the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen in the early 1980s, turning a fishing village of 30000 into a manufacturing metropolis of 10 million. Government controls on private investment were relaxed, and the tide of development swept north and west, inundating Guangzhou, Shanghai and Chongqing. Beijing has been radically transformed in preparation for the Olympics and to make the capital a worthy showcase of a global power. Local administrations are eager to get their share, corruption is rife, and, though the central government authorities are trying to apply the brakes (to curb inflation and preserve social harmony), their dictates may be flouted.

Quantity is rarely matched by quality: Official projects usually go to the state architectural institutes, and, though a few of these at the national level have begun to embrace progressive ideas, the regional and local institutes are staffed by traditionalists who put an emphasis on engineering and a heavy-handed Post-Modernism. Architectural education is still hidebound. ‘The schools are very bad, the graduates know nothing,’ says Ma Yansong- an opinion that is widely shared. The old guard still wields power, and it can frustrate the most enlightened planners and architects. MADA’s adventurous designs for the Expo 2010 China Pavilion and the Shanghai Natural History Museum were rejected in favour of conventional solutions.

‘The schools are very bad, the graduates know nothing, says Ma Yansong - an opinion that is widely shared’

The cities of southern China are dominated by provincial and Hong Kong developers, who seek immediate returns on their investment and have little concern for architecture. Prestigious public and corporate commissions continue to be won by established foreign firms, and - though Chinese architects and engineers do the construction drawings, share the credit on these projects and learn from the experience - few clients are willing to take a chance on independent practices. SOHO, the leading Beijing developer which claims to have built more than a fifth of the capital’s CBD since the company was established in 1995, has only now given a part of its latest development to a notable Chinese architect. Yet a handful of small firms (only authorised to practise since 1997) have made extraordinary strides, designing major campuses, civic centres and even high-rises.

Paul Andreu's National Theatre looms like a spaceship over Beijing's historic core

Paul Andreu’s National Theatre looms like a spaceship over Beijing’s historic core

Steven Holl's Linked Hybrid, a city within a city, is gradually nearing completion

Steven Holl’s Linked Hybrid, a city within a city, is gradually nearing completion

They are receiving support from a new generation of government officials. Sunjiwei spent four years as the planning chief of Qj.ngpu, a satellite of Shanghai, before being appointed mayor of Jiading, another burgeoning outpost. He went into public service after practising for 10 years as an architect and realising how hard it was to communicate with the authorities. Sun laboured to enhance the quality of life in Qj.ngpu and to reconcile new development with the old core and its neighbour, Zhujiajiao. Avoiding the big design institutes, he commissioned schools, housing, offices and cultural buildings from small firms and made his town a showcase for progressive architecture. He’s planning to do more of the same in his new position, but his successor in Qjngpu may not share his vision. 

‘Too many neophyte developers believe that ‘if you build it they will come,’ and commission buildings without considering how they might be used’

Most small offices struggle to win jobs and competitions and then battle again to preserve the integrity of their designs, a challenge thatalso confronts established foreign architects. Burckhardt + Partner of Zurich won the competition for a major Olympics building, the Wukesong Cultural and Sports Centre, and their design was acclaimed for its digital facade and the suspended hyperbolic paraboloids that were to provide natural ventilation. However, in a cost-cutting exercise, the project was taken away from them, downsized, and stripped of its essential features. SMC Alsop had a similar experience with a cultural centre in Shanghai, New York firm LOT-EK on a residential development in Beijing, and many others, foreign and domestic, have seen their designs compromised, on the boards or in construction.

Too many neophyte developers believe that ‘if you build it they will come,’ and commission buildings without considering how they might be used. On the positive side, several Western firms including SOM, Alsop,von Gerkan, Marg & Partners and Steven Holl - have mastered the challenge and realised some of their most exciting work in China. This may prove harder for the hundred emerging architects who were summoned to the boom city of Ordas in the desert of Inner Mongolia to present models of luxury villas they had been paid to design, site unseen, earlier this year. Caijiang, a local real-estate tycoon who claims descent from Genghis Khan, invited Herzog & de Meuron to undertake the project as the showpiece of a large residential development, and the Swiss partnership brought in artist Ai Weiwei, with whom they collaborated on the Olympic stadium. He sent invitations to selected firms, including 17 from Switzerland, but, curiously, none from China. Participants drew building sites by lots and turned over their designs to be worked up and built with no further involvement on their part. The end result is likely to be closer to a conceptual art work than a viable community, but it has already fulfilled its goal of bringing fame to the developer. And it is further evidence that, in China today, anything, however implausible, can be achieved.

A Chinese Eiffel Tower? OMA's CCTV headquarters rises skywards over Beijing

A Chinese Eiffel Tower? OMA’s CCTV headquarters rises skywards over Beijing

 Now open for business= Foster's + Partners' vast new airport terminal in Beijing

Now open for business= Foster’s + Partners’ vast new airport terminal in Beijing

Despite the pressures and uncertainties, most young Chinese architects are buoyed by optimism; everything seems possible in the society they’ve grown up in, and they feel carried along on a rising tide. Though some of their designs may be compromised or cancelled, they have already come a long way in a few years and are convinced that, in the near future, they will have a larger share of the pie. Despite a collapse of the stock market bubble, investment is plentiful and the authorities operate by dictate not consent. Whole districts are rapidly levelled to accommodate public and corporate developments, and all but the most complex buildings are fast-tracked from design to completion. In the past decade, a national network of expressways has been created, along with new city airports, arts institutions, university campuses, and highrise offices and apartments.

Swollen by internal immigration, cities grow at exponential speed. Twenty years ago, Beijing was still a lowrise city of government and industry; its airport located far beyond the city bounds. Mao’s regime had brutalised the world ‘s best-preserved medieval metropolis, tearing down its walls and inserting the vast parade ground of Tiananmen Square, wide highways, and factories. There was even talk of replacing the Forbidden City with a government office complex, but poverty and isolation preserved much of the old urban fabric into the late 1980s, and cars were few.

Capitalism has proved far more dynamic and destructive. Beijing now has a population of l 7 million, five congested ring roads and toll highways radiating out in every direction. Within the second ring, which occupies the site of the city walls, buildings are mostly low-rise in deference to the historic core. The third ring road is lined with new commercial towers, some of a quality equal to that of American and European. Cities. There, too, is Beijing’s new icon, the looped tower of CCTV With its daring cantilever, which will open next year. Just beyond the fourth ring, extending the north-south axis of the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City, is the Olympic Park, dominated by the National Stadium. Beyond the sixth ring is the greatest of all these new monuments· Fosters + Partners’ new terminal for the Beijing Municipal Airport, which will be explored in depth in the August issue.

New retail complex by local firm Urbanus near the White Cloud Temple in Beijing

New retail complex by local firm Urbanus near the White Cloud Temple in Beijing

Watercube watersports centre in Beijing's Olympic Park by PTW Architects

Watercube watersports centre in Beijing’s Olympic Park by PTW Architects

In contrast to these modern masterpieces, Paul Andreu’s National Grand Theatre is a grandiose folly (AR Outrage December 1999) and everywhere the striving for great speed and size is exacting a price. It’s hard to imagine such large and radical schemes being realized so quickly (or at all) in any Western country, but the cost- in the destruction of historic neighbourhoods, the relocation of impoverished residents, exhaustion of resources, congestion and pollution- has been devastating. China wants to telescope a century of development into a few decades, and nothing stands in the way of official power and private wealth. The authorities will shut down the capital if necessary to ensure an acceptable level of air quality for the two weeks of the Olympics, but Beijing may continue to choke on its success after the athletes have packed their bags. Cities that are far from the international spotlight are likely to fare much worse. Reckless spending and growing economic inequalities may spur disruptions the government cannot control.

The recent catastrophic earthquake in Sichuan focused attention on another face of China: an impoverished region in which corrupt and incompetent local officials condoned shoddy school construction, causing the death of countless children. The rescue effort was impressive, but the problem is long-term. Can a government that still professes socialist ideals share its wealth with the have-nots and swiftly rehouse five million people? Will it enlist the talents of skilled architects and engineers to assist in the recovery from one natural disaster andbe better prepared for the next? That’s a much greater challenge than stage-managing the Olympics to boost public morale and impress the outside world.     

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