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Editorial: Can infusing a building with a democratic plan encourage democracy?

Architects have been circumspect in their criticism of the Chinese state during the building boom that has bankrolled the profession through the recession

As I write, the red flags of the People’s Republic of China line The Mall, and Chinese president Xi Jinping is banqueting with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. The lavish four-day State visit was described as a ‘national humiliation’ by Steve Hilton, former strategy adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron: ‘The truth is that China is a rogue state just as bad as Russia or Iran, and I don’t understand why we’re sucking up to them,’ he told the Guardian.

The state’s atrocities belie belief. This is a country that harvests the organs of its dissidents; where prisoners are alive when their heart, kidney, cornea or liver is removed, then sold to so-called ‘transplant tourists’, a billion-dollar industry. Documented in the film, Hard to Believe, at least 41,500 Falun Gong prisoners have been killed for their organs.

In the recent July 2015 crackdown, 300 lawyers and activists were arrested, interrogated and harassed - journalists and bloggers, lawyers and feminists. Many political prisoners have died due to torture, interrogation and the failure to provide medical treatment.

Just this week, US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke out about the house arrest of 16-year-old Bao Zhuoxuan, the son of human rights lawyer Wang Yu. His parents were abducted by the state in June without criminal charges. With their whereabouts still unknown, Bao was arrested when he tried to leave the country to study abroad.

But with Britain hoping for £30bn worth of Chinese investment into a new generation of nuclear power plants, criticism of the state does not figure on this week’s pomp-and-circumstance agenda.

Architects and architectural critics have been similarly circumspect in their criticism of the Chinese state during the building boom that has bankrolled the profession through the recession. A European architect once said to me, ‘Our design is highly prized in China for its values of openness and democracy.’ Then added, ‘but of course, we never use the word democracy’.

‘The shared condescension that Chinese architects were not up to standard has kept the money rolling for Western architects, and their protests faint’

Rapid state-incentivised urbanisation, cheap steel and the manpower to build experimental structures at boggling scales and rates has made it an exciting time for architects in China. This combined with the shared condescension that Chinese architects were not up to standard - seen as cack-handed proliferators of clumsy, copycat architecture - kept the money rolling for Western architects, and their protests faint.

Now, as the Chinese economy begins to cool, with construction output falling, we see the rise of a new generation of Chinese architects, many foreign-educated, with talent and a unique emerging voice. Each building in this edition is designed by a Chinese firm and stands in its own right, proof Chinese architecture is gaining its place on the world stage.

In their own words, Chinese architects describe their country with great optimism, characterised by increased freedom and opportunity. They speak with enthusiasm about the creative potential to design and build structures that will alter perspectives and make a lasting impact on the landscape in this fast-moving context.

‘Perhaps infusing a building with a democratic plan can assist in the opening up of a closed society. Or perhaps it will only create the illusion of transparency’

Speaking in London, Ai Weiwei told an audience at the Royal Academy that he returned to China from New York because his work would be more relevant there, in a place that is changing so quickly, and so dramatically.

Perhaps, as that European architect suggested, infusing a building with a democratic plan can assist in the opening up of a closed society. Or perhaps it will only create the illusion of transparency, and like the grand architecture of the Fascists, support the State and delay real change.

It does not feel socially responsible to write about Chinese architecture without acknowledging that these projects were realised without due processes with regards to planning, land acquisition and public consultation. In this sense, they cannot be compared to work completed in a democratic system. However, creatively, the buildings featured in the China edition of the AR do invite global consideration, and are worthy of architectural critique. In publishing these works, we do not condone the regime that enabled them. We do support these architects striving to forge a unique Chinese identity through their work.

Lead Image

Seashore Library by Vector Architects

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