Today, a new generation of architects shows a renewed commitment to design
Many careful observers will have noticed that impressive Chinese cities are full of terrible buildings. Until quite recently, China has been concentrating on just getting stuff built, but now it seems to be turning its attention to improving the quality and introducing more consideration for users, context and the urban condition. Good design is now on the agenda and, if you are wondering what it is, last year President Xi Jinping gave some clear guidance. Speaking about the arts, he said: ‘The reason excellent works are “excellent” lies in their ideological profundity, artistic exquisiteness and product superiority. Vulgarity is not popularity, passion does not represent hope, and naive sensual amusement is not equal to spiritual cheer.’ With these parameters in place, he could later make his remarks about ‘no more weird architecture’ with impunity.
The weird architecture comment was not an assault on Zaha Hadid, as many suspected, but an attack on local corrupt politicians who commission grotesque vanity projects and bring China, as the president sees it, into disrepute. However, such is the deferential structure of society that there was a collective knee-jerk reaction to the phrase and several innocent yet weird projects were cancelled. Another unintended consequence has been that several state-funded university departments carrying out research into ‘weird’ stuff had their funding postponed and departmental research priorities re-allocated. With architecture in obeisance, Vice-President Li Yuanchao turned to other professions to tell them too about their nationalistic duty. Speaking to a gathering of science-fiction writers in September 2015, he said that they too were ‘expected to inspire the younger generation to be interested in science and stoke their faith in realising the Chinese Dream’.
‘If you want to know how many people are killed on Beijing building sites, or what the real value of the currency is, you will be confronted by blank stares and random guesses’
The need to engender patriotic sentiment is clearly evident in China. The recent military parade in Beijing was followed by Major-General Luo Yuan boasting that: ‘China is preparing every day to win a modern war.’ But don’t panic. While some leading Sinologists are openly suggesting that expats’ days of wine and roses may be over, the £3.6 billion Disney theme park (Disney’s first in China) is scheduled to open next spring. Whatever you might think of Mickey Mouse, it seems that Chinese nationalism is still more about cultural development - catching up with the rest of the developed world, often with the help of foreigners - than it is about pulling up the drawbridge or kicking foreigners out. We who live here rely on the fact that the historical memory of the Qing dynasty’s disastrous isolationism is too fresh, and contemporary China is too globally ambitious, for it to shut itself off again.
But the contradictions are still profound and difficult to read. In the West, we have Mark Twain’s famous maxim: there are lies, damn lies, and statistics. In China, we have the fourth category: Chinese statistics. If you want to know how many people are killed on Beijing building sites, how many migrant workers live in Shenzhen, or what the real value of the currency is, you will be confronted by blank stares and random guesses. The economic rumblings of the last few months are a case in point where uncertainty in the financial and housing markets was simply met by a cloak of secrecy - with ham-fisted interventions designed to prop up, obfuscate and delay detailed information getting out. Accurate information is in short supply as Tim Worstall hinted in Forbes magazine recently: ‘China is richer than it was, no doubt about that. But as rich as it says it is? Lots of doubt about that.’
None of this vagueness really helps if you are planning to move to China and want the security of a believable exchange rate, clarity about air-quality data or simply want to correct the Chinglish clauses in your contract. Nine times out of 10 you’ll be told that no one knows the real answers and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s fair to say that there is a sense of resignation about what you can change in a one-party state.
As it happens, Chinese information is not necessarily wrong, it’s just that we don’t often know if it’s right. This tends to be because, on many of the key issues that matter, there is very little transparency. Sometimes the information is just constructed to suit the curious political and cultural context in which it finds itself. The way that local officials move up the ladder of success in provincial government, for example, is by being judged on their economic growth statistics: so it’s hardly surprising that they tweak the figures to make themselves look a little more promotion-worthy. Sell more land, build more houses and whatever the ultimate consequences on the real economy, you might get a better desk job.
‘In 1978 there were eight architecture schools in China, now there are 69, with 32,000 qualified architects’
Or it could be that the data is ‘different’ simply because the Western world interprets China … er … ‘differently’. A recent research study showed that 32 per cent of UK architecture students cited timber as the most sustainable material in construction, whereas 30 per cent of Chinese students said it was the least sustainable material. This should give pause for thought for Western sustainability advocates coming to China to evangelise. The divergence in opinion has a lot to do with Mao’s historically perverse agricultural policies that led to deforestation, meaning that many Chinese are more circumspect about the value of timber. Many understand that using it willy-nilly has resulted in desertification in vast areas of China. The environmental discourse in the West is clearly different from that of China. In Europe and America the focus is on ‘limits to growth’ while Premier Li Keqiang sees sustainable urbanisation as a pro-growth strategy to improve the environment not at the expense of people’s extant living standards.
To avoid confusion, here are a couple of real statistics, give or take. In 1978 there were eight architecture schools in China, now there are 69, with 32,000 qualified architects (although per capita, Britain has 20 times as many). China has built 30 million dwellings in less than five years. 100 million people live on less than US$1 per day but 400 million others have been lifted out of poverty. Shanghai is home to around 23 million people, equivalent to the entire population of Australia. The country is urbanising at the rate of 300 million (almost the population of USA) every year. It’s not a bad CV to have emerged from nothing in the last 30 years. It’s an impressive, expanding country with many opportunities available to the adventurous.
China-watchers have long reported that there will be 20 cities built every year in China over the next 15 years or so. These ambitions are thrilling for those enthused by China’s staggering speed of urbanisation and development. Others tend to focus on the likely increase in population, pollution and pressure. Some love the idea of China rising, while others are worried by its consumerist nemesis. As author Wade Shepard recently pointed out, some people revel in the emergence of cities as an infrastructural kickstart to housing millions of people, while others see the folly of derelict and uninhabited Ghost Cities.
While the statistics on the onward rush to urbanisation are impressive, a few things need to be borne in mind. First, a city in China is not the same thing as a city in Europe. Here in China, the city is a purely administrative construct made up of urban districts (known as qu), but all too often administrators turn entire counties into qu, giving rise to grandiose claims of population sizes. Just a few years ago, everyone was talking about the megacity of Chongqing in south-west China, which was reputed to have a population of more than 30 million. Actually, ‘only’ six million people live in Chongqing city, while the remaining 24 million live in the other 30,000 square miles of Chongqing municipality (in the fields and farms and towns in an area the size of Ireland).
Twenty cities built every year is remarkable, but Chinese cities are sometimes easier to construct than it may first appear. In some cases, a change of designation is all that is needed to convert a town into a significant urban area. If the state wishes to develop land owned by agricultural workers, it is common for it simply to change the designation of the farmers to ‘urban’ so that they lose property rights, get paid off and gain city status. Ten years ago, a full one-fifth of the urban population was the result of this kind of administrative reclassification. And what China giveth it can just as easily take away: the urban population fell by 50 per cent in the 1960s due to the Cultural Revolution - because they were all sent to the countryside. And in recent times, five cities effectively disappeared between 2005 and 2007 due to reclassification.
‘Chinese hyper-urbanisation is not just a trick of the light, there is clearly a real urban revolution going on here and the amount of spending and construction to achieve it is truly staggering’
The headline figure states that China achieved a 50 per cent urban population five years ago or so. This was the time that China’s urban population was feted for exceeding its rural population. But Beijing’s deputy chief planner, Lin Ji, says ‘the real urbanisation rate in China is about 40 per cent’, and he should know. A recent Beijing retrospective of his work claims that he has designed over 100 cities in his 30-year career.
But before you think that Chinese hyper-urbanisation is just a trick of the light, there is clearly a real urban revolution going on here and the amount of spending and construction to achieve it is truly staggering. The new urban region of Jing-Jin-Ji (abbreviated from Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei) is home to 1.5 per cent of the world’s population and creates 10 per cent of China’s total GDP. Total infrastructure spending in this region is currently £70 billion (up from ‘just’ £6 billion back in 2003).
As more and more people are forced to leave the northern regions of China where the heavy industries are closing (due to financial pressures or environmental regulations), millions are gravitating towards dynamic regions like this regional powerhouse. It has been designed to halt inward migration to the capital by luring workers to settle in cleaner, greener, infrastructure-ready, modern urban centres. In this way, Jing-Jin-Ji is Milton Keynes on acid. In September 2015, the government announced the construction of 24 intercity railway lines to integrate these cities. The 3,500km of track will cost £60 billion and be completed by 2050.
Other fantastical stories of infrastructural projects across China are simply mind-blowing and put Network Rail in perspective. Suzhou’s subway began construction on Boxing Day 2007 and it now has 53km of track laid and operational and 46 stations. It also has a 25km tram network constructed in two years and will have 80km in two more years. Lanzhou, a heavily industrial city in Gansu Province, is currently bulldozing 700 mountain tops - reputedly - to create more than 250km2 of flat land for development. As Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World points out: ‘Ultimately it is the ability of the Chinese economy to make the transition from a labour-intensive, investment-led, export-oriented economy to one based on value-added production and domestic consumption that will be crucial to its long-term future.’
At the moment, China is a modern country that is crying out for a dose of modernity. Quite a lot of work is still required to turn this gigantic underdeveloped country into a developed one. Indeed, it is a cliché to say that China is 30 years behind the times, but you just have to watch TV to see it. Branding, marketing, advertising, promotion, fashion, etc is stuck in a terrible 1970s time warp and so the country is about to wake up to some fascinating creative opportunities. China is gradually opening up to more consumer choice and architects are getting more appreciative commissions. As this happens, the middle classes will become yet more aware of the possibilities to use architects, interior design professionals, photographers, product designers and various other creative consultants to improve their quality of life.
That positive story is matched by the fact that there is also increasing competition to get those commissions, not only among Western architects, but also with the increasing numbers of home-grown Chinese architects trained in America and coming back with creative integrity. They are bringing experimentation, free-thinking and aesthetic sensitivity, learned from the West, but decidedly Chinese in ambition. These are architects who have not become blasé at the mantra of creative or critical thinking, but crave its expressive freedom and are willing to return to China to test it out. All three partners at Skew Collaborative, for instance, trained in New York, have brought a democratic management style to their Shanghai office, involving everyone including interns in the design debate. This is a far cry from mainstream practices in China whose employees do what’s cheapest, quickest and easiest, with no questions asked about the impact on the quality of their design. Huang Sheng-Yuan of Fieldoffice Architects is doing some exciting architecture with landscape (check out the enigmatic Cherry Orchard Cemetery Service Centre in Taiwan. Compare this with the pseudo-independent Chinese Design Institutes whose designers are literally paid by the square metres of a building that they draw). Li Hua at Trace Architecture Office in Beijing exploits a subtle palette of materials in projects like the Wuyishan Bamboo Raft Factory, and similarly Atelier Chen Haoru’s bamboo Ecofarm project in Lin’An challenges the unthinking predilection for concrete in China.
Many of these architectural practices combine academic careers with their practice, from Zhang Lei of AZL, to Archi-Union’s Philip Yuan to the brilliant Modernist Wang Yun of Atelier Fronti in Beijing. The intellectual quality of these designers is striking, with practices formulating manifesto declarations or declaring their stylistic ambitions on their websites and in monographs and theoretical articles. There is a refreshing sense that architects in China are thinking deeply about social, political and design opportunities. They are also clearly thinking for themselves about what they want.
Following on from this, the multi-cultural architecture practices that have been around in China for a decade or so, marrying Western and Chinese architects, are also changing. Until now, the design creativity has tended to be in the hands of the German, Scandinavian, American, British directors, while the Chinese partners have been used to navigate the bureaucracy, create the graphics, concoct a narrative and sign the contracts. Having learned their trade, Chinese architects are itching to elevate themselves from this paper-managerial position and show off their design skills. Those who have, like Chen Xuedong (ex-Herzog & de Meuron) or female architects Ying Jiang at O-office (ex-AREP) and Hu Rushan of Neri & Hu (ex-Michael Graves), display a cultural sensitivity lacking in the bland churn of most global practices. China is quickly coming of age.