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Bridesmaid Syndrome: Farrells unveil China's Second Tallest Tower

Widespread billing of Farrells new tower in Jinan as ‘the second tallest building in China’ is up there with the 4.1 minute mile and the astronaut who wasn’t Buzz Aldrin, writes the AR’s China correspondent Austin Williams

News that Farrells is building the second tallest tower in China seems to have roused the British architectural press from its usual torpor, presumably because desperate hacks are always relieved when a British architect is found to be actually building something. Furthermore, if it smacks of the Orient, then it’s even more alluring. However, a 560-metre-tall skyscraper in Jinan in Shandong Province is nothing to be sniffed at, even if it does look like an elongated toilet. Or as the architectural leader writers will undoubtedly ‘dub’ it, ‘the cistern chapel’, or somesuch.

But while the urban context is Chinese, there is something unerringly British about its spin. In our ‘all-must-have-prizes culture’, we sometimes forget that second is not first. Scott is not Amundsen. Clegg is not Cameron. In some ways, the second tallest building in China is up there with the 4.1 minute mile and the astronaut who wasn’t Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin.

That said, it’s actually a good thing that such an ambitious, no-nonsense, project is under way. The 1.1 million m2, £3 billion International Finance Centre is meant to be the new icon of Jinan’s Central Business District and an expression of the renewal. Good for them.

After some delays with the excavation and foundations, it seems as if the project is now actually going ahead; although in China, it needs to be said that a start on site or even a topping-off ceremony is no guarantee of completion. Word on the Sina blogosphere is decidedly muted that this building will make it, having seen too many of these drawing-board flights of fancy disappear from view faster than Bo Xilai into a Chinese prison. As a case in point, I can look out of my window at RMJM’s tallest building in Jiangsu, to see a project that has remained inactive for 18 months, rusting away in the rain. The one thing certain about architectural projects in China is their uncertainty. As the Chinese proverb goes: bùjiàn guāncái bù diàolèi (never cry until you have seen the coffin), or it’s not over until the pàng nǚrén sings.

But principally, it’s interesting to see what kind of urban intervention is being created by the practice that has just written the UK government’s review of architecture and the built environment. In that rambling document, Farrell stridently proposes that we should all practise ‘a different kind of urban planning, one that is organic and evolutionary to allow for growth rather than the top-down “designed” cities favoured by earlier planners and architects’.

Well first of all, I should point out that Jinan Tower is in China: a country not exactly known for its community-centric legislative processes. (But then again, the Farrell report lauds ‘a strong, central executive’). Second, this building is about as organic as Mao’s centralised command economy. And arguing for a ‘better quality public realm’ is difficult in China where there is no meaningful ‘public sphere’.

The report bemoans the pollution and congestion blighting the developing world and proposes that ‘we should be cultural leaders on the effects of global urbanisation, helping local governments and communities to help themselves’, seemingly oblivious to the question of national sovereignty and preferring to offer assistance to peoples of whom we know little whether they want it or not.

Once again, the West is happy to pretend that the person in second place is actually morally superior. In fact, Xu Jiayin, owner of Evergrande (the developer of Jinan Towers) claims to be the fifth richest person in China. Worth over £6 billion, this is the kind of loser who really is out in front.

The Farrell Review concludes that buildings should have ‘minimum lifespans of 60 years’ as an example of efficient building technology and workmanship. Unfortunately, like much of the report, such suggestions are abstracted from social reality. For example, if China continues to change at the speed of the previous 15 years, then the Jinan Tower will become irrelevant by 2030. This progressive obsolescence is a good thing. As a matter of fact, it says something about the state of paralysis in the West that no such dynamic social change is even considered in the UK.

And then there is sustainability itself. Describing his second tallest tower, Sir Terry says: ‘This spectacular landmark tower in Jinan will push the boundaries for sustainable design of super high-rise towers.’ On this, he echoes the latest People’s Republic of China National Report on Sustainable Development, which states that: ‘Over the past two decades, China, based on its national conditions of being in the accelerated industrialisation and urbanisation processes, has enriched the connotations of sustainable development.’ Enriched indeed. The ultimate irony is that the Chinese Communist Party has adopted a new expansive mantra of ‘sustained, fast and healthy growth’ while the West merely relies on the turgid shibboleth of ‘Limits to Growth’. In China, at least they want to build big; in the UK, everyone wants to think small.

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