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The progress of an emerging superpower undergoing the largest urbanisation project in human history

China is riddled with contradictions. It is a place of dynamism and restraint, of exciting urbanism but terrible urban design; of space stations and rickshaws; a future that is caught in its past. It is a centralised economy that has become a global powerhouse: a modern society where 120 million people still live on less than $1 a day.

In many instances, the Chinese system can explain some of these contradictions as either merely Marxist dialectics or Confucian dualities. However, many of the irresolvable contradictions are the very challenges that the establishment knows that it has to mediate, confront … or control. As a result, the Party Congress in 2012 will result in major changes, while remaining, to all intents and purposes, fundamentally the same.

One of the key differences between China and the West is that, in China, the contradictions are visible and contested, whereas we are growing studiously oblivious to corrosive social factors in the West. Ironically, democracy is something that is treated glibly in the West; while the Chinese citizenry are desperate to attain it. All too often, we point the finger at Chinese abuses of free speech merely to detract from its increasing erosion in the West.

While the issue of poor living conditions is an everyday reality for a country still emerging from an agrarian economy, the fact that it has elevated 400 million people out of poverty in 20 years is something to be celebrated. This is the biggest social transformation in human history, and so the fact that social inequalities exist is − counterintuitively maybe − a successful sign of social transition. (Forbes notes that only 14 of the world’s 1,226 billionaires are women, but seven of those are Chinese.)

Over the last 10 years, China has emerged as the second largest economy in the world; it’s the world’s largest importer and largest exporter, and is the largest holder of foreign reserves. News of its imminent demise is overstated, as this year its GDP growth ‘slumped’ to a healthy 7 per cent.

However, it is important not to get too carried away and see China’s rise as the flip-side of Western collapse. For when left-liberals lose confidence in capitalism and democracy, they have a tendency − like the 1930s Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb − to see salvation in authoritarian state ‘miracles’. The articles in this edition renounce such gullible Manicheaism and are intended to challenge perceptions − of China and of ourselves − because the contemporary debate about China often says more about ‘us’ than it does about ‘them’.

This edition of The Architectural Review sets out to examine some of the key issues − from China’s public building programme to its education system; from its speed of development to its environmental impacts; from its modern ambitions to its traditional construction − and set them in context.

Whereas Times journalist Rosemary Righter has condemned the growth of China’s ‘Ozymandian public buildings’, here Alastair Donald writes about the positive role of grands projets and masterplanning (Ghost Towns). He argues the West has rejected ‘predict and provide’ as an act of hubris for so long that it has forgotten what planning for the future means. In the UK, we certainly prefer ‘patch and repair’ euphemistically known as retrofit, or sustainability. So while the West scoffs at so-called Ghost Towns dotted around China, many of them turn out to be large urban projects that will eventually be populated.


Locals wander underneath the cranes of a megablock complex on the edge of Beijing. Photograph by Matthew Niederhauser / Institute

Rather than reactive planning which merely responds to changes as a city grows, Chinese planners aim to have the infrastructure in place from the word go. OK, so some cities don’t/won’t work, some urban masterplans are badly executed, but at least they are setting objectives and getting on with them. As Shu Cao argues on Cultural Values, China is ‘hungry for the future’: ‘we do not wait till everything has been clearly thought out’. In the UK, the discussion on where, what, when, how and whether we should build, is usually in inverse proportion to the amount of buildings that we actually do build.

Remember, Daniel Burnham in Chicago famously stated, ‘Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood.’ Indeed, his Plan of Chicago makes the point that ‘urbanisation is a defining condition of modernity’. Modernity is the status of being modern, of looking forward with ambition rather than trepidation; of embracing change and development. The West has forgotten this: while China revels in the possibilities.

Peter Buchanan, author of The Big Rethink in these pages, often rails against the ‘pernicious … shortcomings’ of the ‘Modern masters’ and prefers a pick-and-mix parody of Modernism shorn of any socio-historical political context. Criticising Modernism’s unfulfilled ambition to provide ‘freedom for self-realisation unconstrained by culture, community, place and history’, he misses the point. Modernism was all about the social ambition of overcoming parochialism, localism and the subservience to nature. Its appeal was that it was the zeitgeist of a progressivist tendency at the turn of the 20th century; reflecting the era of social transformation and human emancipation.

Modernism, at that time, captured an approach to design in which architects had the self-assurance to try and to fail. Conversely, in such precautionary times in which we live, and given our current lack of a similarly heretical culture, Modernist avant-gardism is worth endorsing tactically.

Much in this edition of the AR dares to suggest that China is on the cusp of a similar transitional dynamic. In an era where risk aversion is the norm, the palpable sense of experimentation that permeated Modernism, and abounds in modern China, is refreshing. That is why, for all its problems, it is one of the most exciting places to be at the moment.

China’s current epoch captures the contradictory rise of modernity at a time when it is still in an agricultural age. It has, as Wang Yun, director of Atelier Fronti, says: ‘erased Modernism’ from its collective memory, partly because of the brutality of China’s recent history and partly because universalism poses philosophical problems for Chinese nationalism.

The renunciation of Modernism qua modernity is symbolic of a broader problem too. For as long as China continues to wallow in tradition, superstition and technocratic pragmatism, it will continue to flounder. In short, intellectual autonomy is more important than Feng Shui quackery. The powers-that-be know this but find it hard to accommodate the logical consequences of it.

In this regard, a key political ingredient of modernity is missing − the Enlightenment. Not in some pseudo-Taoist sense, but in what Kant described as ‘the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters’. Clearly, this jars somewhat with the strictures of the Chinese social system. Once released, critical thoughts cannot easily be directed or reined in. So the issue of pedagogy is important and a country that wants to develop a ‘world-class’ academic culture while blocking university access to outside search engines has a problem.


A house marked for destruction in Tangjialing.

Photograph by Matthew Niederhauser / Institute

Chinese students are diligent and eager to learn and within architectural discourse, critical engagement − or what has become known as creative thinking − is essential. Unfortunately, Chinese learn by rote. Seemingly inspired by the 1,000 year-old Imperial examination system designed to find administrators for the state bureaucracy, architecture schools get students to memorise. While there is something to be said for remembering plans and sections or copying the masters, it provides precious little interpretative understanding or free-thinking. Ironically, the Confucian scholar, Meng Zi (Mencius) stated that ‘One who believes all of a book would be better off without books’.

Rote learning is not the same thing as engagement, but it is also not the active disengagement encountered in many Western higher education institutions. ‘Teaching to the test’ is a cynical educational technique deployed in Western schools. Chinese students do the same kind of thing, but at least they are culturally programmed to learn something along the way. This month’s Pedagogy section explores how one school − the one in which I teach − tries to shake things up a little.

One refreshing aspect of Chinese architectural practice is that the word ‘sustainability’ is commonly used but actually doesn’t mean what Western environmental missionaries want it to mean. China tends to privilege ‘social sustainability’, which is variously interpreted as development, growth, harmony or stability. Growth and development (without prefixes) are not frowned upon and it is interesting to see architects from the West quickly losing their eco-pretensions and getting stuck into vying for mega-projects in greenfield sites.

The article by Pascal Hartmann (The Green Delusion) is a timely reminder of the fallacies of green architecture in the Chinese context (even though the argument has a broader application). Shanghai’s Ecobuild fair had hundreds of manufacturers providing technical solutions to environmental (and sometimes non-existent) problems, but it is telling that there were no stands selling insulation − the lack of which is the central cause of energy wastage in China.

The fact that good detailing is the simple solution to many of China’s construction ills is wilfully ignored by environmental lobbyists in favour of the latest solar-this and PV-that. It suggests that green architecture is an industry that is more concerned with self-preservation rather than solving anything meaningful. Hartmann points out that ‘good design’ should be at the heart of the architect’s professional ethos, something forgotten in the mis-translation of ‘good’ for ‘sustainable’.

As an aside, The Economist recently noted that 38 per cent of global reserves of germanium, a rare earth used in the making of circuitry for solar cells and wind turbines, comes from Inner Mongolia. It says: ‘Ripping up the grasslands and sucking up scarce water for thirsty mines has been part of the price of these “green energy” products’. In terms of sustainability it is time to ask what, and who, is the problem. Hopefully, this edition poses some of those questions.

Fact File

Photographs: Ed Freeman, Matthew Niederhauser

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