China, the Playground of Bad Design
October 27, 2011
The Indian Pavilion and Saudi Arabia Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010, image via Meiguoxing.
A few days ago, China Daily editor Liu Yujie brought attention to the budding sentiments of the Chinese against the use of their country as a “playground for international architects.” In a piece entitled “Bad boy architects & China’s new face,” Liu criticized some of the most publicized new buildings to transform China’s cityscapes. Offending culprits include Rem Koolhaas’ CCTV Headquarters, the asymmetrical steel “underpants” that many now view as a humiliating blemish in Beijing’s central business district, and Raimund Abraham’s Jingya Restaurant, an imprudent tribute to the “awesome power of the ocean” that shamelessly clashes with the nearby Forbidden City. Click to read more.
The facade of Raimund Abraham’s Jingya Restaurant, image via super.heavy’s flickr.
While China’s raging economic success has attracted throngs of first-class architects and spurred what is arguably the largest urban construction movement in human history, many Chinese are now reevaluating the burst of shiny new buildings designed by reckless Pritzker Prize winners and the like, many of whom view China as “a perfect blank canvas,” in the words of Zaha Hadid.
The Jin Mao Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Tower under construction in Shanghai’s Pudong district, image via yohanes budiyanto’s flickr.
After events like the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, the world seems to have grown accustomed to seeing outcrops of eccentric new projects upon China’s wildly shifting cityscapes. Many welcome these emblems of the cutting-edge with open arms. But Peng Peikeng, a senior commentator at Tsinghua University, sees his country as an abused testing ground. While historic hutongs are demolished without an afterthought, foreign architects have enjoyed creative and financial free reign to execute their projects in China. Largely unconcerned with visual or historical continuity, architects like Norman Foster and Herzog and de Meuron have had an open stage to realize designs that would never have been accepted back home due to site-specific restrictions and tighter budgets.
Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV Headquarters under construction, image via anyongfu’s flickr.
Liu remarked that while architectural design has existed as a profession in the Western world for more than 500 years, it has only existed in China for a mere 30 years. Influenced by the Soviet Union, China had long suppressed the pursuit for architectural innovation and individual design, says Wu Liangyong, senior architect and member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering. Wu believes that this historical trajectory has now whiplashed into a grossly excessive demand for the chic, the new, and not to mention the expensive aesthetic of contemporary, avant-garde design.
The crown of SOM’s 88-story Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai, image via Frank Schacht’s flickr.
“China is not so rich that we do not need to count the cost. We need real and practical solutions,” says Wu. Native Chinese are beginning to appreciate projects that consider the country’s historical and geographical context instead of exalting foreign aesthetic values. For instance, the article finds praise for SOM’s Jin Mao skyscraper in Shanghai, which is celebrated for its functionality and its elegant allusion to an ancient tower in Suzhou.
A number of large commissions, such as the design for the Ningbo Museum, are for the first time being awarded to Chinese architects. Liu’s article specifically commended Urbanus Architects for their urban tolou (earth fortress) project in Guangzhou, a low income housing complex that mimics 17th century Hakka houses with its curving, fortress-like walls.
Urban Tolou by Urbanus Architects, images via Aga Khan Development Network
In an uncharacteristic turn, the author suggests that China learn from Japan, a country that managed to preserve its culture in the midst of rampant Westernization during the nineteenth-century Meiji Restoration. The article ends in an optimistic tone with a call for architects to learn from their more experienced Western counterparts while turning attention to China’s rich artistic and historical past. Chinese architect Wang Shu implores his country to educate its youth on Chinese as well as Western aesthetic values, open up equal opportunities for domestic and foreign design firms, and, importantly, stop shining the public spotlight on odd-looking buildings.
Get the full article at the China Daily website.