BUSINESS FORUM CHINA - MORE THAN PAGODA ROOFS
In Recent Years, China’s Architectural Designers Have Started Developing Their Own Modernity.
 
Essay by Naudia Lou and c:t
 
Business Forum China - Issue 02 - "From Made in China to Designed in China"
 
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A little more than half a century ago, China was an agrarian society. In stark contrast, millions of rural dwellers have moved to cities at an unprecedented pace during the 21st century, thereby forming a new empire of urbanites. These huge pressures of migration within China are driving urbanization and urban planning, as well as the need for housing. Urbanization, however, does not only constitute creation on a massive scale, but also destruction on an equally massive scale. When Chairman Mao said in 1940, “There is no construction without destruction (Bu po bu li),” he could not have imagined that his words would describe China’s ideological overhaul as well as its physical transformation. “New cities with populations in the millions are rising as from nothing, and existing towns seem transformed overnight into jungles of anonymous office and apartment towers”1. The construction of urban China has evolved from ‘courtyard’ mode to overall city planning.
 
The Need for Speed
Even as the construction boom in China is still under-way, there are a number of fundamental challenges in the way this construction is progressing: Masked by the speed of full-throttle development is extreme short-term planning, poor construction quality of buildings and disrupted urban structures – not to mention the embrace of all that is Western. To make matters worse, short-sighted and commercially-minded real estate developers play an extremely powerful role in China’s construction boom. Development features huge block-style housing that stands over what remains of traditional housing areas, and often gaudier luxury apartment complexes, where aspects of planning, aesthetics and even functionality are overlooked. This type of construction is two-fold in its response: Firstly, there is a need to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of migrants moving into Chinese cities, and secondly, there is a growing middle class who can afford something better than low-cost block housing. In these cases, aesthetics and sometimes even quality and functionality are sacrificed for speed and the desire to house people quickly at the rate at which cities are growing. The aesthetics of housing projects in China are responding to market realisms. Suburban real estate developments are catering to the aspirations of the rising upper middle class. The unabashed kitsch of stand-alone housing, especially those seen on the outskirts of Beijing and Shanghai, are simply a result of what developers think that the upper middle class and the nouveau riche in China want: opulent and Western.
 
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Rising Awareness for Design
Iconic buildings in Beijing such as the National Opera House, the new CCTV tower and multiple Olympic venues are more of a response to the Chinese government’s ambition and its desire to put China on the architectural map, rather than a reflection of any existing trend in Chinese architecture. In spite of some negative domes-tic responses to these large buildings commissioned by foreign architects, their presence has raised awareness for architectural design and discussion, highlighting the need for China to develop its own identity in architecture. A prime example is Paul Andreu’s National Opera House, or ‘duck egg’ – its more derogative moniker, which was over-budget, is extravagant and clashes with everything around it. Everyone from the Ministry of Construction to opinion leaders in Chinese architecture agree that these developments are not in China’s interest, neither in terms of costs and aesthetics, nor the use of land and resources. In the future, Chinese cities will be less of a testing ground for outlandish ideas. What-ever public opinion might be about these buildings, their existence attests to the brazenly creative times during which ambitious buildings were built and Chinese cities were shaped. Yet, “Chinese cities are falling over them-selves in the race for flash architecture”2, and in competing for one-upmanship, they attempt to score sky-scrapers and other buildings designed by high-profile architects.
 
Nevertheless, these iconic buildings are at least raising awareness of design for developers who are becoming more aware that innovative design creates additional value. It is this type of awareness that is lacking in many commercial developments, especially in the scores of massive shopping malls popping up at astounding speed all over China. Already home to the world’s largest retail centre, China is expected to be home to seven of the largest mega-malls in the world. Since 2002, there have been 500 new malls built in China, with a total of 30 million square meters of new retail space. The largest shopping centre in China and the world is the South China Mall in Dongguan. However, there are more and more experts who are aligning themselves with the school of pessimists. The head of Jones Lang La Salle Beijing believes that 95 per cent of malls built in China are going to fail in the next five years.
 
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Home-grown Designers
Partly in response to the discussion around these iconic buildings, domestic Chinese architects and returning foreign-educated Chinese architects are leading the discussion and have proved to be a great force in the development of architectural design in China. According to AMO, the OMA architectural research unit, more has been built by Chinese architects than by anyone else in the world. In the last five years of China’s creative avidity, a new class of home-grown designers and architects is finding its own distinctive non-Western voice, paving the way for a markedly different Chinese modernity that is more than simply slapping a pagoda roof onto a building. A promising new generation of young Chinese architects – who are both aware of international trends while not losing touch of China’s architectural heritage – are playing a bigger role in Chinese architecture, and thus are preventing cities from becoming Western-looking architectural playgrounds.
 
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Innovative and renowned institutions such as MADA s.p.a.m., URBANUS, Atelier Zhanglei, standardarchitecture and MAD are headed by talents who studied in the West, absorbing critical thinking and creativity, and are in turn combining these with new technologies available today. Zhu Pie is an example of one returning Chinese architect who wants to restore some of China’s traditional architecture and history: Beijing’s hutongs. He believes that if this traditional housing typology disappears, Beijing will lose its soul. Ma Yangsong and his practice MAD, is another driving force for architecture within China. He is also an example of a Chinese architect who is making his mark on the international level. However, both these practices are facing the realities of the building sector as Ma Yansong, founding partner of MAD puts it: “Beijing architects, we just feel responsible to give an answer to the brief.”
 
In the future, as architecture in China develops in its own vein, though never completely independent from rapidly changing urban realities, commercial and market forces, there will be more of a global exchange of ideas. Foreign and domestic practices alike are facing the same challenges, which are cultural, environmental and ur-ban. Hence architectural design will increasingly become a global affair. However, it has to be taken into account that the half-life of an architectural trend gone wrong is longer than that of other industries.
 
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