Is China's Architectural Ambition Leaving Its Own Talent Behind?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images

The National Grand Theater celebrates its first anniversary on December 22, 2008 in Beijing, China

These days, fanfare and trumpets typically accompany architects when they begin new projects in China — and with good reason. In recent years, China, along with a smattering of other regions including the Middle East and Russia, has become a global architectural frontier, with star architects like Rem Koolhaas, Paul Andreu and Norman Foster all leaving their mark on the nation's rapidly expanding cities. But when Zaha Hadid's new opera house in Guangzhou opened in early March, her name was added to a growing list of high-profile names that is glaringly void of Chinese talent. In an era of larger-than-life buildings springing up in the Chinese landscape, where have all the Chinese architects gone?

They're still around, with rising architects like Yansong Ma starting to gain recognition alongside their Western counterparts. Aside from winning several international commissions, Ma was recognized by the Architectural League of New York with a Young Architect award in 2006. But in China, where courting famous foreign architects has everything to do with the nation's geopolitical ambitions, Ma's success is the exception, not the rule. Modernization in Asia, often symbolized by large-scale architectural landmarks, has long been associated with the West — a phenomenon that can be found throughout recent Asian history.

In the late 1800s, Meiji-era Japan called in German architects Wilhelm Böckmann and Hermann Ende to serve as consultants. Their goal was to herald Japan's restoration with a symbolic redesign of Japan's government buildings. Though little came from that collaboration, Hong Kong University Assistant Professor Cole Roskam says that in these exchanges, the relationship tends to work both ways. "It gives well-known architects an international platform and an often generous budget to realize their designs," Roskam says. "It also provides the government with a critical connection to a presumable trend-setter in international cultural production."

Though China's own architectural history is rich, the discipline has yet to fully recover from the effects of Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Intended to cleanse all aspects of capitalism from society, one of the far-reaching effects of the decade-long social upheaval was its disruption of the industrial arts: purged for their capitalist associations, many specialized disciplines, including architecture, became casualties of the movement. Nearly half a century later, architecture has still not fully rebounded, a fact that is compounded by China taking its aesthetic cues from the West, instead of back home.

The fact that Chinese architects are sometimes criticized for lacking the technical maturity to carry out mammoth-sized national projects has not helped their case. Architects are often unfairly aligned with shoddy work by construction companies, which they do not necessarily play a direct role in. Following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in which thousands of buildings collapsed, killing at least 68,000 people, China's building codes came under heavy scrutiny at a time when the country was debuting some its most fantastical buildings in time for the Beijing Summer Olympic Games. Chinese-trained architect and Hong Kong University professor Tao Zhu says both of the parallel events exemplifies "the present state of Chinese architecture, [representing] the country's uneven political and economic development." China's focus on urban development, he says, has resulted in a negligence toward rural infrastructure and, by in turn, social responsibility.

Chinese design firms are slowly beginning to gain recognition at home. Local firms are often more in tune with Chinese sensibilities and less likely to step on any cultural toes. In 2008, the China-based design firm Urbanus completed a low-income housing project in the Guangdong province that played homage to a tulou, a traditional Chinese communal building. The circular, community-oriented tulou style dates back hundreds of years, and in this case, was successfully applied to a modern context. A select few Chinese architects are also starting to make inroads abroad: in 2007, headed by Ma, Beijing-based architecture firm MAD won a commission to design the Absolute World towers in Toronto, and the firm is also expected to complete several projects in Dubai, Singapore and Japan.

But even in commissioning foreign-led projects, China has begun to make its own, unique mark on 21st century global architecture. For the subtext of China's new generation of blinking, towering structures is a political campaign of global ambitions — to be, and build, the best. Beijing's CCTV building, now internationally known for its incredible stature and unique shape, was commissioned by the state as a modern symbol of the country's tightly controlled media machine. As Zhu points out, "Chinese clients — the officials — are the most powerful, central-minded client." Unlike architecture that must hew to the limitations of the private market and regulations, Beijing officials can and do translate any design of their liking into physical reality. He says, "That is the kind of phenomenon you wouldn't be able to find anywhere else in the world."