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Architects, experts discuss past and future of Chinese architecture

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Architects, experts discuss past and future of Chinese architecture

| architecture, architecture critic | May 04, 2011

National Grand Theater

Architecture is still a fledgeling industry, whose recent successes mustn’t be allowed to obscure endemic problems of appreciation and organization. Such were the conclusions of “China Architecture 10 Years (2000-2010): Architecture & Society,” a series of forums (held in Beijing and Shanghai, with another scheduled in Guangzhou) inviting local architects and government officials to discuss China’s past and future relationship with architecture.

Rise of the modern

Throughout history, China has contributed architecure styles such as the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Suzhou gardens and the Shanghai Shikumen, innovations with typically Chinese characteristics. But where are the modern styles?

In the past 10 years, a series of events, including the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the 2010 Shanghai World Expo and the 2010

Guangzhou Asian Games, have seen China’s cityscapes enjoy worldwide coverage as a modern showcase of rapidly rising, large concrete buildings.

Nowadays, if Beijing and Shanghai are mentioned, constructions such as the National Grand Theater, the new China Central Television headquarters, the National Stadium (the Bird’s Nest), or Shanghai World Financial Center (until now, the highest building in the world) and Jin Mao Tower immediately come to mind. Their common features are that they are large, tall and modern.

At the Shanghai forum, Yang Ming, the director of the East China Architectural Design and Research Institute, declared that the achievements of the past 10 years are so huge that one could effectively ignore any construction done in the first 20 years of reform and opening-up.

“At present, when you go outside, 80 percent of the outstanding buildings you can see in China were built during the last 10 years,” Yang observed.

Yang pointed out that since the National Grand Theater project was designed by French architect Paul Andreu and began construction in 2001, more and more domestic construction projects in China have opened their doors to foreign architects and Sino-foreign cooperations are rapidly emerging here. “It is really a very good opportunity for the future of Chinese architecture,” Yang said.

Big is better

Most of the architects and experts involved in the forums agreed with the analysis and thought that the recent success was closely related to events in China during this time.

According to Hu Yue, director of the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design and Research, there is a correlation, unique in China, that when grand events take place, large buildings always appear.

“Throughout the history of world architecture, large buildings were not always related to big events,” Hu said, “Of course, China has the largest population in the world, with plenty of reasons for big buildings, but whether it’s necessary or worthy to invest so much human and material resources into them is worthy of consideration.”

Hu wondered, “What on earth is good architecture?” In his opinion, there seemed to be two criteria in China for judging.

“One is from the government and is the ‘official’ one, which usually thinks that ‘large’ and ‘important’ symbolic buildings are good …The other is repressing the public and the media, who seem always to have the opposite view and judgment to the official criterion,” said Hu.

Zhuang Weimin, director of the Architectural Design and Research Institute of Tsinghua University, expressed his helplessness as an architect when facing this “offical” dilemma. In order to meet the deadlines of large events like the Olympic Games and the World Expo, he said, of design projects always have to be finished within a very short time. “The years of working experience of the architect cannot be well-matched with the design and the construction. We are always pitched into designing,” he complained.

“Moreover, once finished, are there any [buildings] that really have architects’ own care and thought inside? I’m not sure.”

Duty of an architect

For critic Wang Mingxian in Beijing, the problem was different. Although he conceded the foreign and Chinese success of the last decade, in Wang’s opinion, “this period has not raised a mature, worldly, influential and contemporary Chinese architecture team. [Their] force is dispersed and scattered.”

Yu Ting, a Shanghai architect, and Sun Jiwei, head of Jiading district, had their own views. Yu pointed out that procedures and approvals beyond the ability of architects have always been needed in China. Yu thought that, for most of the time, it is enough that an architect carefully finish the task.

Sun disagreed, stating that architects had a different duty. “They must learn how to examine their own problems,” Sun said. “As long as the architect really has his own personal pursuits and ideals, the government will always need and support them.

“Not just something unconventional,” he further explained. “But [someone who] can really supply good, especially environmental friendly, designs with limited resources – not very avant-garde or conceptual – but requiring a large amount of human and financial resources.”

As Wang said at the very beginning, the past 10 years may have been brilliant for Chinese architecture but have also produced the most problems. These are ones not only architects, but also everyone involved in Chinese architecture, need to think about and consider deeply.

 
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About the author

After working at various design practices on a full-time and freelance basis, and starting his own design firm, David McFadden saw that there was a gap to be filled in the industry. In 1984, he created an expansive hub for architects and hiring firms to sync up, complete projects, and mutually benefit. That hub was Consulting For Architects Inc., which enabled architects to find meaningful design work, while freeing hiring firms from tedious hiring-firing cycles. This departure from the traditional, more rigid style of employer-employee relations was just what the industry needed - flexibility and adaption to modern work circumstances. David has successfully advised his clients through the trials and tribulations of four recessions – the early 80’s, the early 90’s, the early 2000’s, and the Great Recession of 2007.

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