The Future of China’s “Weird” Architectural Scene

Examples of recent architecture in China designed by Western firms, and the objects that they have been said to resemble. Clockwise from top left: China Central Television HQ (OMA) [Wikimedia under License CC Attribution 4.0]; National Center for Performing Arts (Paul Andreu) [Hui Lan via Wikimedia under License CC Attribution 2.0]; Wangjing Soho (Zaha Hadid Architects) [Banganadhu via Wikimedia under License CC Attribution 2.0]; Beijing National Stadium (Herzog & de Meuron) [Peter23 via Wikimedia under License CC Attribution 3.0]; Guangzhou Circle (Joseph di Pasquale) [Midip via Wikimedia under License CC Attribution 3.0]. Collage by Jennifer Lam.

As a young practitioner from Hong Kong, I have been perplexed by China’s paradoxical approach to architecture and politics; its reputation as a playground for Western starchitects contrasts with other aspects of the authoritarian state. In Building Globalization: Transnational Architecture Production in Urban China (2011), Xuefei Ren argues that “global architecture has become the form for national aspirations” in recent years, recalling the Chinese proverb, “the moon is always brighter in foreign countries.”1Xuefei Ren, Building Globalization: Transnational Architecture Production in Urban China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 166. The seemingly win-win situation has made it possible for global firms to experiment with new forms to create landmark buildings in major Chinese cities, conjuring avant-garde designs like Herzog & de Meuron’s Beijing National Stadium (2007), OMA’s CCTV Headquarters (2008), and Joseph di Pasquale’s Guangzhou Circle (2013).

Are we reaching a critical moment for global architecture in China?

Yet these buildings have been mocked by locals, earning nicknames such as “the bird’s nest,” “big pants,” and “jade disc,” and they have contributed towards bizarrely decontextualized urban landscapes. The architectural styles of new buildings by Western architects in cities around the country swing from traditionally Chinese to completely a-contextual. A list produced this year of “12 Weird Chinese Buildings” illustrates my point.2Josh Summers et al., “12 Weird Chinese Buildings (You Won’t Believe Are in Actually in China),” January 27, 2020. But while Western designs are reshaping the country, the cultural openness that their presence appears to represent is limited; the widely-publicized public visitor’s “loop” in the design for the headquarters for China Central Television was blocked from use on completion.3Kevin Platt, “No Access for Rem?,” uncube magazine, (August 21, 2013). Chinese urban centers are still the “primary locale for political administration, cultural codification, and ideological surveillance,”4Edward Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (New York City: Verso, 1989), 236. not the laboratory of Western architects.

With the pandemic further complicating already strained Sino-Western relations and a travel ban preventing foreigners from entering the country,5Travel Restrictions and Permissions, Other Restrictions and Concessions Due to COVID-19,” Pearl Immigration (August 14, 2020). I wonder if we are reaching a critical moment for global architecture in China. During the lockdown in April, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development in China published the “Notice to Further Strengthen the Management of Urban and Architectural Style.” The decree forbids “xenocentric, copycat buildings” but encourages architecture that strengthens “Chinese characteristics”; it bans skyscrapers over 500 meters tall, among other measures.6Notice to Further Strengthen the Management of Urban and Architectural Style,” Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (April 27, 2020). The Notice follows on President Xi Jinping’s widely-publicized criticism, in 2014, of the “weird architecture” of buildings such as the CCTV headquarters, and a 2016 directive calling for an end to “architecture that is ‘oversized, xenocentric, weird’ and devoid of cultural tradition, and encouraging buildings that are ‘suitable, economic, green and pleasing to the eye.’”7See Amy Frearson, “‘No More Weird Architecture’ Says Chinese President,” Dezeen, October 20, 2014; Cao Li, “China Moves to Halt Weird Architecture,” New York Times, (February 22, 2016). Might this moment be a resolution to China’s architectural-political paradox? One that could lead to a new wave of critical regional architecture?

The manifestation of Chinese culture in contemporary architecture should be a critical, not ideological, process.

I am interested in seeing more work by local architects in China. However, in a country that values top-down authority, I am wary of the creative limitations of nationalistic state influence on design. The recent decree stipulates that a chief architect shall be appointed to manage the urban landscapes of a city,  pointing towards a shift in power from individual commissions between client and architect to state supervision. It is worrying to see that “forms, colors, shapes, heights, and spaces” will soon be regulated.8Notice to Further Strengthen the Management of Urban and Architectural Style.” How can the maintenance of urban landscape through height and color serve to anchor regional characteristics? How will it be judged if a “color” is “correct”? Should we add a red dougong on a tower to get the building permit? The manifestation of Chinese culture in contemporary architecture should be a critical, not ideological, process.

China Academy of Art, designed by 2012 Pritzker Laureate Wang Shu. [© Scott Chu via Flickr under License CC Attribution 2.0]

A new wave of Chinese practices focused on modern vernacularity have been emerging since the 2000s.

In contrast to the practices of global architecture, regionalism opens up the possibility of zooming in on the people, cultures, and climates of particular places. However, the broad regulations in the decree are not sensitive to local specificities; rather, they seem to call for designing the urban landscape according to top-down criteria. For instance, provincial governments are being advised to standardize features such as the relative heights of towers to satisfy an ideal aesthetic for city skylines.9The decree mentions that “three consecutive towers should have a height difference within 20%.” See “Notice to Further Strengthen the Management of Urban and Architectural Style,” Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, April 27, 2020. It would be more productive to explore how we might create a genuinely sustainable relationship between our built environments and the people they serve. To truly promote regionalism, it would be more fruitful to focus on how building typologies — from residential blocks to community centers — can be used to better integrate the characteristics of a place and its architecture.  As Liang Si-Cheng, Lin Hui-Yin, and Kenneth Frampton have shown, critical regionalism must account for the history and experience of a place, and in so doing represent an “architecture of resistance” to the homogeneity of global influence.10See Lai De-lin, “On Liang Si-Cheng and Lin Hui-Yin’s Writings on Chinese Architectural History,” Twenty-First Century Review 64 (April 2001), and Kenneth Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance,” in Hal Foster, ed. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983).

We should be searching for architectures that embrace Chinese culture beyond symbolism. Exemplified by the work of the 2012 Pritzker Laureate Wang Shu, a new wave of Chinese practices focused on modern vernacularity have been emerging since the 2000s, including standardarchitecture, Atelier FCJZ, and O-office Architects, among many others. As these regional practices flourish, perhaps what is needed is not more regulation, but more experience. It is time for the Chinese to bestow trust and show confidence in their own architectural culture. 

Notes

  1. Xuefei Ren, Building Globalization: Transnational Architecture Production in Urban China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 166.
  2. Josh Summers et al., “12 Weird Chinese Buildings (You Won’t Believe Are in Actually in China),” January 27, 2020.
  3. Kevin Platt, “No Access for Rem?,” uncube magazine (August 21, 2013).
  4. Edward Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (New York City: Verso, 1989), 236.
  5. “Travel Restrictions and Permissions, Other Restrictions and Concessions Due to COVID-19,” Pearl Immigration, August 14, 2020.
  6. Notice to Further Strengthen the Management of Urban and Architectural Style,” Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, April 27, 2020.
  7. See Amy Frearson, “‘No More Weird Architecture’ Says Chinese President,” Dezeen (October 20, 2014); Cao Li, “China Moves to Halt Weird Architecture,” New York Times (February 22, 2016).
  8. Notice to Further Strengthen the Management of Urban and Architectural Style.”
  9. The decree mentions that “three consecutive towers should have a height difference within 20%.” See “Notice to Further Strengthen the Management of Urban and Architectural Style,” Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, April 27, 2020.
  10. See Lai De-lin, “On Liang Si-Cheng and Lin Hui-Yin’s Writings on Chinese Architectural History,” Twenty-First Century Review 64 (April 2001); and Kenneth Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance,” in Hal Foster, ed. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983).

About the Author

Jennifer Lam

Jennifer Lam is a recent graduate of the University of Hong Kong, where she studied architecture. She is especially interested in strategies for making architecture accessible beyond the discipline.