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Sarah Williams Goldhagen on Architecture: Valuable China

It has a centralized, repressive government for which its citizens do not vote. Local authorities come to people’s houses in the middle of the night to arrest them on bogus charges. Censors control access to information, monitoring the Internet and approving or even writing elementary school textbooks. Corrupt government officials routinely elevate to power the obedient, the well-connected, and the cash-plentiful above the meritorious. Laborers, skilled and unskilled, work breathtakingly long hours. The country occupies foreign territory and affords its colonized people freedom neither of speech nor of worship.

It’s China, and part of you—maybe the best part of you—wants to dislike it. In all likelihood you do not wish its government well, even, or especially, as its economy flourishes, extending the country’s political reach and perhaps portending the progressive diminution of the United States as global leader. A number of the articles that you read and the newscasts that you hear fortify your unease, although you concede that, while poverty levels in the United States have become a rising tide, the Chinese People’s Communist Party (PCP)—less ironically named than you might imagine—has decreased the share of its rural population living in poverty by over 35 percent in fifteen years. Indeed, in the past twenty-five years, 70 percent of all the world’s peoples who have been lifted out of poverty were Chinese: to a people who have had their feet stuck in the mud of rice paddies for generations if not centuries, paying jobs, improved schooling, and homes with running water and electricity sound like a very good deal.

Modernization goes hand in hand with urbanization, riding on new infrastructures for transportation, power, and waste removal; growing with industries high, medium, and low; heavy and light; service and financial. This means building. Industries need manufacturing plants and offices. The people who work in them need housing, and their children need schools, parks, and playgrounds. Everyone needs service and retail establishments where the newly un-impoverished can spend their RMB.

Currently China’s urban population is expanding at the rate of one million people per year, and since the 1980s well over 100 million Chinese, and probably closer to 200 million, have moved from rural areas into urban areas. Projections estimate that in order to accommodate these new urban dwellers, China will need to build fifty cities housing one million people every year between now and 2030. Unlike most Latin American countries, whose politicians content themselves with favelas where cheap laborers reside in shantytowns, pirating electricity and lugging home buckets of water, the PCP is, as quickly and efficiently as it can, actually building those new cities. All over the country new metropolises are bursting into being like Magic Rocks rising on surprised land.

China is re-configuring its built environment at an astonishing pace and scale. To read the American media on how the Chinese ride this self-constructed juggernaut of modernization, one would think that as in human rights, so also in the domain of built environment: there is much to protest, or at least to disdain. And so there is: grotesque pollution; edifices so poorly constructed that they collapse at the slightest earthquake tremor, killing schoolchildren and other innocents; building and zoning codes written primarily so that the hands of government officials with the power to override compliance can be more handily greased; foreign architects hired, then left unpaid like brides at their own weddings while local officials steal their ideas and their drawings and subsequently hire Chinese architects to construct the jilted architects’ designs without their supervision. Visual representations of the Chinese urban landscape tend to depict soul-numbing, characterless high-rise apartment slabs that seem plucked from any pre-1989 Soviet satellite republic and cloned by the hundreds.

Pollution, unsafe buildings, corruption, ugliness—it all exists. China is productive but predatory, at home and abroad. But it is also spectacularly large and a real country, more than the place, for better or worse, that the American media tend to present. Recently I went to China and other Asian countries—Singapore, South Korea, and Japan—to examine their built environments. Regarding China, I came away with some notions refined and others turned upside down, both because of what China is—namely, a rapidly modernizing dictatorship—and because of how China is depicted by our media.

SEVERAL BASICS MUST be established. China covers a land area roughly the size of the continental United States but is far denser: whereas the current American population is approximately 311 million, China’s is more than four times larger, at 1.3 billion. The scale of the PCP’s modernization project is thus not only unprecedented in human history, it is also objectively overwhelming. To manage the challenge, the PCP has chosen to delegate progressively more power to the local administrations of its many provinces. Some of these provinces, especially for what are known as first- and second-tier cities (provincial capitals and each province’s other largest cities), have developed and are employing intelligent strategies to manage their urban growth.

Here is the problem: there is much to admire, even to emulate. Infrastructure presents the obvious example. Few need to be reminded that America’s infrastructure is in shambles, and judged by how federal, state, and local authorities are managing the problem—delaying infrastructure maintenance again and again, stalled on re-thinking its basic organization—one might surmise that Americans enjoy digging themselves further and further down into ever deeper financial and actual ditches. China manifests the political will to invest serious money into infrastructure of all kinds, not just on its touted high-speed rail system: the country spends 9 percent of its GDP on infrastructure building and maintenance to our 3 percent, although admittedly, they started from a figurative zero.

Not only the fact of China’s infrastructure spending, but also the manner of its execution, at least in some provinces, deserves study. First- and second-tier cities in and around Shanghai (itself a first-tier city) offer a potent example. According to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center—that the city would devote an entire museum, placed prominently in its central cultural district, to urban planning bespeaks the municipal government’s commitment to the built environment—the urban greening coverage in Shanghai is well over 30 percent, up from 12 percent several decades ago. Laws mandate that new infrastructure, including any important newly constructed municipal road, must be 30 percent green—and, driving around, one does not get the impression that this law was made only to be broken. Edging highways and major thoroughfares are two, three, or even four levels of planting on both sides, divided by a lushly planted median. To be sure, this planting is not innovatively composed, and it would receive no awards from the American Society of Landscape Architects—but there it is, pleasant enough arrangements of trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers cooling and aerating the environment, buffering neighboring communities from vehicular noise and activity, absorbing runoff, and mitigating the sensory overstimulation that necessarily accompanies contemporary urban life. Driving on highways, surely one of the more aesthetically unpleasant but necessary urban rituals, is enormously less trying.

Emphasis on light and greenery shapes other aspects of Shanghai’s urban fabric as well. Since the PCP remains the largest landholder, new buildings and complexes get built when the government sells land to private real estate developers. The party typically establishes conditions for the parcel’s use, and those conditions usually fit into an overall regional plan that serves the public interest in the long term. This contrasts with practices in so many countries, including the United States, where little planning and only short-term profits drive the manner in which real estate parcels get developed.

By law, new housing projects in Shanghai and its environs must be 30 percent green, and many are. (It is more than a little ironic that, nearly a century after the Francophiliac and somewhat xenophobic Le Corbusier insisted that towers in parks were the ideal datum for the modernized city, that vision has become a reality in China.) It would be better still if all the gardens in these residential projects were open to the public (many of the higher-end ones are not), but still they exist, contributing to the betterment of the city’s overall environs, absorbing runoff, helping to mitigate pollution, allowing sunlight to reach the ground plane.

Historically, China may have kept people out with walled cities and the greatest wall of all, but today, in the arena of urban design, Chinese government officials, and the architects and developers with whom they work, are anything but walled off from the world, evincing an openness to learning from the best urban design and settlement practices of other countries. For managing metropolitan growth and preventing sprawl, Shanghai built satellite cities, nine of which are modeled after urban and architectural traditions of different foreign countries. (Europe reigns: Anting, known as “German New Town,” was designed by the firm Albert Speer [Jr.] and Partner; Songjiang, “Thames Town,” by the U.K.-based Atkins Consultancy; Pujiang, “Italian Town,” by Vittorio Gregotti and Associates.) The results of this openness are predictably uneven. Songjiang resembles a British Disneyworld without rides, but Pujiang offers a sober, elegant model of high-density urban design that the Chinese would do well to replicate. Wealthier Chinese have taken also to building megavillas of the sort that, from the standpoints of urban design, environmental sustainability, and social justice, should not be built anywhere.

Yet positive examples of China’s willingness to explore the aesthetic and planning practices of other cultures and traditions are common. This includes mixed-use developments such as Kohn Pedersen Fox’s Pudong Kerry Parkside in Shanghai, a handsome office, residential, and retail complex broken into different components to respond to the variable scales of the buildings’ functions and the neighboring environs. Another example is Sanlitun in Beijing, where the American firms SHoP and LOT-EK, the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, and the Chinese Beijing Matsubara & Architects collaborated to create a lively outdoor pedestrian retail district that breaks from the city’s overscaled, monotonously regular grid to create small pockets of street life filled with giggling teenagers in tight jeans. And although China has come late to historic preservation—Beijing has been sorrowfully denuded of much of its built historical fabric by the government’s excessively exuberant slum clearance program—Shanghai districts such as Taipingqiao (with a master plan by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill) and Xintiandi (Wood + Zapata, Inc.) mitigate the supertall scale of the city’s downtown business district through a felicitous combination of preservation, adaptive reuse, and new construction that confers upon these areas at once contemporaneity and a welcome sense of the city’s historic evolution.

When covering architecture in China, the American media tend to focus on one-off buildings, many of them designed by internationally celebrated architects: Herzog and de Meuron’s Bird’s Nest and Rem Koolhaas and OMA’s CCTV building, both in Beijing, or Zaha Hadid’s new Opera House in Guangzhou. Standing under the double cantilever of Koolhaas’s CCTV, or indeed standing inside it and gazing down through one’s feet and glazed flooring to the plaza many stories below, would activate a fight-or-flight response in just about anybody, and seems deliberately designed to do so. Perhaps Koolhaas managed his ethically questionable decision to monumentalize the headquarters of the party-controlled media by making the building as unappealing to enter and inhabit as possible. Hadid’s Opera House in Guangzhou, by contrast, presents an extraordinary melding of abstract metaphor, engineering, digital technology, and spatial experience; it follows two other equally successful projects, her MAXXI museum of twenty-first-century art in Rome and the Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, buildings for which Hadid justly earned Britain’s prestigious Stirling Prize two years in a row. These three projects, of which the Opera House in Guangzhou is the largest, suggests that Hadid has hit her stride professionally, earning her place as one of our era’s most talented and innovative designers.

However feted, justifiably and not, high-end icons by flashy Western stars such as Koolhaas and Hadid matter less—to most Chinese people, and ultimately to architecture—than the more general Chinese openness to experimentation that is evident not only in such large-scale cultural landmarks, but also in less wellpublicized public and private buildings at all different scales. Architectural innovation of the sort that is rare to nonexistent in the United States, except in private homes and the occasional museum, is to be found in bookstores and restaurants, in art galleries and in shopping centers. You see it in developer-built residential towers and mixed-use complexes, in headquarters for private corporations, in school buildings, in public libraries.

China’s modernization is often portrayed as one step toward its eventual Westernization. The facts on the ground suggest a much more interesting phenomenon. The Chinese are not prospecting a path toward Western ways but, having borrowed, felicitously and infelicitously, from the West, are now modernizing with means and results that are thoroughly Chinese. We can loathe the PCP’s dictatorship and human rights policies and still recognize its real accomplishments in the built environment, and consider how those accomplishments might be replicable in countries with more open political systems. Judge, yes; but also look and learn.  

Sarah Williams Goldhagen is the architecture critic for The New Republic. This article appeared in the November 17, 2011, issue of the magazine.