“Beauty and the East: New Chinese Architecture”

Beauty and the East

For the last few decades, China has been in the midst of a building boom. Since the socio-political changes brought about by Chinese economic reforms since 1978, urbanization and, hence, architecture have  accelerated. The country’s rapid growth has been accompanied by unprecedented change in the built landscape. At the same time, the possibility of building at unprecedented scales has been accompanied by a freedom to experience with architectural forms.

Today, Chinese architecture is no longer determined by generic high-rise buildings as it was just 15 years ago, but has rather been transformed by a generation of independent architects whose work is defined by an awareness of traditional values, an engagement with the landscape and an eagerness to find a new “Chinese identity” for contemporary architecture.

 

Beauty and the East: New Chinese Architecture (Gestalten, March 2021)
Beauty and the East: New Chinese Architecture (Gestalten, March 2021)

Beauty and the East: New Chinese Architecture brings together a vast array of architectural projects that have been sprouting all over China in the last few years. From the first page to the last, art museums, private houses, smart housing, communal libraries and public toilets among many other projects are presented side-by-side, reflecting the vivid and diverse architectural developments taking place simultaneously in the country. Each individual project is marked by the originality in form and material, creativity in redefining spaces and sensibility for the ecological and economic condition and landscapes.

The most evident element binding these seemingly different projects is the intellectual approach toward a “new” architecture which is, unlike before, shaped by a growing emphasis on the value of heritage preservation, an attempt to rediscover vernacular architecture and an awareness of ancient landscape.

Triggered by the rapid urbanization and the consequent demolition of old towns, or merely fed up with foreign influences and mainstream monstrous skyscrapers, contemporary Chinese architecture now gives attention to urban regeneration and traditional values. This approach comes at a time when the Chinese president Xi Jinping has called for an end to what he calls “weird architecture” influenced by foreign architects. His call reflected on the fact that China’s searching for an identity is laying the groundwork for contemporary Chinese architecture to emerge. What we see now in Chinese architecture is still in the state of  “evolving” and is, according to Wang Yun, director of Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture Graduate School of Architecture Design and Art, and founder of Atelier Fronti, “in the process of transitioning to a stable style, which gives rise to diverse styles that are necessary for reaching a consensus in the future.”

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The essays raise another aspect, often missing in Europe: the plan, regulated by the Chinese government in the interests of making the best use of its vast territory, of taking into consideration the nation’s rural areas into the process of urban development. Most of the projects presented here have taken place in villages and city outskirts, going hand in hand with intensive investigations on the economic and social status quo of each area, or as Zen Qun, chief architect of Tongji Architectural Design, puts it

 

It is a crucial topic for architects on how to integrate architecture with contemporary society. Integration comes first, and then we start to talk about individuality and creativity, and about ourselves.

 

Many projects by the new generation of independent Chinese architects are driven by an idea of the social function of architecture as they aim to bolster rural village life and a regeneration of a communal amenity. By doing so, they also respond accordingly to the State’s agenda of an integration of rural areas into the urbanization and modernization projects.

The allocation of contemporary architectural creations to rural areas is not only encouraged by the government but also supported by private entrepreneurs. On the outskirts of Nanjing, the ancient capital of Jiangsu, the Sifang Art Park arose in 2003, a project run by the local businessman Lu Jun and his art collector son Lu Xun. The Art Park includes works of the New York architect Steven Holl, Ghanaian-British David Adjaye, dissident artists Ai Weiwei and Wang Shu among two-dozen of the biggest names in international and Chinese architecture, each having an opportunity to design one of 20 buildings within the unique landscape as a “celebration of Chinese Tradition in a 21st-Century Art Park”. Wishing to counteract cheap and repetitive architecture, the leftovers of the 1990s, the aim is to break the mold of China’s rush by creating architecture of contemplation and deceleration.

The essay contributed by Wang Shu, the first Chinese architect to win the Pritzker Prize, makes clear how the dramatic social and political transformation and economic reform of the country has also played a crucial role in the experimental phase of architectural development. Since 1949, 2000 design institutes owned or supervised by the state have been controlling, analyzing and overseeing the state’s need for rapid large-scale infrastructural and architectural construction. After China’s opening, overseas contractors and consultants were allowed to work in the country as it prepared to join the world trade organization in 2001. This has been a pivotal year that opened many opportunities and challenges for local design institutes, and offered up new ideas, know-how and methodologies from the West as it boosted increasing competition from local independent architects that emerged since the 1990s. The essay gives the impression that this  symbiotic relationship of the State-owned institutes and the private practices is pushing Chinese contemporary architecture forward.

beauty and east

By some estimates, almost half of the world’s construction will take place in China in the coming decade, and in the 21st century, China might build more urban fabric than humanity has ever built before. The projects collected in this book might serve as appetizers as to what is coming next in East Asia. Although China’s on-going and rapid transformation is a source of  uncertainty regarding architectural development, it also provides a solid foundation for new creations, approaches and discourses; the West will have some catching up to do.


Phuong Phan is an art and architectural historian based in Berlin.