A Reality Check on China & Architecture


It’s a rewarding day when a prominent online name in architecture gives a reality check on China and its Western starchitecture explosion.


“While China’s raging economic success has attracted throngs of first-class architects and spurred what is arguably the largest urban construction movement in human history, many Chinese are now reevaluating the burst of shiny new buildings designed by reckless Pritzker Prize winners and the like, many of whom view China as ‘a perfect blank canvas,’ in the words of Zaha Hadid,” the Architizer blog post reads. Having lived in north- and southeast China between 2009 and 2010, I covered the architecture this post refers to.


Now I’m going to preface the rest of my own blog post. Admittedly, I’m a hard sell when it comes to high praise. This could be the result of calling Chicago, the grandfather of architecture, home. This could also be because I’ve covered space design since 2003. Nonetheless, it’s simply bad form to automatically grant credence to projects simply because they bear a starchitect’s signature.


Photo credit of Zaha Hadid's Guangzhou Opera House

In Spring 2010 I asked the editor of Perspective, a magazine where I blog and regularly contribute articles, if I could write honestly about the buildings I was covering. She politely refused, of course. It wasn’t something to take to heart; half the pages of major architecture magazines around the world rave about works that I think should never have made it past the model stage.


Some of the buildings I was writing about at the time include the Vanke Center and the Pearl River Tower in Southeast China’s Guangdong Province. The Vanke Center, in an effort to write between the lines, I labeled “an exercise in irony.” In that article was also able to squeeze in other subtle elements of the realities of life in China, which I won’t go in to here. What I wasn’t able to do, however, was bluntly state that the project’s architect, Steven Holl, was overusing the moniker “horizontal skyscraper.” (Is this how we’re supposed to refer to vertically sprawling low-rise projects now?)


Photo Credit for the Vanke Center

Rather than deceptively conveying an aesthetic appreciation for an actual vertical skyscraper, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s Pearl River Tower, I merely wrote, “The Pearl River Tower looks like a silvery cigarette.” A Dutch’s architect’s Guangzhou TV & Sightseeing Tower, I called a “bondage queen.”


When exchanging opinions with my architect friends in Shenzhen, these comments elicited laughs. None disagreed, and I don’t recall a single architect describing any of these projects as even “pretty.” Instead the conversation always came back around to the fact that China and the Western starchitects abusing its unending streams of money weren’t looking to make the world’s most beautiful architecture. They were/are instead seeking to accrue a list of superlatives: world’s greenest this, world’s highest that, world’s tallest the other. The only time I think that was relevant was in the 1920s in the competition between the Empire State and the Chrysler buildings. It’s as if these starchitects were getting back at every professor who ever honestly criticized their student work.


Photo Credit of the Pearl River Tower

Fortunately, the Architizer blog post could go further than I regarding Chinese projects. It did so more journalistically than I have the temperance to do.


“Foreign architects have enjoyed creative and financial free reign to execute their projects in China,” the post cites Peng Peikeng, a senior commentator at Tsinghua University, as saying. “Largely unconcerned with visual or historical continuity, architects like Norman Foster and Herzog and de Muron have had an open stage to realize designs that would never have been accepted back home due to site-specific restrictions and tighter budgets.”


Peikeng failed to mention, though, that these projects would also not have been accepted because of the vast differences between Eastern and Western aesthetics. He also failed to mention that Foster works primarily in Hong Kong, a notoriously difficult city to design in because of the culture’s infatuation with feng shui. The stringent, sometimes strident implementation of feng shui can be seen in not only its buildings but also its urban planning. And, from my discussions with European architects trained in feng shui in the West and my research into the design style (including conversations with Chinese non-architects), feng shui is based on the encapsulation of luck (AKA money)– not aesthetics. (Read more about feng shui and the Chinese sense of design here.)

Photo Credit of the Guangzhou Telecommunications Tower


Reading between the lines is an important part of critical thinking– and of reading and writing well. What I read into these Chinese critics’ comments is that their country is finished with Western architects. As I witnessed on countless occasions, and as has been reported in as many different ways by Western media, China hires you, steals your ideas, then deserts you when it’s ready to implement what you’ve inadvertently taught it. This is not a criticism but a fact: In Communism, there is no such thing as copyright. Additionally, notice these comments weren’t given directly to the writer; they were written by Chinese people in a Chinese newspaper, in which censors (as I experienced first-hand) would never allow to freely express dissent.


I’m not entirely negative about Chinese architecture, though. Read my article about an phenomenal urban planning project in Hua Qiang Bei. This Shenzhen project did not glean nearly as much publicity as it should have. I also appreciated the Grand Hyatt Shenzhen (though wanted to rail against its interior navigability), which again didn’t garner much ink in major magazines.


Wu Xuefu, a professor of design at the Communications University of China, said in the China Daily article from the Architizer post extracts, “We believe it is time for China to stop worshipping foreign things and to ‘export’ the best we have to the world. But first, we need to know ourselves better.”


Now let’s look at that statement. First, it calls for ditching the Western architects now that we (think we) know all they do. Then it says we need to export our own culture– though we have no idea what that is. It’s not difficult to see this as governmental propaganda, especially considering it comes from a university professor. Nonetheless, it is poignant commentary, and shouldn’t be dismissed as representing at least partial truth of the population’s mentality.


One thing that disappointed me about China was its lack of attention to its own history of thousands of years. It almost hurt me that the people so willingly let Western architects have their way, falsely aligning their designs with some or other vague notion of Chinese culture. I saw it repeatedly. But too many other elements of the culture revealed China as changing too fast to be able to both retain its own identity and adopt that of the West’s which they so desperately wanted to rival.


I’m curious to see how China forges its own identity over the next 20 years. Meanwhile I’ll await the final results when the Pritzker Architecture Prize Ceremony is held in Beijing next year.

4 thoughts on “A Reality Check on China & Architecture

  1. Nichole L. Reber Post author

    Working on an essay right now about China. It’s possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever written. A sort of process of trying to recover from the wounds it left. Will carry you along in the process!

    1. Rudy Oldeschulte

      Your (cryptic) message spoken to a psychoanalyst…hmmmm. What kind of wounds, might I ask? Are you speaking of the ‘architectural’ wounds alluded to in the blog?

      1. Nichole L. Reber Post author

        Architecture was part of what saved me but it also is part of the wounds bc it was just so bloody godawful– except in Hong Kong, where colonialism left a superb impact on the culture. (HK is a fascinating international city.) More specifically, the essay is about the people, the experiences, the food, the unhealthy environment I was surrounded by. I try to liken it to a child who, in learning to ride her bike, takes a hard fall. A moment of tears she’ll cry then she knows she has to get right back on the seat. I’m trying to find the bright spots in my two years there and the fading bitterness, that’s still far too present, so I can soothe away the pain and anger that sometimes arises. Just the mention of the word China makes me bristle. Not expecting an overnight healing. The essay may multiply to two or three.

  2. Rudy Oldeschulte

    Fascinating. It is about identity, and you bring in the cultural and historical identity issues that China (and I would imagine other countries) face in their ideas about design – and what influences the formation or genesis of their ideas – conceptually and practically.


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