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New China Architecture

By Xing Ruan, photography by Patrick Bingham-Hall, Periplus Editions (HK) Ltd., Singapore, pp. 240, 2006, $49.95

Book cover

Book cover with illustration of "Watercube" National Swimming Center in Beijing designed by PFWArchitects, China State Construction Engineering Corporation, Arup Group, estimated completion 2007

By Carter B. Horsley

While Japan and Europe have been at the forefront of modern architecture for the past generation, much of the current architectural "action" and excitement has been emanating in recent years from China, which has launched great leaps forward in urban construction aided significantly, but not entirely, of course, by foreign architects.

This sumptuous and lavish book examines 43 very recent and/or ongoing projects with wonderful photography by Patrick Bingham-Hall and with renderings from the architects.

Several of the projects such as the Shanghai World Financial Center designed in 1994 by Kohn Pedersen Fox of New York and the Jinmao Tower in Shanghai designed in 1997 by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and East China Archtitectural Design and Institute are very spectacular and magnificent super-high-rise towers that are well-known, but many of the other projects are not yet well-known.

The author notes that "Shanghai, a city with a population of approximately 20 million (the same as that of Australia), has more than 2800 high-rise buildings above 18 storeys, and there are approximately 2000 more towers about to go up. China's current toal annual expenditure in building construction is about $US375 billion, which adds up to 16 % of the country's total GDP, and in a global perspective, China now consumes 54.7 % of the world's total cement production, 36.1 % of the steel, and 30.4 % of the coal. As for the future statistics, we only need to consider the scale of Chain's urbanizaton in the next 20 years, when it is estimated that there will be 200 million farmers moving from the country to the city."

While Dubai can perhaps lay claim to having more new extremely spectacular building projects in recent years on a per capita basis, China's explosive construction boom is remarkable. As the author observes: "To use the exhausted but now really effective metaphor: the 'sleeping dragon' is awake!"

For much of the 20th Century, Chinese architecture adapted itself rather painlessly to Western influences, albeit with a degree of what the author terms "hybrid kitsch."

"...in the 1950s, driven by a self-imposed mission to revitalize china's pre-modern architecture, and indeed ixed with an optimism for the new Communist government, Liang Sicheng and his UK trained colleague Chen Zhanxiang proposed to build the new government administration offices outside old Beijing to its west, thereby saving the integrity of the imperial city. The idea was rejected by the impatient government and by future-oriented technocrats, both of whom wanted to expand Tiananmen Square to be the world's largest, and to build grand-scale monumental buildings within the ancient city fabric. As a last resort, Liang Sicheng hoped the least the new regime could do was to save the magnificent city wall (dating back to 1264, when the Yuan dynasty began to build its imperial capital) by turning it into a civic park for the leisure life of the citizens of the new era....Indulged by his hopeless romanticism, Liang Sicheng wanted to give the new republic capital a splended 'green necklace of 25 miles in length, or the city wall that enclosed imperial Beijing would not be greened by lawns and plants. This would be the world's ony city ring 'park in the sky,' as it was not only to be a civic place, but would also serve the fine Chinese habit of climbing high to 'inspect the horizon.' Had the proposed materialized, I would like to think that generations of new citizens could have been cultivated with a rare civic idealism, for the idea of civic life and place have scarcely existed in China's imperial history of many thousands of years. Who would then care about its hybrid kitcsch look? The plan looks, if anything, herocially cosmpolitan. Legend has it that Chairman Mao Zedong stood on the Tiananmen (the Gate of Heavenly Peace) facing a sea of red flags at the birth of the new republic, and visualized a forest of tall industrial chimneys on Beijings's horizon with black smoke coming out of them. Liang Sicheng was devastated! The government then tore down the entire city wall to give way to roads, an act which was seen a a symbol of industrialization, and indeed modernity. This essay of course is not the place to ventilate any bitterness, but I tend to think that Liang Sicheng's fate, dying impoverished and regretful, is not merely a consequence of the brutal regime during his lifetime, but also of the image of modernity, which has trivialized the idea - and the essence. The architectural refinement of the first half of the 20th century in China was indeed based on essence and idea, not image. 'Modernity,' seen as the equilivalent of Westernization in China, was a topif of much debate in the early part of the 20h Century."

Shanghai World Financial Center

Shanghai World Financial Center, Kohn Pedersen Fox, 1994-

The author concedes that many of the new Chinese projects "may initially seem to be no different to that of the West," but adds that there is "one distinctive feature of these new projects; many of them, be they designed by foreign architects or by local Chinese, are the result of a figurative concept. Hence they look figuratively recognizable, although the figurative reading by the public can be amusingly different from the intention of the artchitect. Shanghai's 'Oriental Pearl,' the city's monumental and highly conspicuous television tower, is often 'dubbed' as a 'chicken leg' by the locals. This sort of 'misreading can blead to the frusttaion of the architect, as shown the recent saga of the Shanghai World Financial Center, currently under construction in the same area as the 'Oriental Pearl.' The architects, Kohn Pedersen fox, intended to reflect the Chinese cosmic model of 'square fearth and round heaven,' with the tower's square column intersected by two sweeping arcs, resulting in a slender crown punctuated by a large circle....The Shanghainesee, knowing that japanese money was behind the project, decided to see this figurative motif as two Japanese army swords holding a Japanese flag over Shanghai - a regrettable metaphor in light of 20th century history - and the construction was halted. The architect's response to this public rage was, once again, figurative; the circle is now intersected by a bridge, and is transformed into a Chinese 'moon gate.'"

National Grand Theater in Beijing

National Grand Theater, Beijing, Paul Andreu, 2006

"A figurative concept, and its materialization in the design, has almost become a pre-requisite to win any large-scale project in China these days," the author continued, adding "To name a few more included in this book: Paul Andreu's National Grand Theater in Beijing has a large bubble 'heaven' hovering above the 'earth' of the theaters, which we might see as a depiction of the Chinese cosmos...; another Chinese 'cosmos' is the Shanghai Opera House (1994-1998) by Arte Charpentier et Associés, which has a curved top and cubic square fbdy...;' the Beijing International airport (under construction) by Foster and Partners, albeit sleek and high-tech, is (according to the architects) a flying 'dragon"....; and the Jimnao Tower (1997-1999) in Shanghai by SOM is a Chinese pagoda, so the architects argue, thought it is clad with intricate metal frames and shining glass....Other figurative motifs are not overtly Chinese, but they do appear to have won the hearts of the Chinese: Zaha Hadid's Guangzhou Opera House (under construction) (see an illustration of it in The City Review article on an Hadid exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York) is comprised of 'pebble stones' washed smooth by the city's Pearl River..., and the Shanghai Pudong International Airport (1999) by Paul Andreu is a 'seagull' ready to spread its wings. Beijings's Olympic National Stadium (under construction) by Herzog and de Meuron, perhaps the most glamorous project so far conceived, is a gigantic 'bird's nest'; and the 'Watercube' National Swimming Center, designed by PTW, China State Construction Engineering Corporation and Arup....is a transparent crystal cell structure, although the architects have tried to argue the the square plan is Chinese."

Andreu's National Grand Theater complex is fabulous.

Here's part of the author's commentary on the French architect's design:

"The theater is located immediately to the west of the Great Hall of the People on Changan Avenue, the symbolic spine of Beijing running from east to west across the city's south-north imperial axis of Tiananmen Square and the formal imperial palace of the Forbidden City. The design comprises a gigantic glass sphere hovering above the water in a large pond, and this sphere has an east-to-west span of 213 meters, with a 144-meter north-to-south span, and the height is 46 meters, which is exactly the same height as the Great Hall of the People. No doubt the arhitect would have used this to counter criticism that his futurist 'blob' does not fit the neo-Classical context, but this, more than anything, is where opinion is dividided. A feature of the design is its entry tunnel under the artificial lake, as the complex is sunken below ground level. This tunnel, according to the architect, allows preparation with space and time for entering the theater. The curved earthy-red masonry wall - the only reminder of the Forbidden City across the road - naturally leads to the underwater tunnel. Surely it will be a fascinating experience to go through the glazed tunnel as if a fish swmming in the lake, which, in my frivolous imagination, would serve as a purifying ritual for people entering from a delirious consumer's world to acquire some culture. No so frivolous is a figurative nickname for the titanium-clad sphere from the Chinese: the 'eggshell.'....Three separate buildings, the central opera house, the concert hall and the theater - are covered by the 'eggshell,' and the space between the shell and these buildings naturally becomes the concourse....Although an egg has a universal symbolic connotation of fertility (and it is no exception for the Chinese), Wolfram Eberhard reminds us that one school of antique Chinese astronomy actually believes that the cosmos is egg-shapped."

Olympic National Stadium in Beijing

Olympic National Stadium, Beijing, Herzog and de Meuron, Arup Group, estimated completion 2008

Surprisingly, the book includes no extended commentary of the Olympic Naional Stadium that is expected to be completed in Beijing in 2008. Designed by Herzog and de Meuron, and the Arup Group, this "bird's nest" will be adjacent to the "Watercube" National Swimming Center, creating a sensational "duo" without rival.

Guangzhou International Exhibition Center

Guangzhou International Exhibition Center, Guangzhou, ASX Japan, The Architectural Design and Research Institute of South China University of Technology, 2002

In 2000, the Japanese architectural firm ASX was a competition to design an international exhibition center in Guangzhou. The enormous project is 810 meters long and contains about 500,000 square meters of floor space and the intention was to make the building appear as light as "a wave of breeze" from the adjacent Pearl River. "So," the author notes, "the gigantic silver metal-clad loop that wraps around the building towards the river is the 'wind materialized.'" "When the 450-meter long fountains are activated in front of the building," he continued, "it is envisaged that the entire structure will float and dissolve like a breeze from the river....The entry pavilion along the eastern end of stage one, with its overtly looped supporting structure and curved roof, asserts itself as an aggressive 'dragon' (as intended by the architects), which actually contradicts the elegant metaphor of a breeze from the river."

This spectacular project conjures the "rush" of a roller-coaster" and is likely to be the envy of convention center builders the world over.

Shenzhen Cultural Center

Shenzhen Cultural Center, Shenzhen, Arata Isozaki, 2005

Shenzhen is on the border with Hong Kong and has grown from a population of about 1.5 million in the late 1980s to about 7 million today and Arata Isozaki was commissioned in 1997 to design a cultural center at the foot of Mount Lianhuashan near a new City Hall. His design, shown above, is a masterpiece with a low-rise element with an undulating glass wall between two 40-meter-high long buildings housing a concert hall and a library whose facing entrances are multi-faceted and have tree-like supports that are gilded in the concert hall and silver in the library.

China Central TV headquarters

China Central Television (CCTV) Headquarters, Beijing, Rem Koolhaas and OMA, estimated completion 2008

Without question, the most spectacular project is the China Central Television (CCTV) Headquarters in Beijing that is estimated for completion in 2008 and has been designed by Rem Koolhaas and OMA. "It does seem to make sense that the competition for a landmark building of media conglomate CCTV should be won by Koolhaas and His Office for Metopolitan Architecture," the author maintains. "It also makes sense that the competition jurors included architect Arata Isozaki and critic Charles Jencks, who are forever searching for 'new paradigms' in architecture. All the 'star signs' suggest that this building must define something 'new.' This complex is loated on a 10-hectare site in Beijing's newly defined CBD, a notion, like 'suburbia,' unheard of in China just a few years ago. It also among the first of 300 new towers to be built in this CBD. Of a total floor area of 553,000 square meters, 405,000 square meters comprise the CCTV headquarters tower and the remaining 115,000 square meters make up the Television Cultural centre (RVCC.). The CCRV tower includes administration, news, broadcasting, studios and program production - the entire process of TV making is designed as a sequence of interconected activities. The TVCC includes a hotel, a visitors center, and large public theater and exhibition spaces. The CCTV tower, which looks more futuristic thathe TVCC, does possess several new features previously unseen in conventional towers. This 230-meter tall tower is actually a twin-tower, connected on both the ground and at the top as a twisted loop. The irregular grid on the building surface represents, according to the architect, the forces travelling throughout the structure. This design idea would though, be impossibly legible for someone on the street, and it also raises the question of why a Chinese media conglomerate would want to express the structural forces of its building. The juxtapostiion of the fully glazed, hence transparent, building surface with an irregular grid would seem to symbolically reveal the hidden institutional power struggle in a large state-owned organization. It is safe to assume that the Chinese authorities do not interpret this symbolism as a general cry for independent journalism. otherwise the project would not have received the green light. The TVCC is marketed with ahotel tower na dmcultural complex podium; only the matching shapes with the CCTV tower suggest the belong to the same 'newness.' The 'newness' of this Koolhaaas building has triggered debates. The questions raised by Chinese architects range from the structural integrity of its irregular shape to the astronomical costs of the project, and to the apparent lack of decorum shown to Beijing's historical context. Given that almost all the most public projects in China are now won by celebrity foreign architects (which this book clearly shows) some Chinese architects believe that China has become an experimental laboratory for foreign architects, and an 'architectural colonization' is now taking place. All this aside, one more question should have been asked at the outset: when the 'newness' of the CCTV building becomes worn and dated, how will one reconcile such an 'historical style' with the intrinsic nature of the media, which is solely concerned with 'newness.'?"

Beijing Books Building

Beijing Books Building, Rem Koolhaas and OMA, estimated completion 2008

Koolhaas has another very striking and major project in Beijing, the Beijing Books Building, which is expected to be completed in 2008.

The author provides the following commentary:

"It is somewhat puzzling thgat books remain as big businss these days - given that the digital world is so overwhelming - and that there is a need to have bookshops concentrated in one mega shopping mall. Rem Koolhaas secured the Beijing Books project after winning the commission for the new China Central Television headquarters. The first phase of the Books project is the construction of the new bulding, and phase two is to remodel the existing building, which will be incorpoated into the new one. The complex is located on the central Xidan Cultural plaza, and along with the Bank of China building (designed by I. M. Pei) to its west, will define the open plaza. Koolhaas, a journalist turned architect, rightly deserves the title of an expert on shopping, with a much-publicized Harvard research project on the topic. He sees two critical issues for this project: the problem of what he terms 'introverted shopping'; and the need to communicate eneegy of a shopping mall to the outside world. As with the CCTV tower, Koolhaas seems to have been born for this project, for his interest is to communicate (in a jouralistic way) the content of the building to Beijing's major street - Changan Avenue - and to Xidan Cultural Plaza. Mega shopping malls these days are sealed and air-conditioned, and the window is no longer relevant, so Koolhaas has chosen to seal the building with large and intricate glass blocks, which serve as internal booksheves and provide UV protection, as well as decorative external coloring. It appears that some glass panels can be opened, but there is no doubt that the gigantic internal space will rely on air-conditioning. The architect has made an internal 'cross', with two interior streets that open to both Changan Avenue and Xidan Cultural Plaza. The two huge openings are (naturally) entries, but the architect aslso sees them as 'symbolic windows' to communicate the internal energy to the street and plaza. The 'symbolic window' is indeed the accurate assessment of reality as the bulding appears fortified and monolithic, despite these two gigantic, though recessed, 'windows.' It must be noted that when the arhcitects designed the Great Hall of People at Tiananmen Square, they enlarged the windows and doors in order to give the gigantic building a 'normal' proportion. The architects made a mistake..., and as a result of the enlarged windows and doors, the Great Hall of People actually appears smaller than it is, as do the human beings in front of the building."

Sklight detail, Beijing Capital International Airport

Detail of "dragon scale" skylights atop one of the terminals of the Beijing Capital International Airport, designed by Foster & Partners, estimated completion 2007

Ningbo Campus Library, Zhejiang University

Ningbo Campus Library, Zhejiang University, Ningbo, MADA spam, 2002

Not all the projects have extraordinary geometries but inventiveness abounds as in the great grand staircase entrance to the Ningbo Campus Library at Zhejiang University in Ningbo. Designed by MADA spam, which is headed by Chinese architect Ma Qinyun, and completed in 2002, the staircase has many angled railings rather randomly spaced.

The author provides the following interesting commentary on this project:

"The library, elevated on a large podium, is a nine-storey red cubic builidng, and as expected, the building as a cental voi n oli pmit. But unlike Louis Kahn's Exeter Library (New Hampshire, USA, 1972), the central void in the Ningbo Campus Library is occupied by 'floating spaces,' such as an index room, an internet café and a reading lounge. Despite these floating spaces, illumination from the skylights still passes through and reaches the bottom of the void. The perimeter is solid and filled with book-stacks, and the reading areas are, naturally, 'carved' out from the book stacks and are reflected on the building facades. In Kahn's Exeter Library, the book-stacks form one layer of the perimeter, which is exposed through large circular openings in the void in order to 'seduce' the reader. An outer layer of the perimeter forms the privatised reading areas. For Kahn, the void, symbolically, is about sharing, which complements the private experience of reading and learnng. The books, in this scenario, mediate the two experiences. Quite to the contrary, the architect of the Ningbo campus library has followed the notion of a Buddhist scripture pavilion - cangjing ge - in a Chinese temple, wherein the library is a sacred room with permanent stacks of Buddhist scriptures. The spiritial power of the scriptures should overwhelm the reader, and hence books are worshipped. It is unclear as to whether or not the architect wanted to make this library a sacred place in a modern university but its scale, bright colour, podium elevation and the vast foreground lawn contrive to make it the most monumental building on the campus."

Looped Hybrid Housing in Beijing

Looped Hybrid Housing, Beijing, Steven Holl, 2003-

Steven Holl, the American architect, has designed Looped Hybrid Housing, a residential development for 2,500 residents on the third ring road to Beijing's east. The project consists of 8 towers that are interconnected at their bases and by skywalks near their tops. The strong grid patterns of the facades are enlivened by intermittent diagonals.

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