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."
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.'"
"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
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."
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.
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
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 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.
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.'?"
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."
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."
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.