Has China been an architects’ test field for too long?

Le Grand Large Hotel, Hebei Yanjiao. My favorite! Image courtesy of Chinasmack.com
CCTV tower, Beijing. Design by OMA, photo by Iwan Baan.

CCTV tower, Beijing. Design by OMA, photo by Iwan Baan.

As the New York Times and Xinhua report, president  Xi Jinping has shared some opinions about on the desirable path that Chinese “art” scene should follow at a symposium in Beijing. Some of these tips were more obvious, like that artists should not be “slaves” of the market or “lose themselves in the tide of market economy nor go astray while answering the question of whom to serve” (Andy Warhol would disagree on this one). Or that Chinese artists should “disseminate contemporary Chinese values, embody traditional Chinese culture and reflect Chinese people’s aesthetic pursuit” and avoid “plagiarism, mechanization and fast-food style consumption.” But as his predecessor Hu Jintao did in 2012, Xi Jinping also spoke of the arts as a vehicle to increase national prestige and soft power, in terms of a competition of cultures. “Chinese art will further develop only when we make foreign things serve China, and bring Chinese and Western arts together via thorough understanding,” adding that art should “disseminate contemporary Chinese values, embody traditional Chinese culture and reflect Chinese people’s aesthetic pursuit.”

Phone building, Kunming.

Phone building, Kunming.

Chinese leaders have often given direction on what paths creative works should follow. In 1942, Mao Zedong delivered his Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art, which declared that creative ambitions must first answer to the goal of building a socialist state. Deng Xiaoping later quoted with approval Stalin’s line that writers and other artists could be “engineers of the human soul.” Since economic reforms began in China in the late 1970s, artists have been less compelled to match their output with the ideological demands of the state. Still, having a successful public career in China requires gestures in support of official guidance.

Fang Yuan building, Shenyang. Image courtesy of Chinasmack.com

Fang Yuan building, Shenyang. Image courtesy of Chinasmack.com

These statements reflects Xi Jinping’s continuing demand for officials to cut down on waste, extravagance and bureaucracy. A request that has been hitting China at every layer of its society and manifested in different ways: from raiding bars, to arresting celebrities. As a result forty-two artist management agencies in Beijing have signed an agreement with the police vowing to take action against illegal drug use within the industry, and promised to help “purify” the industry by promoting antidrug rules and pledging not to hire or get involved with any performers with a history of drug use. With this crackdown on extravagance and waste as a background Xi’s last guideline calls for an end to “weird architecture”, a product of the construction boom in the country which has drawn architects from all over the world.

Le Grand Large Hotel, Hebei Yanjiao. My favorite! Image courtesy of Chinasmack.com

Le Grand Large Hotel, Hebei Yanjiao. My favorite! Image courtesy of Chinasmack.com

Much of China’s older building stock is made up of Soviet-style concrete blocks, but in recent years property development has played a huge economic role. The phenomenon has drawn architects from around the world, from big names such as Zaha Hadid to younger unknowns who see opportunities to design towers long before their careers could reach such heights in the West. But some unconventional and costly buildings, often owned by state-controlled institutions, have been controversial, sparking criticisms of wasted public funds. Mr. Xi’s criticism comes at a time when China is just beginning to gain international attention for its architectural design. In 2012, Wang Shu, an architect based in Hangzhou, became the first Chinese to win the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize.

Amateur Architecture Studio (Wang Shu + Lu Wenyu)’s Ningbo History Museum. Image © Lv Hengzhong, Courtesy of Archdaily.com

Amateur Architecture Studio (Wang Shu + Lu Wenyu)’s Ningbo History Museum. Image © Lv Hengzhong, Courtesy of Archdaily.com

While a few Chinese netizens voicing concerns over their potential impact on creative freedom, most welcomed the Xi’s call saying that China should not be a foreign architects’ test field. Here is a list of strange and ridiculous buildings in China [mostly designed by Chinese architects]. Since years before the Olympics, Beijing has been abuzz about the designs of some landmark buildings. Some Chinese architects and critics said foreign architects have turned the capital city into a test field, while some said the designs are avant-garde and some others see these designs as ugly. My own take is that many of these buildings are indeed ugly, but they contribute to make China the most weirdly magical place we are addicted to. What do you think? Peace.




  • Peter Adler

    I’ve always disliked Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV building. Just because it is engineering-wise possible, doesn’t make it beautiful. Every time you see it, it is humanly natural to want to see something propping it up in that corner.
    And the additional cost of making it safe with this silly shape, I don’t want to think about.

    • MG

      Hi Peter, thanks for commenting.
      While I personally like the CCTV building from an esthetically point of view, I agree with the other issues you are pointing out. The reason why it might be considered successful is because it shows the nature of the power behind such a construction…