Guangzhou’s Inferiority Complex

Guangzhou Opera House. Photo by puikincz

You gotta give Guangzhou some credit. The capital city of Guangdong Province is trying desperately hard to catch up to its first tier city peers in the culture department. The city’s inferiority complex manifested itself most recently in the over-the-top production of the 2010 Asian Games – an event reminiscent of the 2008 Beijing Olympics but hardly as noteworthy.

Now Guangzhou is looking to capture the spotlight once again with a spectacular opera house designed by Zaha Hadid, set to open to the public in February. This isn’t the first time striking architecture by a world-famous designer has been used to raise the profile of a city.

Yet why does Guangzhou, the capital of China’s wealthiest and most populous province need to rely on name brand architecture to raise its profile? The city has a rich history and a strong culinary tradition. And because Guangdong is where many Chinese immigrants around the world come from, the Cantonese culture is the main window through which foreigners have come to know China.

Guangzhou officials should be promoting its unique cultural heritage if it wants to attract tourism. The eye-catching imagery of avant-garde architecture is not a long-term sustainable strategy for doing this. Liu Xiaolu, spokesman for the Opera, confirmed the misguided intent of this project:

In a short period of time it has changed the cultural scene here, which was relatively limited until recently. Before it was just Beijing and Shanghai. Major international productions – whether it was opera or pop music – would pass right over us and go straight to Hong Kong. We just didn’t have the venues. We didn’t even have a stage large enough to fit all the swans in Swan Lake. Now it’s Guangzhou’s turn.

Domus: Zaha Hadid in Guangzhou

ArchDaily: Guangzhou Opera House/Zaha Hadid

City Journal’s Guy Sorman: China Basher

Beijing’s 798 Arts District

While browsing through the front page of the planning website Planetizen the other day, I came across a link to a story from the autumn issue of City Journal titled ‘Asian Megacities, Free and Unfree‘. City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute, is one of my favorite publications about urban issues, and usually produces well-reasoned, thought-provoking pieces. And given the topic of this piece, I was excited to read what I thought would be a compelling article about the rise of Asian cities.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The article’s author, Guy Sorman, spends the first half of his piece tearing apart Chinese urbanism by belittling the country’s two largest metropolises Shanghai and Beijing. He continues the latter half by discussing why Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is superior to those cities. Sorman’s argument is rooted in the notion that China’s cities are not dynamic because their residents are not afforded the same ‘freedoms’ as those of Seoul.

Sorman’s position is essentially a political one. He thinks that China’s top-down government approach to urban planning and development means that its cities are  bound to be drab and uninspiring wastelands. For instance, he describes Beijing as ‘not a friendly city’ and a ‘dead city after 8 PM’.

Has Mr. Sorman ever spent more than a few days in Beijing? His comments sound like they are coming from someone who spent his entire time cruising in a Crown Victoria down the showcase boulevard Chang’an Jie peering at the gargantuan government buildings thinking that this is all the city accounts for.

To be sure, Beijing has major challenges to overcome such as traffic and the accompanying air pollution, but to deny that it is one of the most dynamic cities in the Asia (and the world) is totally off base. The city is huge, and with having seen explosive growth over the past three decades, there are myriad nooks and crannies to discover that are teeming with life. He also misses the point that Beijing is China’s cultural capital, with a burgeoning arts and music scene that is redefining Chinese identity for the first time after having been decimated by the Cultural Revolution.

Sorman’s myopic focus on only China’s two largest cities is extraordinarily shortsighted. There are dozens of other booming Chinese cities with millions of people enjoying the rewards of successful economic development and a significantly increased standard of living.

The city I live in, Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, is a city boasting a population of nearly 5 million people. Dubbed ‘China’s Party Capital’ by the LA Times, people in Chengdu know how to enjoy life, whether it is spending dinner with friends around a fiery hot pot or wiling away  for hours over a cup of tea in one of the several municipal parks. If Mr. Sorman thinks that China’s ‘totalitarian Communist regime’ is an impediment to Chinese urbanites enjoying the good life I challenge him to come to Chengdu for a few days and see that he couldn’t be more off the mark.

Sorman contrasts China’s cities with Seoul, making the case that it is a more ‘bourgeoisie’ and interesting city due to South Korea’s system of government. Yet, as he clearly articulates in the article, the country did not see a democratic government until 1993, before focusing on economic expansion and urban development.

Did it ever occur to him that this is exactly what China is going through precisely at this time? It is a key characteristic of societies around the world that government reform follows on the heels of economic reform, not the other way around. Another misconception abounding in urbanist literature is that promoting so-called ‘creative industries’ will produce successful metropolises. Wrong again! Creativity and leisure also follow on the heels of economic prosperity.

I agree with Sorman that today Seoul is a compelling city full of enterprising and creative people. It is likely that it is in fact a much more livable city today than it was in previous decades when it was undergoing substantial urbanization. But who is he to suggest that China’s cities cannot follow the same path? Instead of being a pessimistic observer, focusing only on the negatives, he should realize that China is changing for the better and its cities will come into their own over time.

City Journal: Asian Megacities, Free and Unfree

Planetizen: The Political History of Asia’s Mega-Cities

Wuhan to Get World’s 3rd Tallest Skyscraper

The city of Wuhan, capital of central China’s Hubei province, broke ground last week on what is slated to be the world’s 3rd tallest skyscraper. At about 5.2 million residents, Wuhan is China’s 9th largest city by population yet lacks the international cachet of some of the country’s other big cities. The 606 meter tall building, named ‘Greenland Tower’ after its developer, no doubt seeks to change the city’s underwhelming reputation. But can one building alone do enough to change the perception of an entire city?

giz-China: Wuhan Building World’s Third Tallest Skyscraper



Too Good To Be True: Architecture Scams in China

Architecture professionals across the world are entranced by the building boom taking place in China. The urbanization of China’s cities has been a lucrative opportunity for several foreign firms. With the global economic recession freezing construction activity in most Western countries, more architects are looking to China as a panacea for the lack of new work.

Being an American architecture design professional working in China, I get asked often about opportunities for foreign architects eager to break into the local market. My advice always starts by suggesting  to leave preconceived notions about doing business in China behind and approach opportunities with a very open mind. Furthermore, despite the perception that China’s building boom is a free-for-all, the reality is that penetrating the market and getting commissions is not as easy as it seems.

For one, securing architecture commissions is less about design ability and more about connections and relationships, or what is commonly known in China as ‘guanxi‘. Though networking plays a role in getting work anywhere in the world, the complexity of working in China is exacerbated by the fact that networks are established through prolonged and sustained effort. This means that having a local presence in China is critical- something that many foreign firms looking to break into the market currently lack.

Unfortunately, the international architecture media continues to promote China hype while overlooking these nuances of business, leading many firms to naïvely assume that projects are being handed out like free food samples at Costco.  Some firms have even been scammed into working on  illegitimate projects. Just earlier this year, a handful of New York-based architects found themselves on the losing end of an unsolicited invitation from a Chinese developer to work on a  supposed mixed-use project in Henan Province.

It turns out that each of these architects was part of the same scam, having been invited to work on the same project by the same client. Some of them even paid for their own plane tickets out to China to meet with the client and visit the site. It should’ve been a dead give-away that something was awry when the visiting architects paid for a banquet set up by the client. Luckily, word got around the New York architecture community and the firms involved realized they had been duped.

Without being intimately familiar with the details of this cautionary tale, I can speculate that it is possible that the client was actually a developer (albeit, possibly an amateur, as many in China are) and that the project could have been real. Buildings designed by a ‘foreign architect’ still adds a high degree of marketability to new projects in China, and the developer may have attempted to get free designs from these New York firms so he could promote the project this way to investors and planning officials.

A similar scam happened recently involving  British architects. Except this time, rather than the firms being contacted by clients, these architects had their identities hijacked unknowingly by local Chinese ‘architects’. Reputable firms Broadway Malyan, Aedas, and Atkins, among others, had their websites cloned and design bids submitted with their names to Chinese clients. Again, the reason this happened is probably because local architects wanted  to market ‘international’ credibility in order to win design contracts.

It is no secret that China is and has been a hotbed for producing what is known as  ‘jiade‘ or fake products. Everything from counterfeit electronics and jewelry to tainted milk and drywall, it seems that making a quick profit is  paramount to all other considerations, even if it means sacrificing quality and ultimately scamming the consumer. Given the China building boom, it should come as no surprise that even now architects’ identities are being faked as well.

With all that being said, China still offers tremendous opportunities to those  architects bold enough to do their homework and establish local relationships. Because foreign architects are limited to the early design phases of  a project, as construction document work is required by law to be produced by domestic Chinese firms, it is critical that foreign firms find ways to get involved in joint ventures with firms well-versed in local codes and regulations. Hopefully this will also ensure that foreign architecture firms have less risk of getting scammed in the future.

The Architect’s Newspaper: China Confidential

Building: British Architects Targeted by Chinese Fraudsters

Building: Atkins is Latest Victim of Chinese Identity Fraudsters