Chinese Architectural Heritage and the Role of Foreign Architects

Competition Winning Entry for China Comic and Animation Museum in Hangzhou, by Dutch Architects MVRDV

I am often asked about the role of foreign architects working in China – particularly why China even needs foreign architects when there are many qualified Chinese architects. The answer is simple, albeit not the most politically correct: if we compare a piece of architecture to a consumer good, most Chinese buyers of luxury products will opt for a foreign name brand.

The same goes for Chinese developers building high-end real estate. This issue is pondered in an article on eChinacities titled “Foreign Architects in China: Innovation at the Cost of Culture?” Citing well-known examples of high-profile construction projects such as the CCTV Building and Olympic ‘Bird’s Nest’ Stadium in Beijing and the Liujiazui supertall towers in Shanghai, the article’s author wonders if these innovative pieces of architecture come at the expense of Chinese architectural culture.

The fact that foreign architects do design work in China has little to do with the issue of architectural stylistic discontinuity. Rather, the lack of continuity in the county’s modern architecture is a result of China’s own volatile relationship with its architectural past. The identity crisis in Chinese architecture today stems from Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, which sought to destroy anything that represented “old ways of thinking” – including much of China’s rich architectural past.

The destruction of China’s architectural heritage continued into the period of reform and opening, yet with less revolutionary aims. In the eyes of Chinese reformers, by the time the Cultural Revolution ended, it was too late to look back. For the past 30 years, modernization has been mostly a forward-looking campaign, with new constructions reflecting the country’s ambitions to enter the ranks of the developed world.

Foreign architects are hired to work in China to help the country project an image of modernity. It is foreign architects’ ability to create novel symbols, rather than their technical knowledge, that is of value to Chinese clients. Flushing out the details is left to local Chinese joint-venture partner firms who are well-versed in local codes and standards.

The overwhelming desire to project an image of modernity is how China ends up with hyper-rational, a-contextual modern structures like OMA’s CCTV Building or the KPF-designed World Financial Center.

Yet not all foreign architects take the approach of novelty without inspiration from the treasure trove of China’s long history. Other foreign-designed buildings, such as SOM’s Jin Mao Tower, is heavily influenced by Chinese traditional motifs and based on the number 8- an auspicious number in Chinese culture. The Norman Foster-designed Beijing Capital Airport evokes a dragon-like form and uses a traditional Chinese color scheme.

While foreign architects can help in excavating China’s past, it is ultimately up to Chinese architects and designers to decide their own future.

Another Misinformed Commentary on China’s High-Speed Rail

As we’ve pointed out here on China Urban Development, there is no lack of misinformation about China in the Western media. This has been the case for many years and will likely continue into the future. Predicting the collapse of China has even become a career for some pundits.

I started this site to offer a fresh perspective differing from most Western writers in that I actually live in China and work in an industry directly related to the country’s development. I have no illusions that China will transform itself to be more ‘democratic’ like the West, nor do I think that the West needs to copy China’s top-down development model to compete economically. What works in one culture will not necessarily work in another.

That being said, some of the negative commentary about China’s ambitions  is due at least in part to a poverty of ambition in the West. The latest example of this is an article from Washington Post editorial writer Charles Lane. Lane visited China for a few days recently and became an expert on the country’s high-speed rail system after taking a trip on the line from Beijing to Tianjin (a city he self-admittedly had never heard of).

Lane’s commentary reflects a common misunderstanding about China and its ambitions. He applies the same argument  to China as detractors of high-speed rail in the U.S. when he states:

“The fact is that China’s train wreck was eminently foreseeable. High-speed rail is a capital-intensive undertaking that requires huge borrowing upfront to finance tracks, locomotives and cars, followed by years in which ticket revenue covers debt service — if all goes well.”

Lane comes from the libertarian point of view  in that he insists every new piece of infrastructure must turn a quick profit, or else it is a waste of taxpayer money. To be sure, the position against high-speed rail holds some weight in the U.S. where the low-density nature of most of its urban landscape may not justify the high public expenditure of high-speed rail.

Yet China is building high-speed rail under a completely different set of circumstances. For one, China is still urbanizing substantially, creating a growing demand for high-speed intercity rail network. In addition, the country’s domestic air travel market continues to expand upon an already strained network.

Perhaps the most ridiculous part of Lane’s piece is the story he cherry-picked  of a 17-year old migrant girl he meets on a bus returning from Tianjin back to Beijing. Learning that she has never heard of the high-speed train and that she wouldn’t be able to afford a ticket, Lane concludes from this one example that high-speed rail is out of reach financially for the majority of Chinese people.

Reading that a 17-year old girl is not able to afford a high-speed train ticket in China is not surprising. What is surprising is that Lane ignores the growing reality of a Chinese middle-class that will gladly pay for the convenience and efficiency of high-speed rail. I would even be willing to bet that after a few years in the workforce, the 17-year old migrant girl would be able to afford a ticket if she so chooses to use the high-speed line as a means of transport in the future.

In the end, Lane says that China should envy the U.S. for not investing in high-speed rail. This is a laughable conclusion. Lane misses the bigger picture (more likely due to his ideological short-sightedness rather than his short visit to China) about the country’s ambitions.

China’s leaders don’t care if high-speed rail will ever be ‘profitable’. Were the aqueducts that supported cities in the Roman Empire turning a quick profit? How about the U.S Interstate Highway System? Gas and automobile taxes barely covers it these days as more highways turn into toll roads in America.

Great infrastructure projects throughout history are not built for quick profit but rather to strengthen economies and enhance the quality of life for people. In the long-run, China’s high-speed rail system will do just this as it unites the country’s urban areas, making mobility more convenient for its people.

The Washington Post: China’s Train Wreck