Category Archives: Historic Preservation

Interview with Bianca Bosker, Author of New Book “Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China”

BBoskerBook

The widespread pirating of architectural motifs in China’s developing urban landscape is a well-documented phenomenon. From Alpine Villages to starchitect-designed superstructures, Chinese builders often seem to have no shame in copy and pasting designs originating from far away places.

This perplexing and culturally intriguing topic is the subject of a new book by Bianca Bosker, Executive Tech Editor for The Huffington Post. Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China (University of Hawaii, 2013) examines the trend of “duplitecture” in China – the construction of monumental, themed communities that replicate the cities and towns of the West, frequently drawing on historical European archetypes.

Bianca was nice enough to answer some questions to help give us a better idea of what her book is about:

Adam Mayer (AM): What prompted you to write a book about architectural mimicry in China and how did you become interested in this topic? What message are you trying to convey by writing this book beyond showcasing the fact that China likes to copy buildings?

Bianca Bosker (BB): My interest in this architectural movement started during a research trip to China when I first discovered Shanghai’s “One City, Nine Towns” plan, an urban planning initiative devised by local officials that called for ringing the metropolis with ten satellite communities each built as a full-scale replica of a foreign city and designed to house hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. German architects were commissioned to build the German-themed town; British architects were tapped to design ye olde, English-style “Thames Town,” and so forth for the Italian, Scandinavian, Dutch and other European-style towns. The experience of visiting these communities is, to quote the slogan of one of the residential communities, “Out of expectation with common sense.”

I was intrigued by how at odds these developments were with the futuristic, hyper-modern skyscrapers being built – and touted—in China’s metropolises; how dramatically these communities split with China’s own rich architectural traditions; and the gulf between the excitement among developers, residents and officials for these themescapes on the one hand, and the disdain with which they were regarded by many critics and architects on the other. My quest to understand why these were being built – and what they could tell us about the makeup of the 21st century “Chinese dream” – is what led me to my book.

The goal of Original Copies, which takes readers inside the homes in these communities and into the minds of the officials and architects that built them, is to explain what factors have given rise to China’s en-masse importation of Western landscapes, right down to statues of Winston Churchill and Venice’s Saint Mark’s square, and what it means. The message is also that these buildings speak to an important inflection point in contemporary China from closed-off, top-down society to one where individuals are increasingly able to exercise small levers of power and individual choice. And that this architectural movement, which on the surface appears to many observers a sign of China’s infatuation with the West, are actually are monuments to China’s achievements and progress, not to the West’s.

“The hardware may be all Western,” explained a resident of Shanghai’s Thames Town, “but the software is all Chinese.”

AM: Is it fair to criticize China for being a copycat when the U.S. does the same thing (e.g. Las Vegas) with architectural styles from around the world? Is co-opting European stylistic motifs simply just a universal desire for the aspiring global nouveau riche class?

BB: You’re absolutely right to highlight the U.S.’s own lengthy tradition of copying European architectural prototypes, from Italian palazzos to English Gothic designs. The campuses of Princeton and Yale were knockoffs of Oxford and Cambridge in their own way. And before we try to criticize China for building a “Beverly Hills” development or “Venice Water Town” (in Chongqing and Hangzhou, respectively) we might consider New York state is home to towns like Ithaca, Athens and Troy. (The book, I would also note, isn’t focused on casting a value judgment on China’s copycat architecture, but rather explaining why it exists).

However, there are a few important differences between Las Vegas and the “duplitecture” in China. For one thing, Las Vegas is a tourist destination that offers temporary admission into a fantasy experience, while China’s themed communities are homes. Developments such as Stratford or Rancho Santa Fe are living, breathing neighborhoods where Chinese families raise children and live out their lives. What’s surprising about China’s architectural imitation is also the scrupulousness with which communities have been copied and the foreign origins of the originals, like Versailles and Orange County, that are being imitated. The architectural “copycats” in the United States draw from on the architectural styles of peoples who share the same geocultural genealogy. China is pulling from a geopolitically, temporally, and culturally alien and remote civilization.

Certainly we’ve seen the “aspiring global nouveau riche class” embrace these themed developments in countries from the United Arab Emirates to the United States, and I write in Original Copies that many newly minted middle- and upper-class Chinese have embraced Baroque townhouses or Tudor-style homes as a way of showcasing their success and identify themselves as belonging to a certain class. To many, a French villa is as much a symbol of luxury as the Chanel “C’s” on a designer handbag. But to suggest that these copycat-communities are “just something the nouveau riche does” oversimplifies the situation and misses important nuances that illuminate a uniquely Chinese attitude toward replication and a kind of crisis point in the development of China’s own contemporary architectural styles.

AM: Property developers in China often tell me that traditional Chinese architecture is “too difficult and expensive to build”. In your research did you also find this to be an excuse for not continuing with a Chinese vernacular architectural language? 

BB: Yes, though the excuse I encountered was also that traditional Chinese housing styles didn’t allow for high-density construction. The developers I spoke with argued that the Western townhouses and “villas”, though hardly exemplars of “green” building practices, were more efficient in the sense that they could squeeze more properties on a single lot than if they were building, say, traditional Chinese siheyuan courtyard homes (Anyone who’s visited these developments can tell you that even the ones with enormous McMansions  packed the homes extremely close together).  As I note in my book, according to one Hangzhou architect, the “European style is better equipped to increase land use than traditional Chinese architecture of the past.” However, if there’s demand for that particular style, developers can – and have—found a way to make it work (see below).

AM: What is the future for Chinese architecture? When Chinese middle class reaches a point of stability, having met its most basic needs, will more people desire ‘authenticity’ in their buildings? If so, how do you see this manifesting?

BB: Lots and lots of experimentation, with constant reinvention. As we’ve seen from projects like the “One City, Nine Towns” plan or CCTV Headquarters, China has the luxury of being able to execute bold experiments in architecture and urban planning – sometimes for better, sometimes worse – thanks to the government’s power and pocketbook, as well as the sheer speed of urbanization and construction. And these projects sometimes disappear as quickly as they appeared: Shenyang’s New Amsterdam themescape, an incredible, sprawling landscape with a copy of Amsterdam’s train station and a replica of the Peace Palace in The Hague, was demolished not long after it was built. One Chinese developer’s hypothesis has stuck with me: while the U.S. builds buildings meant to last lifetimes, he argued, China is more likely to see buildings as temporary and disposable, due in part to China’s more conservative land-ownership laws.

I don’t think “authenticity” for Chinese architecture necessarily means building siheyuan courtyard homes or shikumen lanehouses. Still, it’s worth noting that some developers are already building themed communities that embrace traditional Chinese architecture as their template, rather than, say, Palm Beach. Developments like Cathay View in Beijing or Fifth Garden in Hangzhou replicate more indigenous architectural styles – and are just one more way for developers to distinguish their offerings in an increasingly crowded real estate market. These communities aren’t exact replicas of traditional Chinese homes, however, and oftentimes have floor plans very similar to the Western residences, only with more “Chinese” exteriors. I envision China developing its own unique style, though what it will look like exactly remains to be seen. Perhaps in another generation Versailles will seem as much Chinese as French.

Many thanks to Bianca for taking the time to answer our questions. Please check out her new book “Original Copies Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China“, out now, which can be ordered here at Amazon.com

An Experience in Contrasts: Redevelopment in Beijing’s Historic Qianmen Neighborhood

Before and After Photos of ‘Quanjude’, a famous Peking Duck Establishment in Qianmen Since 1864

It is a familiar narrative across China’s cities: historic districts routinely razed to make way for new developments comprised of high-rise residential communities and retail mixed-use complexes designed to reflect China’s 21st Century image.

Yet in some of China’s more high-profile historic neighborhoods, redevelopment is conceived to capture the spirit what was once previously on site by rebuilding in traditional Chinese architectural styles. ‘Tourist Streets’, as these kinds of developments are referred to by developers and government officials, are a hot project type in China- nearly every city wants one. They range from accurate recreations of China’s past to cheap pastiche.

In some exceptional cases, such as Xiantiandi in Shanghai and Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi in Chengdu, serious efforts were made to preserve some of what was already there and reuse materials from demolished buildings. In most instances though, the practice of completely demolishing/rebuilding remains the typical Chinese development modus operandi.

One of the most controversial instances of the demo/rebuild type of historic redevelopment is the Qianmen area of Beijing, a neighborhood directly south of Tiananmen Square. Thanks to its adjacency to the heavily visited city center, Qianmen (which translates to ‘Front Gate’) is a popular tourist area with several shops and restaurants.

Similar to other developments around China, thousands of residents were relocated for redevelopment in Qianmen. Yet given its high-profile location, the project received a lot of heat, not only from preservationists but from local Beijing residents as well, many of who have connections to the tight-knit community.

I first wandered into Qianmen on a visit to Beijing back in 2006. At that time, the neighborhood was in full-scale transition, with demolition of old courtyard siheyuan buildings taking place at an alarming pace. Despite the dust and noise, retail commerce, which consisted of small family-owned shops selling touristy knick-knacks and knock off goods, thrived in the area.

Qianmen in 2006: Still Retaining Some Original Character but Redevelopment Commencing

Qianmen in 2011: Pedestrian Street Directly South of Tiananmen Square Rebuilt Completely in Qing Dynasty-era Architecture

Although Qianmen Street, the main pedestrian thoroughfare bisecting the neighborhood, officially reopened just in time for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, I didn’t make it back to the area until last year. When I finally did make it back, the area was completely unrecognizable from what I saw in 2006.

Ramshackle old buildings and maze-like narrow alleys were replaced by new retail buildings evoking Qing-era architecture lining a wide avenue with a trolley car (which reminded me of another outdoor pedestrian mall across the Pacific: The Grove in Los Angeles). Mom and pop shops selling questionable goods were replaced by international retail chains such as Starbucks, Häagen-Dazs, New Balance and H&M. The only landmark that remained (and which I recognized from its memorable sign) was the famous Quanjude Peking Duck restaurant.

Perhaps most interesting though was not the new tourist street itself, but the current state of the surrounding area. Directly east of Qianmen Street, new construction extended for several blocks, continuing in the same new/old Qing style of the tourist street. Much of the construction was already complete, but the retail spaces remained mostly empty..

The other (west) side of Qianmen Street was an experience in contrasts. The narrow and crowded streets flowing through the old single story siheyuans reminded me of what the area looked like back in 2006. Sure enough, this area had escaped development up to this point but given its inconsistency with plans for the overall neighborhood it is a sure thing this area will eventually be redeveloped as well.

It might be too late for preservation in Qianmen, but the public outcry against the redevelopment there prompted preservationists to put a stop to plans for another large project in a historic district not too far away: The Drum and Bell Tower ‘Gulou’ Area north of the Forbidden City. With advocacy from the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, preservationists were able to convince the government to greatly scale back plans to redevelop a 12.5 hectare area in the Gulou neighborhood.

Once a very sensitive topic in China, historic preservation is now discussed openly among stakeholders. With much of the country’s architectural history lost in the rush to develop, a new generation is ever more aware of the importance of what is left. Given this shift in dialogue, it will be interesting to see how the new leadership in Beijing approaches the subject when it takes office next year.

Politicizing the Pritzker

Ningbo History Museum by architect Wang Shu

Last month, this year’s Pritzker Prize (architecture’s highest honor) was awarded to Chinese architect Wang Shu. The announcement was surprising for a few reasons. For one, consensus around the architecture blogosphere was that the award would go to a more high-profile architect such as Toyo Ito or Steven Holl, both looked over in recent years. Secondly, assuming that the Pritzker jury intentionally chose a Chinese architect, there were others who could have been considered such as Zhu Pei, Ma Qingyun, or Ma Yansong (perhaps still a bit too young).

The Chinese architects mentioned above derive inspiration from China’s ascendancy towards the future, pushing the limits of avant-garde building form. Wang Shu’s architecture, on the other hand, is rooted more in the past, exuding firmness and strength. In this regard, Wang’s architecture is more like last year’s Pritzker winner, Portugal’s Eduardo Souto de Moura, than his Chinese counterparts.

Stephen Smith, writing for the International Business Times, posits that the decision by the Pritzker jury was in fact a deliberate political decision. Wang is often critical of China’s breakneck mode of development: razing entire cities to build what Chinese leadership view as a modern expression of urbanity while cities lose their historical character.

Western media has been so focused on China’s lack of sensitivity to historical preservation that the mostly Western-comprised Pritzker jury choosing a Chinese architect who is on their side of the debate comes as no surprise. Though in the bigger scheme of things, this is unlikely to have much effect on influencing China’s current urban development blitzkrieg to change course to a slower, more thoughtful model. Taking this into account, this year’s Pritzker decision is no different (or ineffectual) as Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo being awarded 2010′s Nobel Peace Prize.

An Architect’s Guide to Working in China

A few months ago I read a piece from Bloomberg discussing Frank Gehry’s decision to ‘turn to Asia for architecture projects as U.S. growth slows.’ In terms of big name architects from the U.S. and Europe turning to Asia for work, Gehry is late to the party. Nevertheless, it is a very telling sign that Gehry, someone who in the past could be highly selective of his clients, is looking to Asia to keep his office busy.

In the Bloomberg article, Gehry is candid about his desire to work domestically in the U.S. yet lacking the opportunity due to the depressed economic situation. As if another reminder is needed about the sorry state of the industry, Salon published a piece about the dire outlook for the profession last month titled ‘The Architecture Meltdown‘.

So aside from returning to graduate school, designing furniture or leaving the profession completely, most architects in the U.S. and other Western nations have limited options, therefore turning to emerging markets where there is work happening. China is by far the largest of these emerging markets for new buildings.

As such, over the past year I have received many inquiries asking for advice about doing business in the architecture/construction/real estate industries in China. There is never one ‘magic-bullet’ to successfully pursuing architecture work in China as different types of architects have different specialties and varying range of resources. Most of the very large, international corporate firms already have a foothold into the market, and with their wider resources, many have already established locally staffed offices in Beijing and Shanghai.

One of the greatest misconceptions about doing work in China is that it is one great big tabula rasa for trying out wild new architectural ideas. Surely this is the case for a select few, but if your name is not Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl or Rem Koolhaas, you can forget about China being an ideal playground for realizing this kind of fantasy.

The reality is much more stark and the competition for work increasingly fierce. The competition these days is not only between foreign architects operating in China, but also with domestic Chinese architects who are quickly learning and moving up the value chain in terms of design ability.

With that said, China remains a bright spot in the global economy for urban growth and there is still ample opportunity for the courageous and ambitious. Below is a list of ten recommendations to architects looking to do work in China:

(Special thanks to Matthias Bauer, Studio Leader of Urban Design at Atkins Beijing for his insight and contribution to this list)

1. Make sure that your client is able and willing to pay for your work. Insist on being paid up-front, if possible, and never agree to do any unpaid work.

Too many architects jump into the China market only to quickly find themselves caught up in situations where they are not appropriately compensated for their work. Given the current lack of new work in the developed world, property developers in China know that they have the upper hand when it comes to soliciting services from experienced Western architects and will use this fact to undercut design fees.

 2. Many projects may have, at least initially, more to do with ‘market research’, ‘branding’, ‘image’ or ‘positioning’ and not actual design. Your work, especially at the beginning stages, should reflect this.

In addition, don’t expect your client to explicitly tell you what the design is for. What they might not tell you is that there is already a design from a local ‘design institute’ (LDI) planned for construction, but need you to provide something with more of a ‘wow’ factor to satiate government officials. Another reason might be that a developer is trying to win a land bid and wants to show that they can build something cutting-edge to gain an advantage.

3. The Western idea of progressing projects step-by-step, proceeding from the abstract and general to the detailed solution, is on the whole alien to China. Expect to be asked to do everything at once, right now.

Chinese clients like to feel like they are getting their money’s worth and expect the architect to prove it through volume of work produced. Powerpoint presentations with less than 100 slides are not taken seriously and are merely taken as evidence that you haven’t worked hard enough. Even if your design will never be built, you are nonetheless expected to deliver detailed designs right from the start.

4. Don’t expect the project to proceed at lightning speed. Instead, it will be more of a stop-and-go process, as the client will often need some time for internal discussions or for negotiations with the government, during which the project will grind to a halt, sometimes for months.

Planning bureaucracy exists in China just as it does in the West, just in different form. In the West, the transparent nature of the planning process ensures that stakeholders have a clear idea of the various issues to be worked out. In China, the big decisions happen behind closed doors. So expect to modify, adjust or completely change your design over and over without clear explanations as to the reasons why. Moreover, expect this to happen with very short notice and to short deadlines.

5. Understand that the initial schedule agreed with your client is for guidance only. Any deadlines, meeting times, presentation times, etc. will change often at short notice.

This relates to #3 in that clients expect you to cater to their whims, regardless if you have other things scheduled for your day. There were several instances in one of the firms I worked where clients showed up at the office unannounced expecting to hold impromptu meetings. Be aware that Chinese developers like to keep their architects on their toes.

6. Meetings and presentations to high-level government leaders (such as Mayors or Vice Mayors) or real estate executives never take place at the agreed time.

At the day of the presentation, expect the time to be changed frequently every half an hour or so until the meeting is cancelled altogether and then re-scheduled again for the same day, late at night. Also be prepared to be contacted on Sunday night and asked to give a presentation for a new design option Monday morning.

7. Use flashy 3D renderings and multimedia animations to sell your design. Try to show reasonably detailed master plans, detailed architectural design and detailed landscape design right from the start, as nobody will understand simple massing models or abstract diagrams.

Most of the time, Chinese developers and government officials lack the capacity to understand the artsy and abstract presentation drawings coveted by the architecture community. Rather, drawings should be as easily comprehensible and computer renderings should show substantial Photoshopped entourage complete with crowds of people, detailed landscaping, luxury cars, abundant storefront signage, and even fireworks, hot air balloons and blimps in the sky.

8. Don’t assume that as a Westerner you could somehow override and ignore Chinese planning law, Chinese building regulations or any unwritten Chinese rules and standards, even if they seem entirely unreasonable to you.

Your job as a foreign architect in China is to add prestige to a development and maybe a bit of experienced design insight. Don’t let this give you the impression that you have license to single-handedly change local planning laws.

9. Understand that the Chinese are generally not interested in their own architectural legacy. Trying to preserve existing old buildings will be an arduous and mostly futile undertaking.

Likewise, offering contemporary versions of ancient Chinese courtyard houses and hutongs, as so many newcomers to China attempt to do, will likely not get you anywhere. Western architects are hired to bring their expertise from the West to China, not to reinterpret Chinese history (although I must admit as a designer looking for inspiration, it is always tempting to dig through the treasure trove of Chinese history to arrive at an architectural concept even if there is a high probability that the idea will be rejected).

10. Understand that in China, as presumably in your home country, master planning and architecture serve a professional, hard-nosed and profit-seeking real estate industry. In the end, it always comes down to money.

If you pursue design as a form of self-expression, China is likely to deeply disappoint you. If you look at China as a business opportunity and chance to expand your international design portfolio, venturing into the Middle Kingdom can be an exciting and highly rewarding adventure.

China’s Ancient Cities and the Crisis of Branding

UNESCO Heritage Site, Longmen Grottoes Stone Carvings near Luoyang, Henan Province.  Photo by Easytourchina.

In April I had the honor of being invited to sit on a panel at a conference sponsored by Forbes China in Luoyang. The discussions that took place during the event centered around the next 10 years of development in central China. With Luoyang being the host, much of the discussion pertained to the city itself.

Luoyang, a city of about 6 million people, sits in China’s central plains in the northwestern part of Henan Province, 100 kilometers west of the provincial capital Zhengzhou. New buildings dot the skyline, but not at the high density one sees in 1st or 2nd tier Chinese cities. Automobile and pedestrian traffic is light as well. Wide, tree-lined streets with bike lanes and generous sidewalks lend the city a pleasant atmosphere.

What is not immediately clear traversing the streets of Luoyang is the fact that it is one of China’s Four Great Ancient Capitals. Luoyang was a seat of power for several dynasties- most prominently during the Eastern Zhou and Han dynasties, and later the Sui and Tang dynasties.

Today the most important relic left from Luoyang’s imperial past is the Longmen Grottoes- a series of caves and magnificent Buddhist statue carvings stretching nearly 1 kilometer along the Yi River. Begun in the 5th Century A.D. during the Northern Wei Dynasty, much of what is left now was built during the later Tang Dynasty when Buddhism still played a central role in Chinese life.

The Longmen Grottoes became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, and since then Luoyang has seen its tourism industry growing steadily. Despite this growth, the city is not on the international radar at the level of Xi’an, another Ancient Capital 300 kilometers to the west.

Like Xi’an, Luoyang’s main draw lies outside the city proper. Yet Xi’an offers much more to the visiting tourist than its famous Terracotta Warriors. The massive historic city wall remains intact and the city center possesses a lively Muslim quarter offering tasty cuisine from the Hui ethnic group.

In contrast, central Luoyang offers little in the way of history aside from a few old neighborhoods with shops specializing in selling Tang-inspired porcelain and lacquerware. Much history actually lies beneath the ground, where Tang dynasty treasures are routinely discovered during the construction of new projects throughout the city.

But how can Luoyang do a better job of positioning itself to not only attract more tourists but business investment as well? What are the city’s strengths that can be played up to give Luoyang a more prominent place on the map?

These are the issues that were deliberated on the panel I took part in at the Forbes China forum. Along with panelists Ge Jianxiong, professor of historical geography at Fudan University, Li Dihua, vice dean of the Graduate School of Landscape Architecture at Peking University, and Wu Zhongqing, vice president of Shanghai Yuyuan Tourist Mart,  we discussed how Luoyang can use ‘soft power’ to better place itself for the future.

Both Professor Ge and Professor Li lamented the fact that Luoyang does not give the impression of being an Ancient Capital, having lost most of its historic architecture to various invasions and internal strife. Professor Ge contrasted Luoyang with Kyoto- the ancient capital of Japan (which was incidentely inspired by historic Luoyang during the Tang dynasty)- which retains much of its historic charm.

While acknowledging the value of traditional architecture is an important part of preserving Chinese cultural heritage, there is nothing that can be done to bring back the past. Attempting to rebuild ancient buildings exactly the way they were runs the risk of creating faux-village tourist traps that end up trivializing the past. Rather, Luoyang should focus on its current strengths to attract tourism and investment.

During my turn to speak I suggested that Luoyang already has a tremendous asset with the Longmen Grottoes, and is strategically located not far from two other internationally famous tourist spots- Xi’an and the Shaolin Temple. Luoyang should do a better job of promoting itself as a requisite stop for tourists visiting either or both of these places.

Unfortunately Luoyang has limited air connections, with only one flight per day from Beijing and Shanghai and a flight every other day from Chengdu. Luckily, the city is a stop along the new Zhengzhou-Xi’an high-speed rail line, giving it easy access to both of those cities.

Economically speaking, Luoyang will probably never compete with Zhengzhou, yet it can strengthen ties with Zhengzhou to create a strong central China trading zone. Furthermore, Luoyang should play up its assets such as its pleasant urban environment to attract investment. As cities on China’s eastern seaboard become evermore expensive and out of reach for the aspiring middle class, Luoyang could offer a much lower-cost alternative for Chinese workers looking for a higher quality of life.

As Henan is one of China’s most populous provinces, Luoyang needs to do all it can to retain local workers to help its economy grow. With the interior regions of China beginning to play a more important role in the country’s overall development, now is the time for Luoyang and other central cities to make their mark by promoting their own unique character rather than becoming carbon copies of other, more successful cities.