Category Archives: Chengdu

The State of Seismic Safety in China

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The 7.0-earthquake in Ya’an, Sichuan Province this past April once again brought up the topic of construction quality in China. Images of crumbled buildings also reminded the world of the devastation that overcame the very same region 5 years ago when more than 70,000 people perished in the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake.

Amazingly, the loss of life in the Ya’an quake was markedly smaller at only 200 (granted, so was the severity of the quake, but 7.0 is magnitude still a very significant tremor). Ideally, the goal of seismic building safety is to minimize casualties, thus April’s earthquake proved that China is stepping it up in the right direction.

I have a unique perspective on the issue having spent 2 years living and working in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. And given my position working on the inside of China’s construction boom, industry colleagues and acquaintances outside China frequently inquired about the country’s building safety standards.

The reality is that the discussion of building safety in China is complex. Back in architecture school, our structural engineering professor liked to remind us that “earthquakes don’t kill people, structurally deficient buildings do”. This tends to true, both in Sichuan and other seismically active regions around the world. And while China is generally known for questionable regulations and safety standards, Chinese building codes definitely do not allow any sort of leeway with structural safety.

That being said, it is important to note that an architect and structural engineer can design a building to be structurally sound but the final product will only be as good as the quality of construction, which is ultimately the responsibility of the general contractor. Provided the contractor follows architectural and structural drawings as designed, there should be no concern over seismic safety. Yet the process is never that simple.

By Western standards, construction administration in China is a rather opaque process for a designer. Final decisions during construction are made by owner and contractor without much input from the architect. This can cause issues with oversight, especially with the more unscrupulous contractors and owners who “skim off the top” by switching out building materials for inferior product at the last moment and pocket the difference in price.

While this is an unfortunate practice, the consequences are much less severe when applied to finish materials versus structural materials. Virtually all of the buildings that collapsed in both Sichuan earthquakes were a result of unreinforced masonry construction, meaning that builders stacked bricks or concrete blocks without using sufficient (or any) steel reinforcing bar (rebar). Furthermore, most of these buildings were located in rural towns where they were probably built by individuals not formally trained in construction techniques. This isn’t an excuse, but rather a reflection of a country that is still developing.

Further highlighting the urban/rural gap in China is the fact that in both Sichuan earthquakes, Chengdu proper suffered minimal damage comparatively to its surrounding countryside. And with the mad frenzy of construction going on in the city, never once did I see a cause for concern with the structural reliability of city’s new buildings. In fact, the new high-rise buildings rising in Chengdu’s core fared well in April’s earthquake.

So while there is still improvement to be made in construction processes and techniques, especially in the more rural areas of China, my feeling is that safety standards are only getting better. The architecture and engineering professions in China, as well as government authorities, take seismic safety very seriously and do not lack the know-how in designing and building safe buildings.

The 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake was a wake up call, but given how far China has come in terms of development, there is a very good chance that this will have been the last catastrophic seismic event in country.

Organic Farming in China: Chengdu’s Anlong Village

With the ongoing spate of food safety scandals, Chinese consumers are rightly weary of the source and quality of their food. Unfortunately, food quality regulatory bodies in China remain unreliable and direct access to fresh food sources is limited for an increasingly urbanized populace. This is one of the great contradictions of China’s urban development: a country which for most of its history was majority agriculturally based is on the fast track to be one of the most urbanized nations in the world.

Status conscious Chinese urbanites would rather not associate with anything related to farming, as it evokes the recent memory of rural peasant life. For many upwardly mobile city dwellers, international restaurant chains like KFC, McDonalds and Pizza Hut are considered the best options for upper-class ‘healthy’ dining (that is, food with high caloric content).

The urban growth of China is a boon to these chains as more American consumers shun them in favor of a more organic, natural diet. The shift in American consumer preferences is reflected in the success of supermarket chain Whole Foods, local farmers markets, and the growing popularity of the Slow Food movement.

Given China’s new-found love affair with processed food and growing ambivalence about the role of agriculture, I was confident there was probably not much interest in organic farming. That was until I visited Anlong Village- a wholly organic, zero waste farm 50 km northwest of central Chengdu. With a full-time population of 3,000 residents, Anlong Village is sponsored by the Chengdu Urban Rivers Association (CURA), a local non-profit NGO.

Anlong Village was initially set-up in an effort to help clean up the Funan River, which flows into central Chengdu

Anlong Village is CURA’s flagship project, and unlike other purported ‘eco-cities’ under development in China, lives up to its claim of being 100% sustainable. The partnership was established in 2003 as an effort to help clean up the adjacent Funan River, which flows through central Chengdu, after it was discovered that most of the river pollutants come from agricultural runoff upstream.

Anlong helps abate this problem by avoiding the use of chemical pesticides and instead using natural methods to fight agricultural pests. These methods include surrounding plots with mint (a natural pesticide) and planting garden plots with a variety of different species (so if one crop succumbs to disease, it does not destroy the entire plot). This not only avoids dumping unnatural chemical waste into the river, but ensures that the farm’s soil is nurtured over the long-term.

The village also features a comprehensive composting system. Composting toilets turn waste into organic fertilizer and animal waste is recycled into concrete pits treated with anaerobic digestive microorganisms that convert it into methane gas used for heating and cooking. Plant waste is also re-used as organic fertilizer.

Organic waste is mixed together in large pits and composted naturally before being re-used as fertilizer

Throughout the village, greywater is treated in a series of specialized ponds that naturally remove pollutants. Treated greywater can then be re-used for agricultural irrigation. Constructed wetlands adjacent to the Funan River also treat greywater, assuring that potentially harmful waste water is filtered before entering the river.

Constructed wetlands treat greywater, naturally removing pollutants

Despite the initial apprehension of local government officials, Anlong Village is a tremendous success. Of the few plots available to non-Anlong residents (primarily health conscious families living in the city who tend to their crops on the weekend), demand outstrips supply.

Demand is also great for the organic produce grown in Anlong. This is in large part due to Chinese consumer mistrust of the validity of produce labeled ‘organic’ in large Chengdu supermarkets like Wal-Mart, Carrefour, or Isetan. Anlong, on the other hand, offers a trustworthy source.

Unfortunately, at this point there are very limited formal distribution channels for purchasing organic produce grown in the village. Farmers frequently venture to the city to sell their crops, but usually only those ‘in-the-know’ will know when and where exchange points are. To make it a bit easier for consumers, CURA is currently in the process of training Anlong farmers how to use microblogging sites to announce the time and location of exchange points.

An outdoor dining hall in Anlong Village. The 100% organic & vegetarian lunch I ate here ranks up as one of the best meals I’ve eaten in China

In its relatively short history as a 100% organic farm, Anlong Village is already a benchmark for other aspiring sustainable farms around China. Yet like in the U.S., there is ongoing debate about the scalability of such a model. Considering the high markup on price compared to commercially farmed crops (produce grown in Anlong can be two to three times the cost of commercially farmed produce), many argue that this method of farming is not practical to feed a nation with such a huge population as China.

In spite of this debate, and given China’s struggle with pollution as it continues to develop, Anlong Village is a blessing and a valuable reminder that practical steps can be taken to protect its environment.

View from the Ground in the Chengdu-Chongqing Economic Zone

New development outside Jiangyou, Sichuan Province

The following post is an adaptation of a comment I made on my good friend and Chengdu-based American writer Sascha Matuszak’s recent ChengduLiving article about the development of the Chengdu-Chongqing Economic Zone. The comment recalls my own experience of a business trip to one of the smaller cities in the zone: Jiangyou, Sichuan Province:

Thanks for the update on the Chengdu-Chongqing Economic Zone, Sascha. Having been to several of the 3rd and 4th tier cities in Sichuan you mentioned (Suining, Mianyang, Nanchong, etc..) I’ve often wondered how the prosperity in the region’s two dominant cities (Chengdu and Chongqing) would trickle into these other cities as well.

It seems as if most of the young ambitious Chinese people I meet from these cities who now live in Chengdu feel like there is nothing left for them in their hometowns. They also tell me that if they want to move ahead the best opportunities are found in Chengdu or Chongqing.

This isn’t to suggest that Chengdu and Chongqing will continue being the only cities absorbing all the region’s young, educated and ambitious talents. As is clear from what you wrote, the government is pushing for the prosperity to spread throughout the region. And given the enormous combined population of Sichuan Province/Chongqing Municipality at a whopping 110 million people, this is certainly a reasonable plan.

Unfortunately, observations on the ground often tell a different story. About a year and a half ago I was in a city called Jiangyou (famous as the hometown of the poet Li Bai and now actually considered a part of greater Mianyang) to meet with a housing developer for a potential new project. The developer had just finished building a series of faux Italian-style villas on the outskirts of town and reveled in showing us the finished product. No one had moved in yet, but the units were sold out.

Why anyone would buy these villas as anything other than a pure (risky) speculative investment is beyond me. Quality of life couldn’t possibly be a factor. Just outside the gates of the project, the developer drove us around in his brand new Mercedes-Benz to show us what is Jiangyou’s newly planned ‘center’. At this time, it was nothing more than block upon block of empty dirt lots, cleared away for new development. No people in sight except for a few construction workers taking a cigarette break. There were absolutely no amenities in the area and the air full of dust.

The developer then drove us to the real center of Jiangyou about 5km down the road. Finally, signs of life abounded as local residents went about their day in the downtown area. Though the downtown Jiangyou locals didn’t look like they suffered from abject poverty, a brand-new Mercedes with a young laowai passenger inside was enough to stop people in their tracks and turn a lot of heads.

We stepped out of the car and walked through the center of town, which was a series of 1-2 story ramshackle shacks that were destroyed in the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake. The buildings were too damaged to be safely occupied, yet markets still flourished in the pedestrian street directly in between the collapsed buildings.

The juxtaposition of the physical damage with the bustling life on the street gave the place the feeling of a disaster zone frozen in time. Given the time since the earthquake struck, I wondered why there hadn’t been any progress on clearing out the damage.

I got my answer when the developer took us to Jiangyou’s planning department- a bland, 5-story grey building with peeling paint, typical of government of offices in China’s 3rd and 4th tier towns.  Inside the building, there was not a soul in sight in the poorly lit hallways and stairwell until we got up to an office on the 3rd floor that reeked of stale cigarette smoke. A middle-aged man with a baijiu-belly offered us plastic cups of teas leaves with lukewarm water and introduced himself as one of the officials in charge of urban planning for the city. Maps of the city and region covering the walls of his office confirmed his position.

What we found out in that meeting is that despite an outward appearance that would suggest otherwise, the city of Jiangyou is rich. Or rather, the city government is sitting on top of piles of cash that was given to them by the central government as part of the Wenchuan Earthquake rebuilding effort. At that point, there was not much to show for the money they had received except for plans drawn up on paper. So far, our potential client, the developer of the luxury Italian villas had been one of the few in Jiangyou savvy enough to use his connections with the local government to gain favor and build the project, even though it was clear that the money might’ve been used for other, more pressing matters (e.g. clearing the rubble in downtown).

And while the planning official was soliciting master plans for redevelopment of the downtown area, most of the effort was still on developing the ‘new’ center with plans for new government offices and more luxury residential projects. I found it more than unfortunate that this took precedence over rebuilding the place where most of Jiangyou’s population lives.

Upon leaving Jiangyou, my Chinese colleague said something to me akin to “f*ck that guy”, in reference to the developer who showed us around. Apparently there was more going on than I could gather from my limited understanding of Chinese at the time.  Yet despite these misunderstandings, the physical state of the city said enough about where the rebuilding money was going.

Ultimately, it is the countless smaller cities like Jiangyou that will determine the future success of China (it is also good to keep in mind that city size is relative, and although Jiangyou is ‘small’ by China standards, the population sits at almost 900,000 people). With the upcoming government leadership change and an economy that begs for an evolution in its level of transparency, the fate of the country lies within its urban areas, especially the ones not on the international or even national radar.

9/11, China and the Enduring Symbolic Power of the Skyscraper

1 World Trade Center Rising in Lower Manhattan

Now that it has been about a month since the 10 year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., I have had some time to reflect on the enduring significance of the skyscraper. With One World Trade Center finally starting to form a new image in the Manhattan skyline, we see that in spite of protestations to building such a tower on sacred ground, construction crews move ahead to realize what will perhaps be the city’s most ambitious project in years. Some question why it has taken so long to get to this point while others still see the entire rebuilding effort as an affront to the memory of tragedy.

It really seems not long ago at all- I was barely into my third week of architecture school at the University of Southern California when terrorist attacks brought down the Twin Towers. Despite living in America’s second largest city at the time, it was difficult to fathom the horror that was taking place across the country in New York. Like everyone else around the world, my classmates and I watched the television in shock as we tried to process what was happening.

In the days and weeks that followed, I expected there to be some discussion in my classes about the symbolic power of architecture- more specifically an in-depth analysis as to why the World Trade Center was the target of such an attack. Surprisingly, my instructors were reluctant to talk about this topic and instead centered most of the discussions around debating the technical details about how the buildings failed.

Looking back, it is clear why Al-Qaeda chose the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, America’s respective symbols of commercial and military strength, as targets for attack. Yet why did my architecture professors fail to acknowledge this at the time?

For the younger instructors, I suspect the modernist paradigm had already ceased to be relevant since architectural historian Charles Jencks declared the death of modern architecture when Pruitt-Igoe, a failed public housing project in St. Louis designed by Minoru Yamasaki (who also designed the ill-fated World Trade Center), was imploded in 1972. For this generation of architects who were educated in the 1980′s and 90′s, it was the tongue-in-cheek classicism of post-modernism and the cynical musings of deconstructivists like Peter Eisenman and Bernard Tschumi who influenced their outlook. To them, I presume, the World Trade Center was already a dinosaur from another era long before the attacks that brought the towers down.

For the older generation of tenured professors, to question why the World Trade Center was the target of terrorist attacks was to question the entire legitimacy of the modernist project in the U.S.A. These are individuals whose careers fortuitously coincided with the golden age of American prosperity during the 1950′s, 60′s and 70′s. In retrospect, perhaps it was out of a sense of respect to the modernist paradigm in which they believed and spent their careers teaching aspiring architects that they not publicly question the ‘why’ of 9/11.

It was not until my first full-time job after graduating in the summer of 2006 that I fully grasped the symbolic power of architecture, specifically the skyscraper building type. I worked for an architect by the name of Richard Keating, who spent most of his career in the 1970′s and 80′s as a partner at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), the gold standard in American corporate high-rise design. While at SOM, Keating designed several of the commercial office towers that define the skylines of cities like Houston, Dallas, and Los Angeles.

While many architects and commentators declared the end of the tall building type after 9/11, Keating was not among them. On the contrary, he understood the enduring appeal of skyscrapers not only to property developers and government officials, but also to the common man as an aspirational device.

Coincidentally, the first project I worked on in Keating’s office was a lobby renovation for Minoru Yamasaki’s other twin towers- the triangulated Century Plaza Towers in the Century City section of Los Angeles- originally built in 1975. Rather than let the modernist icon be relegated to the dust bin of history, we were tasked with updating the project’s public spaces with a 21st Century twist.

The Century Plaza Towers are a pair of classic high-rise towers of their era: pure rational forms in plan, extruded up 44-stories towards the sky

Building tall is somewhat formulaic as the considerations of natural forces such as gravity, wind, severe weather and potential seismic activity are always taken into great account when designing high-rise buildings anywhere in the world. Being as such, skyscrapers are just as much feats of engineering as they are architecture. In fact, some of the most recognizable skyscrapers make use of structure as the central focus of their architectural expression. One only needs to think of the cross-bracing structures of the Hancock Tower in Chicago or Bank of China building in Hong Kong to be reminded of this.

Bank of China building in Hong Kong by I.M Pei

Today the trend in high-rise design is not structural, but formal expression. Rather than being exposed for all to see, structure is now most often hidden behind shimmering glass curtain-walls while the towers twist and  torque upwards. Thanks to computer programs that allow architects to explore unconventional forms, skyscrapers need not be strictly Cartesian in nature.

“Absolute Towers” by Beijing-based MAD Architects in Mississauga, Canada

The ongoing economic crises in Europe and the U.S. put a dent into the skyscraper building program in the Western world. This is not the case in developing nations, especially China, where towers are rising in myriad cities across the country. When it comes to building the high-profile ‘supertall’ towers (buildings over 300 meter tall), Chinese clients still prefer to outsource the design to the experts with a track record in high-rise design, namely American firms like SOM, KPF, and Smith+Gill.

Yet these marquee projects do not account for nearly the thousands of other tall buildings over 100 meters being built in China, both in central business districts and outlying suburban areas. Most of these towers are nondescript and serve the straightforward purpose of housing an increasingly urbanized population. Perhaps bland on an individual level, collectively the high-rises that define rising skylines in Chinese cities represent the aspirations of an upwardly mobile population.

The Chongqing skyline, quickly becoming one of the most recognizable in the world

Cynics would argue that high-rise buildings in reality represent nothing more than real estate developer greed, benefiting few while exploiting the working class for cheap construction labor. While criticisms have their merit, the overwhelming consensus in China is in favor of a modernization program that includes the construction of tall buildings.

Not long ago I was walking down the new ‘financial street’ in Chengdu near my home where several new high-rise buildings between 150 and 200 meters tall are currently under construction. I noticed a beat-up car with license plates from a small Sichuan Provincial town stopped at a red light. Inside the car was a family of two parents and a child, looking up in awe at the glistening new skyline.

I knew at that moment that it didn’t matter if they never set foot inside those new buildings…what the towers represent was enough to inspire a sense of awestruck wonder in this family. And while American economists continue to bash China’s urbanization process, calling this the ‘biggest real estate bubble ever’, they tend to forget that it was in America that the skyscraper was invented and perfected. There is a certain universality of a desire to reach for the heavens, and China’s urban areas are the best reminders of that today.

Go West Project at the Chengdu Biennale

I had the privilege of sitting in on a round-table discussion led by the ‘Go West Project‘ at the Chengdu Biennale this past weekend. Go West Project is an independent think-thank based in Shanghai founded by two Dutch nationals, Michiel Hulshof, a journalist, and Daan Roggeveen, an architect. For the past two years, Hulshof and Roggeveen traveled around the country documenting the phenomenon of urbanization in China’s lesser-known cities (hence the name ‘Go West‘).

Their research culminated in a recently released book titled How the City Moved to Mr. Sun. The title refers to one of the several personal narratives they encountered in their travels. Mr. Sun, a corn farmer in a village on the outskirts of Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei Province, saw his land seized by authorities nearly 20 years ago. Like many of the other villagers, he used the compensation money to develop his own 4-storey ‘mixed-use’ building complete with retail space on the ground floor, living space on the 2nd and 3rd floors and a small group of guestrooms for migrant workers on the 4th floor. On the roof, Mr. Sun created an organic garden to continue doing what he knew how to do best.

Inevitably, the pace of urbanization caught up to Mr. Sun once again, and after about a 10 year run of profitability, his self-developed building was razed by bulldozers. He reluctantly gave in and accepted compensation and now lives with his wife in a modern high-rise residential tower block where ‘he doesn’t know any of the neighbors’.

Mr. Sun’s story is one of several Hulshof and Roggeveen document in their book. In addition to Shijiazhuang, they visit 12 other cities in China’s interior including Zhengzhou, Wuhan, Chongqing, Hohhot and Kashgar, among others. Each city focuses on a different aspect of urbanization in China, and in Chengdu they chose to focus on cultural development.

And cultural development in Chengdu is what we focused on at the Biennale discussion. Hulshof and Roggeveen were interested in hearing from the people in attendance, mostly artists, designers and musicians from Chengdu’s local arts scene, what they thought of promoting ‘special arts zones’. As preposterous as this idea sounds, given that artists typically establish themselves from the ‘bottom-up’, China has already established designated arts zones throughout various cities in China.

This is perhaps no surprise as China’s approach to development in virtually every sphere comes from the ‘top-down’. As a matter of fact, the Chengdu Biennale coincides with the opening up of the new East Music Park, a re-used industrial zone that is also the site of the event. Spearheaded by the local government, the East Music Park is a new area full of bars, clubs, restaurants and gallery space intended to promote the arts in Chengdu.

Of course, the profit motive behind the creation of such arts districts is not hidden. Yet regardless of this commercial aspect, most Chinese artists agree that anytime the government is on board to promote culture it is a positive thing. China’s top-down development model excels at creating the ‘hardware’ of cities:  roads, bridges, public transit, buildings, etc…but when it comes to the development of ‘software,’ or the cultural side of cities, governments have a harder time of deciding the best route to take.

That is why in the case of Chengdu, the local government looked to the artists themselves for consultation on how to proceed. In their book, Hulshof and Roggeveen mention the story of local painter Luo Fahui, once a renegade who had to move around the country to avoid run-ins with government authorities, who later was literally given free gallery space developed by the local government to pursue his artwork. Change of fortune indeed.

As China’s development model continues to evolve, the ‘software’ of cities becomes increasingly important. And as more Chinese citizens realize that there is more to life than the acquisition of money, they will demand more ‘meaningful’ experiences, including patronage of the arts. This is the conclusion we reached at the Biennale round-table and the conclusion Hulshof and Roggeveen reached after their travels around China.

China is at a crossroads now. Next year will see a nationwide change in leadership and with analysts predicting the end to China’s growth model, the country is looking to new ways to continue economic evolution. That is why Hulshof and Roggeveen’s work is timely. To see where China is, and where it is going, I highly recommend their book.