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.

24 City Rises in Southeast Chengdu

The sound of new development roars all over Chengdu. One area that is particularly on the uptick is the southeast, just outside the 2nd Ring Road. Not long ago a heavy industrial zone, several former factory sites were cleared to make way for new high-density residential, retail and office development.

Today the area is a gigantic series of noisy, dusty construction sites. Not only is abundant new real estate floor space being built, but the area is making way for two upcoming metro lines: line 2 and line 4. Though only 4.5 km from the city center, the area feels worlds away from the city’s historic core. Yet as Chengdu continues to sprawl out, the new development is bound to become part of the urban area within a few years.

24 City is 4.5 km south-east of Chengdu’s city center (highlighted in purple)

One of the large new developments in this area is 24 City, spanning several blocks with a new shopping mall, office and residential towers. The shopping mall and office tower are designed by American architecture firm Callison and is rounding out construction.

Callison-designed terraced shopping mall

A new office tower rises out of the shopping mall podium

The retail podium topped out with office tower is the standard formula for commercial mixed-use developments across Chengdu (and China). The almost complete buildings are only Phase I, which is planned to be followed by several more phases of retail podium + towers on top.

Across the street from the shopping mall are two new residential compounds with clusters of dozens of tall buildings. A quick peek into one of the sales centers confirmed that the new units have no problem being sold off. Whether intended as speculative investments or primary residences, the investments are bound to payoff as the proximity to the planned subway stops means that this will soon be a convenient area for moving around the city by public transit.

Unfortunately the design of the residential compounds leave much to be desired. On one side, a row of regimented towers lines the adjacent public street, creating an ominous canyon of darkness. The inside of the compound is a much more pleasant environment, with well-kept landscaped grounds punctuated with water features.

Tragically, these areas of respite lay behind electric fences and are for residents only. So, despite giving off the image of ‘real’ urbanism (dense clusters of high-rise towers), theses developments are no different from the gated communities of sprawling American suburbia. In the end, 24 City is unremarkable in that it follows the same pattern of brand-new development being followed in countless other Chinese cities without breaking any new ground.

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.