Monthly Archives: June 2011

Smith + Gill Win Competition to Design Greenland Center in Wuhan

Back in December we mentioned the plans to build a supertall building in Wuhan (Wuhan To Get World’s 3rd Tallest Skyscraper) but had no further information about the design. Now we have confirmation that Chicago-based architecture firm and supertall building experts Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill have won the competition to design the Greenland Center in Wuhan.

According to the press release, the Greenland Center is set to rise to a height of 606 meters (1,998 feet), making it a the third-tallest building in China and the fourth-tallest in the world. The developer, Greenland Group, previously worked with Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill on another supertall tower in China, the Nanjing Greenland Financial Center.

This is an ambitious project for Wuhan, a second-tier city and the capital of China’s central Hubei province. Like other Smith + Gill projects, Wuhan Greenland center seeks to be a paragon of performance and sustainability, with an elegantly tapering form designed to resist wind loads. This is an especially important consideration given for the city was recently hit by torrential rain storms.

Update:

Bustler has some excellent images of the Smith+Gill design. Here you can see in better detail how the building form, along with the advanced curtain wall, is designed to utilize the best in sustainable practices for the supertall building typology.

Fake European Villages in China

‘British Style’ Villa in China

China is known as the world’s hub for production of fake goods. Counterfeiting everything from electronics to clothing and more sinisterly, drywall and milk powder, is an ongoing problem that needs to be addressed. Fortunately the Chinese government is becoming more active in cracking down on individuals involved in intellectual property theft and the production of harmful goods.

Counterfeiting also happens at the urban scale in China. Recently developers from Guangdong Province have taken to planning an exact replica of the Austrian Alpine village of Hallstatt.

Unlike producing fake consumer goods,  the legality of appropriating architectural styles from overseas is not clearly defined. In the case of Hallstatt there may be some legal grounds against the Chinese developers due to the village’s status as a UNESCO Heritage site.

The copying of Hallstatt is an extreme example of Chinese developers using European architectural styles to market new projects. In almost every city, developments abound that boast of their ‘luxury British style villas’ or promote a ‘Mediterranean lifestyle’. To be sure, China is not the only country that borrows from Europe when it comes to architecture. In the U.S., places like Las Vegas and Disneyland are notorious for featuring fantasy interpretations of charming European motifs.

Yet the proliferation of these fantasy-land projects is even more curious in a place like China, which has a 5,000 year history and its own treasure trove of architectural heritage from which to be inspired. Walking among a new development in Chengdu styled after a Bavarian village last year, I was taken aback by the stark bizarreness of such a project. Detached from anything remotely related to Chengdu or China, the experience left me wondering where the cultural soul of the country had gone.

Now before I am accused of being just another foreigner romanticizing for the ‘old’ China let me clarify that I understand that in the path towards modernization, aspiring Chinese urban dwellers have a right to experience the fruits of the developed world. Furthermore, no one has a monopoly on architectural taste. Yet it is a bit unnerving to witness a society moving forward so out of touch with its own history.

When I’ve asked Chinese architects why the development of European-style buildings is so popular, the response is usually two-fold: for one, this is what newly rich Chinese home buyers want and two, it is easier and cheaper for developers to build than an accurate representation of a historical Chinese style- which require a lot more attention to detail.

You can’t argue with property developers for giving the people what they want. But we can ask, at least rhetorically, why is this what the people want? Again, it most likely is a result of China’s recent contentious relationship with its own history and culture. It is clear that the country has still not recovered from the purging of China’s ‘Four Olds‘ (Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas) during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.

The obsession with all things new or foreign is not likely to end anytime soon. Indeed, the desire for new things is so strong that oftentimes even buildings only 5 years old are considered old by Chinese urbanites. The contradiction between China’s extraordinarily long history and unyielding forward-looking vision is a conundrum.

Yet given rising prosperity of a larger share of the population, it is likely that in the future, a more culturally confident China will be able to reconnect with its past and discover all the treasures that have been there all along but hiding behind the veil of progress and modernization.

Shaun Rein Gets It

As more economists jump on the China bubble bandwagon, reliable information about the country’s state of development is becoming more difficult to come by. Anecdotes about empty buildings, empty trains, and just all around emptiness abound from China bears. I have no idea where these observations come from given the overwhelming falsity of some of these claims.

Neither does Shaun Rein over at Forbes. In a piece titled “Nouriel Roubini Is All Wrong About China“, Rein takes the famed economist to task by picking apart Roubini’s observations about ‘empty trains’ and ‘empty roads’ between Shanghai and Hangzhou.

There are many problems facing China at the moment, but over investment in infrastructure is definitely not one of them. If anything, China can’t build roads, airports and new rail lines fast enough. As Rein astutely points out, “China’s projects improve business efficiency, and they are needed in that still developing economy.

It is great to see another China observer who is able to make empirical observations about the country without ideological blinders on.

Forbes: Nouriel Roubini Is All Wrong About China

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.