Hong Kong Protests & The Role of the City

View over Victoria Harbor towards Central- the center of the pro-democracy protests

Hong Kong is an unlikely setting for massive political protests. The city, known for its open global trading culture, is a paragon of economic freedom. Yet many would argue that the economic freedom enjoyed by Hong Kong’s citizens has not kept pace with the level of political freedom.

Case in point: at the time of this writing, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have taken over the city; spilling over from the city’s central business district of Central into the neighborhoods of Causeway Bay and to Mong Kok across the harbor in Kowloon. Prompting this unprecedented massive protest was the Chinese Central Government’s decision last month to allow only committee-approved candidates to run for Chief Executive (Hong Kong’s highest political office) in what was supposed to be the city’s first public vote in 2017.

Beijing’s decision to vet Chief Executive candidates before they are permitted to run for office sent a signal to Hong Kong citizens that perhaps the Central Government is not fully comfortable embracing the idea of ‘One Country, Two Systems‘. That being said, while on the surface this appears to be primarily a political protest, underlying much of the frustration of protestors are economic issues resulting from a flood of Mainland wealth entering Hong Kong.

To understand why this may be the case, it is important to look at Hong Kong as a ‘city’ first rather than a former British Colony and current Special Administrative Region of China.

As anyone who has visited the city knows, Hong Kong is one of the most compelling urban places in the world. Spanning across Victoria Harbor, from Hong Kong Island to the Kowloon Peninsula and beyond to the New Territories, the city’s natural geographical setting is stunning. Add to that the forest of svelte skyscrapers against a backdrop of steep mountains and you get a visual dynamism that is unmatched by any other city.

Urbanistically, Hong Kong functions like a well-oiled machine. The always on-time metro system spans to the far reaches of the city and mixed-use developments everywhere promote lively street-level activity. The city’s airport is one of the most well-connected and efficient in the world. The tourism/hospitality industry is gold standard and booming.

Given all the assets possessed by the city, what then is Hong Kong’s problem?

Short answer: the cost of living is out of control.

In a sense, Hong Kong is a victim of its own success. Thanks to its open banking system, global capital flows into the city relentlessly. Investment in Hong Kong property, primarily from wealthy buyers from Mainland China, drives up the price of real estate to astronomical levels out of reach for most locals.

Exacerbating the housing affordability crisis in Hong Kong is the lack of land to build new real estate to meet the high demand. Demographer Wendell Cox’s research has even found Hong Kong to be the world’s most unaffordable housing market.

The protests in Hong Kong are directed at the Chinese Central Government, but they might as well be directed at China’s capital flows into the city. To put it into perspective, this is a semi-autonomous highly developed city of 7 million, adjacent to a developing country of 1.3 billion. Hong Kong is the closest safe harbor for wealthy Mainlanders to put their money. On top of that, millions of Chinese tourists come to Hong Kong each year to go on shopping sprees, buying luxury goods, sales-tax free, that would be more expensive to purchase in the Mainland.

Given the severity of the situation, it is no wonder that native Hong Kong citizens are taking to the streets in protest. Yet as Hong Kong is already a relatively free city, unfortunately I do not think that more ‘democracy’ will help the solve the problems that Hong Kong protestors are most concerned about (cost of living, loss of cultural identity, etc…).

On the contrary, the solution for the city’s woes would be for the rest of China to become more like Hong Kong. That is- more global, economically open and possessing a banking system that investors can trust. Mainland China is not there yet, but proposed initiatives such as merging the Pearl River Delta into an interconnected ‘mega-region’ and the Shangahi Free-Trade Zone are steps in the right direction.

Ultimately the point is to take the pressure off Hong Kong. This could be achieved by making other cities in China, such as Shenzhen or Shanghai, more open economically, so that capital flows more freely through the Mainland.

The Chinese government up until now has hesitated in doing this. Perhaps the protests in Hong Kong will be a wake-up call to speed up reform. My feeling is that this will happen eventually and hopefully sooner than later.

Interview With Ole Bouman, Curator of the 2013 Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture

Value Factory 161The “Value Factory”: Site of the 2013 Bi-City Biennale of Urbansim/Architecture

The 2013 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture is now underway in Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Open until the end of February 2014, the event is the world’s only biennale exhibition based exclusively on the themes of urbanism and urbanization. Now in it’s 5th edition, the Bi-City Biennale takes place across one of the world’s most dynamic economic regions, exploring not only the dichotomy between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, but the larger issues facing urbanization in China (something this blog is always very excited about discussing).

The Creative Director for this year’s Bi-City Biennale is Dutch Curator Ole Bouman. Mr. Bouman answered a few questions about the Biennale for the CUD Blog discussing some of the relevant issues surrounding this year’s event:

Adam Mayer (AM): Hong Kong, Shenzhen and the greater Pearl River Delta is arguably the world’s most dynamic urban region at the moment. What does it meant to curate a Biennale in a place that is very much “of the now” in terms of economic might versus a city like Venice which, while it lingers in our collective cultural imagination, is long past its primacy as a mercantile power center?

Ole Bouman (OB): To work in Shekou, at the heart of the Pearl River Delta conundrum, gives a chance to position this biennale as a real urban laboratory, with real implications for Shenzhen, but perhaps also with effects on the practice of urbanism in China. We have been given a chance to work on the scale of the city, with real investors, real owners, real users. This is only possible when the city is still a battlefield, not a museum. In Venice, history is the background of an event. In Shenzhen, you can make urban history.

AM: The main site for the Biennale is the “Value Factory” – a repurposed space in what used to be the Guangdong Float Glass Factory in the Shekou area of Shenzhen, which operated from 1987 to 2009. Considering that little more than 30 years ago Shenzhen was nothing more than an ambitious economic experiment on paper, how does the city come to terms with such a rapid progression from industrial development to post-industrial metropolis?

OB: In many different ways, of course. And to some extent it doesn’t come to terms at all, because the terms are changing themselves so rapidly. Under the current dynamic conditions, city development happens by stealth almost by definition. Nevertheless, I have been working with people with a growing awareness of the historical opportunities; they increasingly work with a helicopter view which enables them to set up urban relations that matter. That’s also why I am very happy we could realize a panorama deck on top of the factory which reveals all the frictions and storylines at a glance.

AM: Shenzhen is often derided within China as a cultural desert especially when compared with the more traditional cultural centers of the country such as Beijing, Xi’an and Chengdu. How does Shenzhen combat this reputation?

OB: I know this reputation. It can be related to the first stage of an arrival city. And in that sense, time will tell how it matures. But Shenzhen even now is certainly no cultural desert, unless you think that culture is a matter of consuming cultural products. For me essential to Shenzhen is its pioneering mentality. It is about the culture of creating new things, rather than the celebration of creations of the past. What is the meaning of monuments, when you are actually able to make them? What is the meaning of art, when you are able to create it? What is the meaning of theater, when you actually a protagonist yourself everyday?

Ole Bouman, directeur NAI, Rotterdam, 9.3.2012Ole Bouman, Curator and Creative Director of the Biennale

AM: The Biennale takes place across the Mainland China/Hong Kong border. As a Bi-City event, how does the Biennale reflect the sometimes contentious yet symbiotic relationship between the two very different cities of Hong Kong and Shenzhen?

OB: This year I find this relationship different from previous years. Shenzhen got back to using the Biennale as an urban catalyst. It is enormously ambitious but not as a goal in itself. In Hong Kong the biennale also “performs” in a certain way, but more as filter of urban dynamics than as an agent, as far as I can see. On the other hand, in Hong Kong already this filter is enough for serious protests against it.

AM: In Shenzhen’s aspiration to become a global metropolis, several prominent Western architects such as Steven Holl, Rem Koolhaas and BIG have had an opportunity to leave their mark on the city. Moving into the future, do you see Shenzhen continuing to invite architects from the West to design its marquee buildings or will we see more homegrown, Shenzhen-based architects contributing to the urban fabric of the city?

OB: I don’t believe the architects you refer to “leave their mark on the city”. Maybe they do “on the skyline” of a specific neighborhood. But Shenzhen is already way too developed to be reduced to architecture. The urban dynamics are excruciating. The city is exactly doing what a city should be doing in the first place: to work as an emancipation machine, to help people make a living. I am convinced that architects can play a very important role in facilitating this process and I also think that local architects are very able to do so as well.

Many thanks to Mr. Bouman for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for us. For more information about the 2013 Bi-City Biennale of Urbansim/Architecture please visit the following link: http://en.szhkbiennale.org/

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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.

Lessard Design Wins Competition For Nanjing Technology Community

Lessard Design, an American architecture firm based out of the Washington D.C. area, recently shared with us some images of their competition winning entry for the Nanjing Technology Community. Designed in conjunction with local design institute Nanjing City-Town Architecture Design & Consultants (CTA Architects), the project is a 4,280,000 square foot office complex geared towards technology entrepreneurs.

The minimal, understated architecture of the office towers is a suitable backdrop to the generous amount of public space incorporated into the design. The complex features an elevated, active green space weaving through the central axis of the site. Other inviting public space includes a row of restaurant and retail spaces along the canal front.

Please see the following YouTube link for a very cool fly through animation of the project: Technology Core Community – Nanjing, China

Shenzhen Surging: Yabao Hi-Tech Park by 10 Design

Shenzhen, China’s experimental Special Economic Zone, is often derided for its lack of history and culture. This is in no small part due to the fact that the city is essentially a boomtown that is more or less just over 30 years old. Yet making up for this drawback is the fact that the city has some of the most interesting and innovative new architecture being built in the country.

I was recently informed of a design for a compelling new project that fits the bill for Shenzhen’s growing stock of interesting buildings. The Yabao Hi-Tech Park is a new development by the Shenzhen-based Galaxy Group and designed by the architecture firm 10 Design.

10 Design is relatively new firm based in Hong Kong, started by former employees of the global corporate giant RMJM. Founded less than 2 years ago, 10 Design is an upstart successfully challenging other multinational firms for commissions in the Mainland China market. With the Yabao Hi-Tech Park, 10 Design looks to establish itself as a serious player in the global architecture sphere.

In the designer’s words, the project “is an examination of the relationship between a pristine rural landscape and the advancing forces of a rapidly growing city.” Just over a million square meters in gross floor area, the park features 18 high-rise towers ranging from 100 – 300 meters tall, a 5-star hotel, and 3 residential towers.

The main building, a 300 meter tower flows out of an adjacent stream, twisting up  towards the sky. The 220 meter tower to the right of the main building melds with the retail podium and pulls itself along the freeway edge, creating a bold and iconic public image for the development.

The towers reflect the forward-looking nature of the developer by utilizing high-tech facade systems, including a series of balconies that pull off from the facades to allow vegetation to grow up the sides of the buildings. Interesting enough, included in the vegetated facades is an algae system that neutralizes air pollution 24 hours a day.

The project will be realized soon, as construction broke ground in October of last year. Upon completion, Yabao Hi-Tech Park will be an interesting new addition to the urban fabric of Shenzhen and will solidify 10 Design as a competitive international architecture firm.

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.

Guangzhou’s New Central Business District: Zhujiang New Town

Guangzhou’s New CBD (highlighted in red) sits north of the Pearl River and east of the Old City in what not long ago was agricultural land

Recently I visited Zhujiang New Town, Guangzhou’s newly built central business district (CBD). While Guangzhou itself is hardly a new city (its status as an international trading port goes back centuries), the CBD is brand new, built on what used to be agricultural land well outside of the historic city core. Though thanks to the city’s expanding underground metro and freeway system, Zhujiang New Town doesn’t seem so far away.

Currently Zhujiang New Town is best known as the site for the Guangzhou Opera House and many of the athletic venues for the 2010 Asian Games. One unique aspect about Guangzhou’s CBD compared with others around China is its marriage of cultural buildings with commercial office towers. In this regard, Zhujiang New Town is not much different from the planned ‘downtowns’ of sprawling 20th Century American cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Houston.

The iconic Canton Tower sits across the river, just south of the new CBD

View looking north at towers going up in the CBD

Aerial map of Guangzhou CBD

Adjacent to the Pearl River to the north is the site of Zhujiang New Town’s new cultural venues linked by a paved plaza. Directly north of that begins a park stretching four long blocks lined with brand new office towers. Underneath the park, a metro line runs the length of the CBD. This particular line of the Guangzhou metro system has no driver (so far this is the only instance of this I’ve seen in China!).

While the cultural venues were bustling with life when I was there, many of the completed office buildings were for the most part unoccupied and the park was a no-man’s land. This is not to say that the towers won’t be occupied very soon, as the finishing touches were just being put on. It will be interesting to see how this sparkling new CBD fills itself up in the coming months and years ahead.

1. Guangzhou Opera House

2. Guangdong Museum

3. Guangzhou Library

4. IFC Tower

5. New Commercial Office Buildings

6. Agricultural Bank of China Building

7. The Pearl River Tower

8. More Commercial Office Towers Under Construction

Speculation: China’s Proposed Eco-Cities

A piece I wrote about China’s proposed eco-cities appeared recently in the  inaugural issue of Dwell Asia magazine. The article takes a look at two proposed eco-cities, Dongtan in Shanghai and the Sino-Singapore Eco-city in Tianjin, examining the implications of the ideas presented in both proposals.

For the readers of the China Urban Development Blog, here is a reproduction of the original piece:

Today’s urban development zeitgeist suggests that cities should move towards sustainable models of living to combat climate change and reduce resource consumption. Of course, how to achieve that is a subject of ongoing debate among design and planning professionals. Unfortunately, branding new developments as ‘green’, ‘eco’ or ‘sustainable’ is often a loaded attempt to satisfy marketing and public relations needs for developers and government officials.

Nowhere is the use of greenwashing strategies more common than in China, where new cities practically arise overnight. Many new developments, particularly large-scale residential communities consisting of repetitive tower blocks, with names like Authentic Gardens and Spring Flower Court, claim to be environmentally friendly, but have little in the way of sustainable design strategies aside from a few patches of green space.

There are few problems with this mode of development. For one, new residential projects often take up entire city blocks, turning their back on public streets and discouraging a mix of uses and walkability. Secondly, tower blocks are often built cheaply without proper insulation or sealed windows, leading to more energy consumption for heating and cooling. With the demand for new residential units so strong, there is generally no incentive for property developers to spend extra on things that would save energy in the long run.

The need to make new residential developments sound greener than they actually are reflects a deep contradiction between China’s traditional love of nature and its current state of hyper-urbanisation. As more farmland makes way for expanding cities, promoting a sense of nostalgia ensures that newly developed properties will appeal to first time Chinese homebuyers. Yet a new mode of development is emerging in what might ultimately serve as more appropriate and honest model for China to reconcile its agrarian past with its
urban future.

Enter the eco-city. The eco-city concept, which has gained a wide international audience among planners and environmentalists over the last two decades, aims to build new cities and neighbourhoods in a way that uses the best of sustainable technologies and planning strategies to reduce waste and carbon emissions. Given its current state of development, China is an ideal testing ground for new eco-cities.

Dongtan: A planned Eco-city on Chongming Island in Shanghai

China is lauded for two planned eco-cities in particular: Dongtan, on Chongming Island in Shanghai, and the Sino-Singapore Eco-city in Tianjin. Both eco-cities lie well outside the traditional urban cores of their respective municipalities and seek to become self-sufficient sustainable communities complete with residential, commercial, retail, educational and recreational uses. The way in which these eco-cities differ from other new developments around China is their focus on clean energy, including solar, wind and bio-fuels and urban design promoting sustainable transportation methods such as walking and cycling.

Despite the good intentions of their designers, there is some concern over the viability and appeal of such developments. Some critics argue that Dongtan, which is now indefinitely on hold, is nothing more than a ‘Potemkin Village’ meant to make government officials look good. Others argue that the high initial cost of sustainable technologies means that the cost of living will be too far out of reach for middle-class Chinese urbanites.

Perhaps most misleading about China’s eco-cities is the overall impact they will have on the entire country’s carbon footprint. Together, Dongtan and the Tianjin Eco-City are planned for less than 1 million residents…a drop in the bucket compared to an urbanising population of more than a billion.

Sino-Singapore Eco-city in Tianjin

Eco-city hype aside, China is doing much more to develop towards a more sustainable future in ways that will have much greater impact. Construction of transportation infrastructure, including a national high-speed rail system and extensive metro systems in nearly every large city, will help reduce carbon emissions. Furthermore, China is already the world leader in renewable energy technology, with enormous investment into wind and solar energy.

Whether or not China’s eco-cities ever come to fruition, there are lessons to be taken from the ideas presented in the plans. Promoting genuine mixed-use neighborhoods and buildings with sustainable technologies such as passive heating and cooling and low-flush toilets are a step in the right direction. Yet given the type of development that is currently en vogue in China (the quickly built, tower block type), perhaps it best to start with the unglamorous basics: wall insulation and properly sealed windows.

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.

Chengdu Enhances Urban Environment With Recreational Paths

It seems that too often talk about China development focuses on ‘hard’ infrastructure projects including roads, bridges, power stations, rail systems, etc.  Yet what is often overlooked in discussions about China’s infrastructure are projects designed to enhance quality of life for city dwellers. I recently discovered one of these new projects in the city where I live, Chengdu.

For months leading up to summer, large portions of the promenade along the Jinjiang River, which runs through the middle of the city, was walled off while new landscape construction took place. Upon completion, the riverside opened up with sleek modern guard rails and wide lanes with brand new pavers and newly planted trees.

As soon as the promenade opened again, I resumed my usual jogging route which runs from the city center to about 5 km south along the river. Besides having a smooth new surface to run on, I also found that when I reached the fenced off area where I usually turn around and head back, the fence was gone. Curious to explore further, I carried on along the river.

I ran through some formerly industrial areas and eventually ended up in Chengdu’s suburban periphery outside of the south section of the 3rd Ring Road where new residential towers sprouted up from the ground among vast swaths of green space. The path continued on along the river but at that point I thought it best to turn around before sunset.

It turns out that the extended path is part of Chengdu’s ambitious plan to add 800 km of recreational path by next year. Keeping in line with its self-proclaimed status as a ‘Modern Garden City’, the city is actively promoting green space that enhances quality of life. Given that Chengdu has a temperate climate, a system of recreational paths linking the city center with its surrounding suburbs  is a worthwhile investment.

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.

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.

Chinese Architectural Heritage and the Role of Foreign Architects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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