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Ningbo History Museum by architect Wang Shu

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

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

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. View full post »

  • Sascha - I recently had a long conversation with a couple “people in the know” about devolution of central power and management to places like Jiangyou and the shockingly shoddy work and rampant corruption that results from this transfer of power. They were very very pessimistic about the future of any of these cities, touted government developments or pet macro projects …

    Five years they said, and stuff will start falling apart, people will start asking questions, but by then, most of the guilty will already have absconded. Skrrd me.ReplyCancel

  • Adam Nathaniel Mayer - We have to wonder about that. As far as I can tell, the 1st tier cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen) and even 2nd tier cities (Chengdu, Chongqing, Wuhan, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Xi’an, Dalian, Shenyang, etc…) will be just fine heading into the future given that so many resources have gone into developing these places and also they are big enough as to not escape the radar of the Central Government (what has recently happened in Chongqing is a perfect example).

    The future is more unpredictable for smaller cities like Jiangyou which can operate under the radar. Urbanization means people moving to the cities…but in the case of China it appears that the biggest cities are the ones gaining the most both in terms of population and quality of life benefits. As the biggest cities become too expensive though, more people may opt for 3rd and 4th tier cities and hopefully by this point they get their act together- otherwise there will be too much pressure on places like provincial capitals to provide benefits for its population- hence the slow but steady rate of hukou reform.ReplyCancel

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. View full post »

  • Hao Hao Report - Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….ReplyCancel

  • Nick -  great insight at working in China, I would add #11 acquiring a taste for baijiu ??ReplyCancel

  • George - Late to the party is a great way to put it. Nicely done.


  • Jimbo - 100% correct!!! Everything is true here!
    And I hate it…ReplyCancel

  • J.P. Katigbak - Everything is too good to be true, isn’t it?

    Well, be warned: this article doesn’t do justice to the historical and present realities in China regarding architectural styles and planning methods. Does it have proof, really? Please give an appropriate answer and send it to me personally.

    Thank you very much.

    • Adam Nathaniel Mayer - J.P.K.,

      Can you please clarify what you mean by “does it have proof”? This article wasn’t meant as a deep analysis of historical architectural styles and planning methods in China, but rather a no-nonsense guide for foreign architects working in the country today.

      Like any great civilization, China has an interesting architectural history, but it is pretty much irrelevant to the fast paced nature of urban development happening at the moment.ReplyCancel

As someone who works in the building industry in China, I am often asked why the quality of construction of most new buildings is so poor. The people who usually ask are expatriates from places like Europe or America; rarely does someone native to China who hasn’t spent time overseas pose the same question.

This perhaps has to do with the fact that building quality in China is relative. Most Chinese first-time home buyers moving into brand new housing tower blocks do not have the frame of reference to evaluate finish material quality. This is exacerbated by the fact most housing developers sell units as empty concrete shells, leaving it up to the owners to fit them out with finishes and fixtures.

This is not to suggest that the thousands of recently built high-rise towers  across Chinese cities are on the verge of collapse. On the contrary, structural engineers in China tend to err on the side of caution when designing structural systems and from what I’ve seen on construction sites, they do not skimp on steel rebar reinforcing (especially here in Chengdu where the destruction from the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake is still very fresh in memory). View full post »

  • Hao Hao Report - Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….ReplyCancel

  • Sascha - nice inside analysis of why things look so shoddyReplyCancel

  • Adam Nathaniel Mayer - Thanks Sascha…my thinking about this particular topic was actually spurred on by your CL post about China’s real estate bubble.ReplyCancel

  • Warren - In the city I live in within China (which will remain nameless for my own protection), building is amazingly rampant and seemingly impossible to justify. Giant apartment complexes are turning up everywhere. In the last 3 years dozens of such mammoth projects have cropped up. Similarly, roads, tunnels, bridges and superhighways now crisscross a relatively small amount of land that one could largely encircle in a day on a mountain-bike.

    What is the purpose? I can only guess it’s “building for building’s sake.” Building appears to BE the economy, and it doesn’t matter if anyone every lives in the apartments or drives on the roads. Clearly, the infrastructure of the city couldn’t possibly handle the tens of thousands of people that the apartment complexes could house. There’s no room for the cars, and the streets aren’t wide enough to accommodate the traffic. I can’t see where all the new people would possibly work, either, except in construction (except that construction workers couldn’t afford to live in any of the fancy new apartments).
    Meanwhile, at street level, there’s no improvement in development. I can’t quite understand how it is profitable to build useless apartment complexes the proportions of battlestars, since it’s ultimately just wasting material. In the end I can only conclude that a handful of people are making a killing off of it, and THAT is the ultimate good. The rest of us can admire the cement, inhale it in it’s particular form, and try not to think about it too much.ReplyCancel

    • Adam Nathaniel Mayer - Warren, the purpose of constructing new buildings and infrastructure in China is to modernize the country and improve the lives of its people. If you are from a Western nation, or one of the developed Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea or Singapore, then you cannot fault China for aspiring to join the ranks of developed countries- urban development is what they went through in the past and what China is going through currently.

      I tend to think that the problems associated with development in China are sometimes exaggerated out of proportion due to the fact that the country is huge, both in area and population. Also keep in mind that developed nations before also faced similar challenges when going through the same process. In this particular post, I chose to be critical of one aspect of development in China, particularly the flaws I see in construction industry processes.

      Yet I am actually fairly optimistic that these less than favorable practices will not go on forever. On the contrary, China is still learning and because of this, there are bound to be a few construction projects that turn out to be white elephants. That doesn’t mean that building new infrastructure and buildings is inherently wrong or evil.

      Unfortunately the mainstream media tends to distort reality by focusing again and again on the same handful of white elephants scattered across the country (New South China Mall in Dongguan, Zhengzhou New Area and Kangbashi New Area in Ordos). Yet, for every failed project, there are countless examples of success. For instance, Pudong in Shanghai, once derided as an out of control property bubble is today a vibrant financial and trade center.

      In Chengdu, even I thought that the new Hi-Tech Zone in the south of the city was a soulless collection of brand new office parks and wide boulevards when I first arrived. Now, 2 years later, the area is picking up and more and more businesses and government departments are relocating down there turning up the activity in the area.

      So my point being is that even though a lot of the new construction seems pointless, give it some time and I think that you might find that it turns out to work.ReplyCancel

  • Warren - I would love to believe you are correct, Adam, and yet the development here not only rivals the Western counterparts, but far exceeds them. As I pointed out, development is largely equivalent to projects involving massive outpouring of cement, and little else that I can see. While there will be dozens of new mega-apartment complexes over 20 stories high, nearly every restaurant has no hot water in the restrooms. My own apartment, build in the last 3 years, also has no hot water in the kitchen or the bathroom sink. A good portion of the traffic lights in the city do not work, and there doesn’t appear any improvement in the infrastructure, including waste management, to accommodate ANY more people, let alone hundreds of thousands. According to my research the sewage plants could not handle the level of human wast 2 years ago.

    There’s “development” in terms of the GDP (gross domestic product), and then there’s the HDI (human development index). China is #2 for GDP but 89 for HDI. This development of cement may not ultimately result in a development of actual human lives. We can hope that “if we build it (out of cement), they will come and work here and owe all their money to their landlords,” but whether that is an ultimate good that can offset the associated costs of loss to health with the off-the-charts pollution is yet to be seen.

    Again, I would prefer to be wrong about this, but the apocalyptic levels of pollution I’ve seen in the last few days, or rather which have prevented me from seeing much else, indicate I may be much more correct than I ever want to be.ReplyCancel

  • Peter - Hey Adam, a interesting and insightful read. I’m thinking you are right that China is in the middle of change in urbanisation. It seems that you can almost draw parallels with the industrialisation in Europe in the 18oo’s and the rebuilding of world wars in the 20th century in the West. While most of those buildings were poorly built, it solved the immediate problem of housing. Then with time, it is possible to build better architecture. I remember that a decade or so ago the talk point is on the quality of the structure of buildings as developers cutting corners caused many buildings to collapse. By the sound of it, this ‘corner cutting’ acts of developers and contractors has come a long way since then (at least the structure will stand up).I agree to Warren’s point that the ultimate good at the moment is for the profit of a few. But I also think it is a stepping stone between finding enough places to house people to a living standard that people desires.

    My question is, when the boom slows down, will the building integrity go up, or will the developers and contractors continues to squeeze as much profit as possible? in essence, a matter of time or a matter of redefining the relationship model between government, developer, contractor and consumer?ReplyCancel

    • Adam Nathaniel Mayer - Hi Peter,

      I would venture to guess that when the boom slows down, building integrity should go up. Most developers most likely won’t start to care about quality until consumers demand it.

      At least for the past few years, developers haven’t needed to worry about it simply because there are buyers lined up to purchase new housing units, even if the quality is not top-notch. This is really just speculation on the part of home-buyers and developers to some degree as well. By that I mean, some savvy developers will build whatever junk on a site they have acquired through successful land bid, just to keep the land. If they don’t build something by a certain time, government will take the land back. This policy promotes development, and this is just the developer’s way of making sure they hold onto their investment.ReplyCancel

  • Ingrid - Hello, I can also add my experience with a chinese manufacturer of pipes – Hebei Zhonghai Steel pipe manufacturing . This company supplied pipes in a horrible quality and what is worse they ignored the contract. You can see this article:
    Read it and you will be in shock

    • Adam Nathaniel Mayer - Ingrid, sorry to hear about your experience with manufacturing gas pipes in China. Unfortunately, while it is shocking, this kind of experience is not too uncommon- especially when it comes to not honoring contracts. If a Chinese business does not anticipate a long-term relationship, they generally have no problem with pulling a fast one on a client (this not only happens to foreign customers, but within China as well).

      Just yesterday, part of a new road bridge collapsed in the northern Chinese city of Harbin (, killing 3 people. Until incidents like this one can be kept to an absolute minimum, there will always be a question of quality in Chinese construction and manufacturing.ReplyCancel

  • Noel - Well, I heard many building during construction have been collapse in China. Why was that? Why it happened. For me, it is because there was lack of what we called Quality Management System. That’s for ha because I’ve work in the country where we follow QMS, have I seen any massive or enormous failure? No.. So I think that’s lacking there.ReplyCancel

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. View full post »