Beyond Buildings


Head East, Middle-Aged Man: Americans Build in China

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“Like rings from a stone dropped in a pond, curving walls create a journey and define space.” Is that kind of pablum the best of what America has to offer global architecture? It is, if you can believe the New York Times, which quoted Seattle architect Stuart Silk thusly describing the villas he is designing in Shanghai. From the one photograph the Gray Lady printed, the buildings look as bad as they sound. The article goes on to illustrate other mediocrities, while making a few nods to more avant garde offerings by the likes of Steven Holl, concluding that, guess what, architects complain as much about their Chinese clients as they do about the ones that put them to work stateside.

The article makes a interesting contrast to a recent report in Fortune that American and European firms are contributing to the construction of ghost cities throughout China and Asia, describing “massive cities that the Chinese government is in the process of building in the hope that people will come. But the people have not come.” Which leads me to wonder: are Western firms making a worthwhile contribution to China’s development?

The easy answer is that architects go wherever they can obtain a commission and do whatever they are capable of designing. It should be no surprise, then, that most of what is rising in China to designs produced by American and European architects is ugly, wasteful, or just plain mediocre—it is no different than what architects produce in their native countries. As noted above, I am sure most of them blame not themselves but the clients for that situation.

What is different is the scale on which this is occurring. While most architects only have the chance to build a few structures in their native country, in China they can decree whole neighborhoods, skyscrapers, and even cities, and see them come to completion in a few years. I am afraid that I have not seen many of these structures that I think are any good. Even when the designs are decent, the realities of constructing in China—a situation that is, truth be told, changing quickly—often makes them less that successful. Though some of Steven Holl’s Chinese projects look quite interesting (I have not seen the Vanke Headquarters in reality), for instance, I am afraid that the Linked Hybrid Block in Beijing his firm designed looks like a collection of fairly banal, poorly constructed apartment blocks connected with the kind of skybridges we banned a long time ago in most American downtowns. It is big, millions of square feet of repetitive grids of what was an appealing sketch.

Are the structures any better than what Chinese architects might have done? Not necessarily, but you would think that American architects should and could do better, given the more advanced state of their education and of the discipline. They do seem to be better at making some skyscrapers, such as the Mori Tower in Shanghai, an elegant icon designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox, and so now and then at making signature structures, such as the ones Holl and Thom Mayne have created.

According to the New York Times, Chinese clients are “more ambitious, more adventurous and even more willing to spend the money necessary to realize the designs.” According to Chris McVoy, of Steven Holl’s office, “There is an appreciation of non-materialist ideas, a connection to history and culture and especially meaning. They drive towards a solution, but there is also a metaphysical dimension.” That is, if it is true, great. On top of the reality that the Chinese commissions also afford American architects to build at a scale and with a speed that they have not had in the United States, you would think that the chance to build truly great architecture there is immense. I am waiting for such great results, but I bemoan the mediocrity and senseless waste of natural resources and land to which many American architects are now contributing.



Comments (6 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 6:48 AM Wednesday, September 07, 2011

    Every new building leaks. The local LDI, can not follow yr DD docs, The fire bureau,always has special requirements in yr region, 3hr FRP ?, No 'Standard form of Contract',, No ISO, the steel reinforcement quality, many places, much worse than 10 yrs ,ago. Yr construction site worker, untrained only migrated to city frm the farmlands two weeks ago, You find out that the commercial laws hv changed, and u can not get payment, as a 'overseas' company, none existant CSDs, most MEP after DD is by the LDI, almost all structural eng. by the LDI,,alot of competitions w/ 'larger companies' hv no formal 'brief', All techinal specs and drawing in chinese only, only few project hv QS consultants, .....only a few facts (look at the first post above), yes, Im in China and HK/Macau, wk w/ the big firms hr and ME long time hr.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 4:24 PM Friday, January 21, 2011

    China's closet of skeletons is akin to a warehouse. Soon to be the world's leading economic power; it’s easy to knock our rival and ideological counter-point. While we still struggle with the Great Recession (and China’s artificial economy), acres of tenantless new buildings demonstrate similar sins of (their pseudo-experimental) capitalism: greed, pride, narcissism, arrogance, etc. But hey, we set the example, right? Speed bumps of growth and development are expected, but little good can come from speeding along as if immune, an invincible adolescent, drunk on youth, power, and a couple free drinks. China’s quick erection of false fronts is meant to impress the world; western architects are happy to oblige, and magazines quick to publish. The entire endeavor lacks critical consideration. As their population approaches 2 billion, urban migration distends China’s cities with a growing middle class flush with opportunity and new idealism. Monopoly money and politics fuel expediency. The impact to the built environment is loss of authenticity, historic fabric, and resources at best; horrifying disaster at worst. 20 years ago Pudong (the new financial high rise district of Shanghai) was nothing but swampy farmland. It is well documented that Pudong can't support the massive weight of its development (sinking like Venice as a consequence), but the building of even taller skyscrapers continues. China's efforts at media control and technological relevancy compete as mobile phone cameras capture one incident after another. The fires at Zaha Hadid's Guangzhou Opera House and Rem Koolhaas' TVCC in Beijing were unfortunate. The earthquake that rocked Sichuan in 2008 could have happened anywhere, but in this case poor construction of a government built school is what killed hundreds of children. While nobody is immune to accident, natural disaster, or questionable aesthetics, China's current climate of irresponsible growth and quality is clear commentary on the value of life.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:51 PM Friday, January 21, 2011

    "you would think that American architects should and could do better, given the more advanced state of their education and of the discipline"... a very unfortunate statement... one needs to know another culture fairly well before embarking on some silly, feel-good design.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:17 PM Friday, January 21, 2011

    It could be said of at least one SF architect that, not content to wreck his home city, he's now set his sights on China. - John Parman

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:53 PM Friday, January 21, 2011

    According to the New York Times, Chinese clients are “more ambitious, more adventurous and even more willing to spend the money necessary to realize the designs.” So is everybody when they think money is easy and the future is positive. This will end in China.

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  • Posted by: rj chicago | Time: 12:49 PM Friday, January 21, 2011

    Aaron: Pictures to substantiate your claim? I no doubt there is alot of bad building going on there - and the thing that has struck me are the two high rise fires that have occured there in the last couple of years. Not only banal - but in some cases dangerous!!!

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.