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