Beyond Buildings


Home on the Hangzhou Range

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The new wealth in China is astonishing. In the decade since I first started visiting there, the shabby clothes, broken-down cars, bicycles, and billboards promising a red sunrise forever have given way to the latest automotive metal, smart clothes, and promises of diamonds forever—at least in the big cities on the Eastern seaboard. Hangzhou, where I spent a few days last week, has quintupled in size in that period, and cranes rise out of every nook and cranny between the hills and beyond the lake, river, and canals that give the city its character.


The quality of what is being built in this new sprawl is as bad as it is in the rest of this country—it just has a higher density. There is a particular type—four-story buildings with turrets, built in rows along the roads between the fields by newly wealthy farmers—which I have only seen in this area. There are also the gated development that would not look out of place in Orange County, Calif., and of course there are the thousands of apartment blocks, designed by rules generated about thirty years ago in Hong Kong and Singapore, and now spreading all over Asia.


In Hangzhou, at least most of these buildings are lower than the 40-story height that denser cities sport, and they have more green around them. They also tend to be more expensive, with the market now ranging up to several million dollars per unit in some of the more expensive projects.


The way in which this development is just repeating a pattern of standardized building forms whose structure is completely regularized, and whose appearance is the product as much of mass media as it is of architectural design, really hit home when our little band of tourists visited a model unit in one of the more upscale developments. Climbing through the concrete skeleton of an under-construction high-rise, we suddenly found ourselves in tightly packed rooms filled even more tightly with the most curious combination of period-style furniture I have seen in a long time.


Living room
Chandelier. Photos by Jan Wampler


In the main living room, which rose up to two rather low floors, an Empire chandelier lorded it over one Louis XIV sofa, one that seemed a bit more Biedermeier, and some overstuffed Victorian chairs. A replica of the "discus thrower" sat high on a pedestal Italian marble, and an array of colors and textures filled every inch of the wall.


Other rooms tended towards French provincial, or towards the English country house the sales agent claimed was the real look they were trying to achieve—except that crown moldings, marble pilasters and thick carpets cut through what you would think should be a sylvan and sparse environment.

Living Room


If there was any particular tone, it was that of a mid-19th century attempt to mix and match the “Louis styles" with a more reductive classical framework covered with as many different materials as possible. It was to the “Style Rothschild” as Long Wall wine is to Mouton Cadet. Most of it was well-crafted, and correct within itself, but none of it matched, and the transitions were at times painful. The effect was of abundant, synthetic, and syncretic luxury that cocooned you with all the wealth that half a millennium of Western design had developed. China was far away, beyond the plate glass windows and the reach of air conditioning, but present in the dissonance of importation.




Here is what worried me more than that lack of rootedness, which is common to newly rich communities everywhere: The outside of the buildings were truly horrid, while the interiors were a mess, but highly crafted. It was as if the inherent vice of Western building practices, in which we give back to the shared realm the worst of non-design, while filling the private realm with ever too much, had reached a kind of delirious zenith. This is the future of architecture or, rather, of development practice and interior design. In-between, all else will disappear.




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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.