Towering Ambition

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 22, 2008


A few months ago, one of China's most outspoken and admired architects was asked to name the stupidest thing he's heard someone say about Chinese architecture. Speaking at a Columbia University conference, Qingyun Ma offered up a question rather than a statement: "What is Chinese architecture?"

He hates it when people ask that.

But how can you not ask it? Half of the construction in the world today is happening in China. Driven by a booming economy and a huge population migration to the country's cities, making new buildings is a round-the-clock, frantic, awe-inspiring national obsession. It is happening at such a rapid rate that young Chinese architects, even ones still finishing architecture degrees, have burgeoning portfolios of built projects -- while their counterparts in the West may spend the first two decades of their careers mulling the philosophical niceties of what it means to dwell. And given that Ma isn't just a prominent Chinese architect, but also dean of the architecture school at the University of Southern California, the question has a certain urgency. Whether they know it or not, young architects in China may already be learning to make Chinese architecture -- whatever that turns out to be.

Ma's exasperation, however, is understandable. Asking "What is Chinese architecture?" is a bit like asking "What is Western art?" There's too much to be considered. Western architects have flocked to China, where they can build projects on a scale that would be impossible almost anywhere else today. With the Olympics focusing world attention on Beijing, China can boast two new world-class athletic facilities and one soon-to-be-completed office tower that have set the standard for powerful, daring, jaw-dropping architecture -- all designed by blue-chip foreign firms. But it's not clear that what they're producing is Chinese architecture.

Nor is it easy to talk about the history of Chinese architecture. The red roofs and upturned gables that define its ancient buildings suggest a monumentality and permanence that many Chinese scholars believe is misleading. And throughout much of the last century, fraught with war and revolution and cultural violence, China basically checked out of the larger, international conversation about the built environment.

So the current building boom feels strangely alien, like an outside force with unknowable intentions, even to many Chinese who take pride in their country's economic growth. New mega-projects have thrust the country into the forefront of architectural innovation, while cheap construction puts a veneer of shabbiness on almost everything that isn't a government-backed super-project with a Western architect at the helm.

The question "What is Chinese architecture?" turns out to be another way of asking "What is China's future?" Is it a globalized vision of modernity? Are there nascent ideas yet to emerge that will transform the generic into something uniquely Chinese? Or will the sheer accumulation of mass -- the great, gray forests of new construction choked in smog and haze -- overwhelm all efforts to steer it in a sustainable, aesthetic and humane direction?

Very likely: all of the above.

Instant Icons

One thing is clear. When the Chinese government goes shopping for architecture, it doesn't just want name brands, it wants best in class.

Beijing is now dotted with stunning buildings. For the Olympics, the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron designed the new National Stadium, already an icon. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and partner Ole Scheeren of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (based in the Netherlands) are building the massive new China Central Television tower. Norman Foster, the Brit who designed the Hearst Tower in New York and the new glass-covered courtyard at the Old Patent Office Building in the District, has also designed the city's new airport, now the largest in the world, and it's beautiful enough to break through the cynicism and jitters of even the most jaded traveler.

With the appearance of these landscape-altering projects, the city once defined by the massive, squat, faceless architecture of the state is learning how to have an opinion on the subject of architecture. And this new, theatrical architecture is inviting Beijing to discover how we love buildings -- and how we hate them, too.

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