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Towering Ambition

Regulating the Rise

Between the transient architecture of the blue-and-white shed and the trophy architecture of Koolhaas, there's a vast middle ground. If the former symbolizes the country's refreshing and sometimes terrifying willingness to make and remake its landscape, and the latter suggests the power of its ambition and determination to compete on the world stage, the middle ground seems to belong to forces beyond anyone's control. It is a frenetic, chaotic, often frustrating world, where the great torrents of China's economic miracle are channeled through a maze of unpredictability and regulation. For better and worse, the architects working in this space are building the China that China will have to live with.

Teh Kon Hu, whose firm is based in Kansas City but does extensive work in China, remembers when construction on an axle plant he had designed simply came to a stop -- at harvest time.

"There's no way you can stop it," he says. "All the workers disappear. And when they came back three weeks later, 200 of the 400 workers were different."

Johannes Dell, who runs the Shanghai office of AS&P architects, puts it more bluntly: "When you catapult a peasant from a rice paddy to the 81st floor and say you should install a suspended ceiling, this is what happens." By "this" he means sloppy work, something lamented by almost every architect in China who doesn't have access to the resources of a Rem Koolhaas or a Herzog & de Meuron. Sleek, modernist structures often suffer the most. Look closely at a generic concrete, glass and steel box in China and you see lines of bad rivets, cracks in the concrete, misaligned moldings and flashings, and holes where they shouldn't be.

There is also a shifting landscape of government regulation. Li Hu, a partner in Steven Holl Architects, a prominent American firm with several projects underway in China, remembers an instance in which the exterior wall of a building had to be redesigned midway through the project when the government mandated more functional windows. He also says it is difficult to persuade government regulators to accept state-of-the-art engineering ideas that are common in the West. There is, paradoxically, a huge interest in cutting-edge architecture, and an official culture that requires buildings to be unnecessarily overengineered and overbuilt.

"There is a lack of a sense of trust that is common throughout China," Hu says.

Even as China hurtles headlong into the age of ruthless capitalism, building regulation is a quiet, behind-the-scenes vestigial holdout of social engineering. Distances between buildings are tightly controlled, sometimes resulting in what would seem (to American urbanists) like unwanted dead spaces in the urban fabric and often jagged or irrational frontage on streets. There is also a law that forbids new structures to blot out the sun from older residential buildings. No apartment can receive less than two hours of sun on the shortest day of the year, says Jun Xia, design director for Gensler architects in Shanghai. The consequences of this seemingly basic rule are so complex that there is special software to deal with it.

And then there is the perpetual change in Chinese government, especially in the provinces where bureaucrats move up the ladder to better posts every few years. Smaller cities -- and in China that means cities of only a few million inhabitants -- are the crucible of edgy new work, especially for Chinese architects who often lose to Western architects for the trophy projects in places such as Beijing and Shanghai. But ambitious political figures who sponsor progressive new architecture -- and you find it in the most unlikely places -- may only be around for a few years. If a project can't be pushed through to conclusion during their tenure, it may well be dropped after new leadership comes in. So there is a perpetual sense of urgency -- and a lot of unmaterialized work.

There is a dark side to all of this, as well -- a dark side much discussed after the massive earthquake in Sichuan province last month. The need for speed, combined with the perpetual migration of workers, leads to sloppy construction. The cost of steel results in a tendency to scrimp on reinforced concrete, which can have fatal consequences. Regulation, no matter how well intended, is only as good as its enforcement, and the quality of enforcement has two essential variables: the distance from the central government in Beijing, and the degree of corruption in the locality.

The demand for new architects has also strained the educational system that produces them. Fifty years ago, there were fewer than two dozen architecture programs in China. Today, according to Bao Jiasheng, an architect who is also vice president of the National Board of Architectural Accreditation, there are 183. (In the United States there are 129, according to the American Institute of Architects.) And that doesn't include an unknown number of unaccredited programs that operate on what would be a community college level in the United States. The professionalism of architects emerging from those programs is unknown.

'Beijing 2050'

In a roomful of young architecture students at Nanjing University, the uncertain future of Chinese architecture is obvious. They are fluent in all the current trends, interested in building small and modest and "green." They are conversant with the latest projects of glamorous architects such as Koolhaas. They are also up on their theory, and cite Kenneth Frampton, with enthusiasm. Frampton, an English architect, has been particularly concerned with how regional cultures can harvest new ideas from the globalized style of the last century.

That is the essential problem of architecture in this tremendously dynamic country. "What is Chinese architecture?" may be a stupid question, but it certainly haunts the minds of the country's younger generation of architects. They are deeply concerned that what they build be Chinese, even if only in a vaguely "spiritual" sense. They respect the native forms -- the upturned gables, the courtyards and walls of rammed earth -- but there's little sense that these offer much direction for a new Chinese architecture in our globalized age.

In an old neighborhood in Beijing, at well after 9 p.m. on a weekday, the office of an architecture firm called MAD is still buzzing. Founded by Yansong Ma, a U.S.-educated architect whose star is rapidly rising, MAD has the bohemian feel and energy of any young, up-and-coming firm anywhere in the world. Yet it also has an enormous amount of work -- major buildings throughout the country. Its architects also like to make statements, provoke, propose ideas in competition that are meant to agitate the status quo. On the wall is a rendering for what they call "Beijing 2050," a futurist vision of the city center a half-century from now.

It is a peculiar future, however. Although the project includes some decidedly futurist elements, central Beijing hasn't been transformed into some unrecognizable forest of avant-garde shapes. Rather, it's been covered in green. Tiananmen Square is a forest, and Paul Andreu's egg has been covered by a little hillock of trees in a pool of water. The image exudes a calm, an organic peacefulness, at odds with everything around it: the city, the country and MAD's own daring and often biomorphic building designs. "Beijing 2050" is a vision of the future in which the mistakes have been covered over, the city has calmed down, nature has returned and some kind of spiritual equilibrium has been achieved.

It's a lovely vision -- and young American architects can only envy the practical experience that even the most esoteric firms are gaining in China. But most architects in China will never dream these kinds of dreams. They will emerge from architecture schools and go straight into the state-affiliated design institutes that do the heavy lifting of architecture. They will work for years in a system that resembles medical internship in this country -- small pay for huge amounts of work, with the credit taken by their superiors. They will design factories and apartment complexes and shopping centers, with little more creative input than one has pressing the button on a photocopying machine. They will further a profound transformation of their country, with virtually no influence on its direction. If they remember pondering the question "What is Chinese architecture?" from their student days, it will be a distant memory. They will be too busy building to think about such things.


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