China's cityscapes are being shaped by some of the most innovative and futuristic design to be found anywhere in the world. Is this a new architectural utopia? Perhaps not
There is an old Chinese saying that goes something along the lines of 'if the old doesn't go, the new won't come'. In a country where the urban skyline is festooned with tower cranes and vast building sites operate around the clock, that means an awful lot of old has vanished. For in China, the arrival of the new is relentless as investment pours into the country's major financial centres of Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong. Global exports are soaring, and social, industrial and economic reforms are creating exploding urban populations.
To the western observer, this new China appears to be shaped by an ongoing procession of internationally renowned architects, each clutching plans for extraordinary structures. For the most part, this new architecture need not care about context, historical or otherwise, because demolition is the panacea to the demand for more space and true modernity demands a blank slate. Beijing, in particular, is a city of eggs awaiting a clutch of architectural omelettes, with whole districts razed for redevelopment. And why not? From a western perspective, China represents a colossal opportunity, the physical manifestation of architectural ideas that, until now, had only found their expression in elaborate computer-generated imagery or in small, bespoke projects.
Just one year after the 2008 Olympics was awarded to Beijing, the China Central Television HQ, or CCTV, was commissioned from Dutch practice OMA. In architectural circles, CCTV remains the best-known megaproject in the new China, a multi-faceted 'skyscraper loop' that embraces structural complexity. At 49 storeys, CCTV is a true skyscraper, yet it also subverts the traditional expectation of a vertical building, with twin columns rising up and joining in an arch-like form at the top. It also represents Rem Koolhaas at his most politically obtuse, in a direct engagement with a complex and deservedly criticised regime in order to realise long-held architectural ambitions, according to his critics.
For Koolhaas, the CCTV tower and the Chinese architectural scene in general represent the opposite of what he refers to as 'architecture's lethal slowness' in the recent OMA monograph Content. The building's seven-year gestation (it is due for completion in 2009) is not necessarily any quicker than a similar project might take in the West, but the client's singular commitment to the initial form and programme is in stark contrast to the mutating silhouette of, say, the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site in New York. The impression is of a country rapidly reshaping itself into the sleek metropolis of Modernist legend, cityscapes that were theorised and projected but which were never actually delivered.
Along with CCTV, Beijing has a new national theatre by French architect Paul Andreu, a gigantic silvery blob afloat in its own lake. Andreu's design is perhaps the most self-consciously iconic of all the new works emerging on Chinese soil, its form having little bearing on its function, its primary purpose being to communicate grandeur and epic scale. Similarly ambitious is the National Swimming Centre, also known as the Water Cube, by PTW Architects. A square enclosure for the aquatic events of the 2008 Olympics, the Water Cube's façade is a mass of plastic bubbles, a carefully devised structural system that uses the natural formation of cells and water bubbles to create a translucent, apparently random effect. Beijing also plays host to the complex explosion of steel and concrete that is the National Stadium. There is little doubt that Herzog & de Meuron's Olympics venue, by virtue of its sheer scale and the bravura nature of its steel-framed design, will be hailed as one of the most original and striking buildings of the young century.
Perhaps we should be thankful for the handful of mega-projects. All these projects have been tracked for years, creating little oohs and aahs of architectural delight as they emerge physically similar to the computer-generated imagery that preceded them. If nothing else, China in the second decade of the 21st century, alongside other state-sponsored excursions into architectural fantasy-land like those underway in the Middle East, represents a triumph of utopian imagery in the creation of buildings that transcend local economic and social conditions to present a new form of reality.
This dream-like architecture is also represented in projects by local architects like Studio Pei-Zhu's competition-winning Digital Beijing building, a structure located close to the National Stadium, designed as the control and data center for the Olympics. At the end of the games, it will be refitted as a virtual museum and an exhibition centre for manufacturers of digital products. Other key Chinese firms like SOHO China have overseen an aesthetic revolution, importing conventional definitions of 'modernity' into a local context. SOHO China's Commune by the Great Wall development is a boutique hotel comprising 12 modest but modern houses by 12 high-profile Asian architects.
Ultimately, however, the perception of China as an architectural paradise is rather disingenuous. For all the hype and lavish renderings reproduced in the global architectural press, the reality is that a significant proportion of new building in China is of sub-standard quality and questionable aesthetics. For every famous architect's project, there is a host of works by anonymous international megapractices and idiosyncratic projects by Chinese firms. Many of these are slavish imitations of western style, filtered through the lens of a hypertrophic economy. Shanghai's unwieldy business district, for example, is a forest of post-modernist towers reflected in the mirrored glass façades of late-period international style, looming over endless new suburbs.
China's last five decades have seen near-constant revolution: paradigm-shifting social changes that, under Mao, destroyed a generation of urban intellectuals by 'returning' them to rural isolation. The despotic policies of the Cultural Revolution are now being reversed, as fishing villages erupt into container ports and urban conurbations expand at an exponential rate. Despite the media projection of perfect thrusting modernity, China's building boom is manifesting itself in other, not so futuristic, ways. No less carefully composed than the Commune by the Great Wall is Thames Town, one of nine new suburbs rising up around Shanghai in flagrant imitation of European town-planning idealism. Thames Town is the most naked expression of architectural revivalism, an ersatz Home Counties town complete with wedding chapel, village green, terraced-style housing and retailers specialising in internationally-popular British exports like football shirts and Scotch whisky.
Albert Speer and Partners' Anting New Town, otherwise known as International Automobile City, a 50-square-kilometre conurbation with a Formula 1 track and a Volkswagen factory, follows a similar pattern of themed development. Commentators have noted how each of these new towns has taken on international characteristics, British, German, Italian, or even Swedish, the case in Luodian, a small-scale suburb with sustainable pretensions. Such excursions into rampant theatricality are the logical extension of the collision between modern architecture and the mass market. The perceived demands of industry and commerce are shaping the new China. The role of the country's new towns, with their origins in the benign progressive socialism of shattered post-war Europe, is to unify and compartmentalise. They represent a carefully measured mixture of incentives and controls to keep a nascent consumer society in check. It's an ongoing project: some suggest the country needs around 400 new towns before 2020 to cater for rural migrants.
For the most part, our perception of the new China will continue to be through the true megastructures and signature projects, spearheaded by the Olympics. Visitors to the games will file through Foster and Partners' Beijing Airport, the world's largest airport building. Designed to accommodate a projected throughput of 53 million passengers per year by 2015, Beijing will immediately become one of the world's top ten busiest airports. Foster's team is making much of the airport's environmental credentials, and one can only hope that the building boom as a whole is paying more than lip-service to the concept of sustainability. Projects like the Dongtan Eco-city, overseen by engineering and architectural firm Arup, are intended to take the sting out of wholesale urbanisation. Dongtan, 'three quarters the size of Manhattan', is intended to have its own combined heat and power system as well as other renewables. Recycling will be widespread, transport systems will favour cycling and pedestrians, while buildings will be low-rise and low in energy consumption. On a smaller scale, Steven Holl's Linked Hybrid structure in Beijing attempts to create a city within a city, a self-contained unit that recreates an ad hoc mix of stores, markets, cafés and homes, high above the streets (a building form that fell out of favour many decades ago in the West).
There are paradoxes here. China cannot expect to raise living standards to Western levels without similarly huge rises in energy consumption; 80% of the country's electricity is generated from heavily polluting coal, and new power stations are opening every week. Car use is rising, as western manufacturers and local firms enter the market and the automobile gains currency as a major status symbol. It's tempting to see architecture in a similar vein; big names equate to big status, with the leading western players giving fast-growing cities a sheen of modernity and progressiveness that would have been unthinkable in the old, closed-system China of just a decade ago. The fierce ambitions of the new China will attract envy and attention for years to come. It will take longer to establish whether these foundations are really as utopian as they might seem.