Project 211

Shaky foundations

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am


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In a second-floor office in the archi-tecture department of the mainland's most prestigious university, Professor Xu Weiguo sits contemplating the changes that have occurred since he enrolled here, in the first year that classes were resumed following the Cultural Revolution.

'Architecture and design stopped from 1966 to 1978,' explains the head of Tsinghua University's School of Architecture. 'The first professors back were educated in the UK, the USA and Russia. They brought knowledge of postmodernism, deconstructionism and other new styles.'

The school has expanded significantly - 1,100 students study here today - yet the mainland's reputation as an incubator of young, talented architects has barely grown over the past few decades; the country is still seen as being strong on engineers but weak on creative designers.

'As the quantity of architecture work increased from the end of the 1980s, many problems occurred in terms of designers not striving for higher quality,' says Xu. 'As long as it could be built, it was. But the situation is changing. Chinese architects are developing and maturing and good young architects are coming through.'

Not everyone is as optimistic.

'There is a reason why there are just a few domestically trained Chinese architects in the top ranks in China,' says Liu Xiaodu, principal architect at Shenzhen-headquartered architectural firm Urbanus. 'Tsinghua is great for solid technical training, but the best students must then go out to be exposed to Western styles and training.'

Liu and his two co-founders earned master's degrees at Tsinghua in the 1990s and taught at the school, before heading to the United States, to finish their education.

'If young students are aiming high, they need to go abroad. Three years practising in China and then go.'

Wang Shu, the first Chinese citizen to win a Pritzker Prize in the 'Nobel Prize of architecture's' 33-year history, has been equally critical of home-grown architects. While still at school, he wrote an essay titled The Crisis of Contemporary Chinese Architecture and during his thesis defence announced, 'China has an architect and a half. I'm one, and my teacher, Ji Kang, is the half.'

ON MAY 24, THE DAY before Wang's Pritzker award ceremony at the Great Hall of the People, a panel discussion was held at Beijing's National Convention Centre. Wang was among the speakers, who were asked to contemplate 'globalisation, localisation, challenge and innovation'.

'Architects now work in the context of globalisation,' he told his audience. 'This means global commercialisation and industrialisation. The world is being flooded by standardised buildings. Globalisation must be detrimental to cultural diversity.

'China is now almost a new country or a completely new country. We are unsure of our future and our tradition. We are just moving forward in confusion.'

Asked why he named his office Amateur Architecture Studio, Wang, who said he has wept for the grandeur the capital has lost - 'The old Beijing was so beautiful; even more beautiful than Paris' - replied: 'Many people say China's new cities look horrible. Professional architects churn out rubbish works. Unknown, non-professional masters ... produce the most beautiful works. I choose to go with them.'

The audience at the National Convention Centre heard from Pritzker laureates Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel and Glenn Murcutt, as well as Zhu Xiaodi, director of the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design - the biggest such institute in the world, with 1,500 architects under its wing.

'Many works by Chinese architects lack depth and character,' said Zhu, warning 'we may become victims' of globalisation.

Murcutt offered some words of advice: 'Globalisation flattens out culture. A timeless component in architecture is something that belongs to its culture. China needs to be careful in looking for its model.'

'THERE IS A DIFFERENCE in levels between top Chinese and top foreign architects,' says Xu. 'Foreign architects have done a lot more global projects and have a lot more experience. Only in the last few years have Chinese architects looked overseas. I think Chinese architects will win more international competitions [for building commissions] in the next 10 years.'

A floor above where Xu is sitting, groups of young architecture students are scattered among cramped computer workstations sketching building plans on digital design programs and on notebooks.

'Many thought Wang Shu didn't have what it takes to win the Pritzker Prize, but I think it proposes a new thinking, which is to pursue Chinese national culture,' says Xi Chongxiao, a petite, quiet-spoken 21-year-old tucked in a small cubicle with two other students. 'It's hard for Chinese architects to win commissions for foreign projects, but there are now Chinese architects working in foreign firms and foreign firms doing interesting projects in China, so we can learn from them.'

Nearby, 20-year-old Huang Haiyang is arguing over elaborate designs for a glass art gallery with a fellow student.

'Modern Chinese style is still growing, so it is an interesting time to be an architect in China,' he says. 'I may do an internship in a foreign firm but eventually I will come back to China. Foreign firms are a place to study and train, but not somewhere to work long term.'

Xu is quietly optimistic that some of his students will succeed, that a small handful will be recognised on the world stage along-side the likes of Wang, Ma Yansong and Shao Weiping (see following pages) and make a telling contribution to the nation's architec-tural future. He is, however, realistic.

'We need some architecture stars in China but not everyone can become one. It is important to lay the technical background because if we train all to become stars, most will fail.'

Perhaps surprisingly, the sheer amount of work being undertaken in China is seen as a barrier to the development of a distinct, inspiring modern Chinese style.

'The whole country is a construction site and that leaves building quality a big question. Also, foreigners are more interested in our markets than our architects,' says Liu. 'Chinese firms don't need to go in for international competitions so they don't try, but sooner or later they will have to start, and it will be a hard wake-up call for most.'

'Speed is a killer for architecture,' says MAD Architects' Ma. 'Design periods are very short in China. The Harbin Opera House we are currently working on; we haven't released the final designs because we haven't finalised the facade and the interior but the construction company has already laid the foundations.'

IN THE AFTERNOON of May 24, the panel discussion moved from the National Convention Centre to the auditorium of Tsinghua University. There, Wang told the assembled students: 'The current educational system can hardly produce outstanding architects. You have to engage in self-salvation through self-study.

'The most important thing is to have your own thinking.'