Architects in China should be creative without being ‘weird’
Government is right to clamp down on unorthodox, sometimes impractical, buildings that are going up across the country
Architecture ought to be an inclusive process of engagement with society, politics and the bureaucracy, as well as with the client. That way, whether a project is public or private, the environment, functionality and the views of those affected are taken into account. But mainland architects have had little time for it as they keep up with the construction demands of China’s urbanisation.
The result is to be found in buildings that are unorthodox, impractical and fail to meet public or city needs, often at huge cost to the taxpayer. President Xi Jinping (習近平 ) has described it as “weird” architecture and called for an end to it. His view has just been echoed by the State Council in an urban blueprint that calls for an end to “oversized, xenocentric and weird buildings” devoid of character or cultural heritage, that have sprung up in urban areas. It called instead for urban design to be suitable, economic, green and pleasing to the eye. That is a touch subjective – what one person likes, another may not. But it would discourage two main types of weird building in China: copies of famous examples from elsewhere in the world, and the experimental.
With the construction boom over the past two decades, the number of architecture graduates and the scale of activity means they may be designing a new building every few weeks. Often they simply copy blueprints, which is why many city buildings end up looking the same. Adding to the problem, China has become a testing ground for top overseas architects to try new ideas, resulting in some strange designs.
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There is a place for creativity, even in government buildings, subject to informed engagement with stakeholders and the guardians of public finances. Experiments should not be funded by taxpayers. Ultimately it is about openness and accountability in the choice of design and expenditure. That said, China does have internationally recognised architecture, such as the Bird’s Nest former Olympic stadium, the opera house and even the CCTV building, despite its nickname of “big underpants”.