THERE IS AN OLD Chinese tale about an architect and a cricket. The architect is given one day to design the Forbidden City's guard towers or be executed. Facing imminent death, he awakes the next morning to find that his pet cricket has drawn a beautiful design on his wall, inspired by his small cage. The emperor finds it so good that he spares the architect's life and commissions the towers, which stand to this day. Many visitors to the mainland today might wish for that cricket's return. 'Architecture [today in China] is seen as a Mercedes car or a Louis Vuitton bag,' said Chang Yungho, the mainland's best-known architect and chair of the graduate architecture programme at Peking University. 'It's commodified.' From the shiny skyscrapers to the more peculiar concoctions that look like French chateaux or Greek temples, contemporary architecture in China often leaves something to be desired. For centuries, architects in China were considered craftsmen, no different from a carpenter. The notion of an architectural profession, in the western sense, did not take hold until the early 1900s. However, it is in the days since that many of the blights on the mainland's built landscape were erected, begging the question: what happened to Chinese design along the way? It was in the early 20th century that an influx of American architects came to China and introduced a western-inspired design education system. Curricula were heavily influenced by the classical syllabi commonly found in the late 19th century at schools like the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Its methods - known as 'Beaux-Arts' - had long held a strong sway over American design academics. Many young Chinese architects initially went to study in the US and returned to set up Beaux-Arts architectural programmes at Tsinghua University (Beijing), Tongji University (Shanghai), Nanjing Southeast University and Tianjin University. While adopting western methods, builders were still employing Chinese flourishes, creating styles like the 'Chinese art deco' found in Tianjin and Shanghai. The result was a well-dressed architecture befitting of its time, but it was firmly western in terms of form, style and function. It had little to do with local traditions. However, by the 1930s, Beaux-Arts training had become yesterday's news at those same American campuses that had hosted the Chinese architects. The western schools were in the throes of a mini-cultural revolution that resulted in the embrace of the radical ideas of the Bauhaus movement. Beaux-Arts was tossed aside and replaced by modernism, an industrial architecture that rejected symmetry and flashiness. The architecture faculties in China never got the news. 'Even when I entered school, we were greatly influenced by Beaux Arts and the former Soviet Union,' said Professor Shan Jun, at Tsinghua's School of Architecture. This process intensified when universities were closed during the Cultural Revolution. Like the larger society, architectural programmes became frozen in time. 'We couldn't talk about ideas, which means we couldn't talk about architecture,' Professor Chang recalled, when he enrolled in 1978 at Nanjing's Southeast University. But when the mainland began to open up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, its design faculties experienced a frenzied upheaval. By the next year - 1979 - Professor Chang says, the atmosphere was different. Copious information suddenly poured in, and students were exposed to the work of Mies van der Rohe, one of the fathers of the modernist movement, and of Frank Lloyd Wright, the American architectural giant who had died 20 years earlier as he finished his last building, the Guggenheim Museum in New York. 'And by 1980, we learned these guys were passe,' Professor Chang said. Within three years, China's architecture schools had come full circle, from Beaux-Arts, to modernists to those who rejected modernism, mimicking a process that took more than 50 years in the west. The whole way of looking at architecture was turned upside down in no time at all. Since then, many in China's design faculties claim the country's architecture schools have come a long way thanks in large part to increased international contact. Gradually more and more faculty went abroad for their education; today, 80 per cent of Tsinghua's architectural faculty were educated outside the mainland. Professor Shan highlights programmes such as a design studio professors led on site in Las Vegas. Professors at Tsinghua also say exchanges that bring students and academics from universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are further proof that the quality of education has improved. MIT recently named Professor Chang as the chair of its architecture department starting this autumn. Many see this as a living testament to just how far Chinese architecture has come. Still, Professor Chang claimed: 'China's old schools never abandoned their old methods.' There still existed a Beaux-Arts residue that has a dated vision of what role buildings and architects must play in larger society. Deep down, 'they still see buildings as objects', he said. The did not approach them with a more holistic outlook that considers issues of sustainability and the appropriateness of a building's design given its context, purpose and traditions. 'Many clients express the need to show off through architecture, focusing only on the composition of the outside.' This inclination may go a long way to explain the Disney-esque fantasyland that many of the mainland's cities have become. Even though the tenor of architectural education in China is improving, it still seems to not have bridged the gap between the profession and the marketplace. 'There is little desire for the architect to challenge the client,' Professor Chang said, 'this is the fault of the education system.' As young architects go into the workforce, they are further faced with demanding pressures, deadlines and expectations. A project that might take three months from invitation to schematic design elsewhere could often be given just a few days here. They face onerous client pressures to deliver quick results, and many of them must do so by drawing on skills that are underdeveloped because of their schooling. There are some glimmers of hope. Innovative architectural programmes are in the embryonic stages at schools like Peking University and the China Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou. A new generation like Beijing-based architects Professor Chang, Qi Xin and Zhu Pei, is beginning to receive exciting commissions, even from the occasional corporate client. 'Still, the schools here have to tackle the questions at the core of architecture,' noted Professor Chang. These include the adoption of a more deliberate design process that begins with architects embracing a greater sense of self-importance. Attention should not focus on a few shining projects here and there, he said, but on the need 'to raise the average bar of architecture'. To do so will probably require a clean break with the rigidity they inherited a century ago from the Beaux-Arts. Moreover, the marketplace would have to be more receptive to allowing architects to create a language of their own, one that embraces the beauty of Chinese craftsmanship in a way that is relevant in the 21st century. After decades of isolation and lost time, the profession seems to have had little time to mature before being suddenly thrown into the grips of a dramatic construction wave. What contemporary architecture in China probably needs most is some time to breathe. 'It's another great leap forward,' Professor Shan said, 'We don't have the time to think, we just build.'