Excitement about the speed of development in China is nothing new. Since the 1990s, China has built more shopping malls, hotels, office buildings, housing estates, golf courses and theme parks than any other country in the world. However, the jury is out on whether the structures that make up this architectural explosion actually look any good. Architect and photographer Kris Provoost’s new book, Beautified China: The Architectural Revolution, is an interesting addition to the fevered debate about urbanisation and the quality of architecture in China. Provoost has lived variously in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong in the past nine years and his book captures a series of iconic buildings from cities around China. The glossy photos are accompanied by five punchy essays written by architects, commentators and academics. Following a recent review of its planning guidelines, China’s regulations on architectural education and urban design now seek to “prevent a biased focus on a building’s outer appearance”. One consequence has been that many Chinese local administrations have had to reassess what tangible qualities their cities possess and the value of the urban experience. What makes a city attractive? What makes its architecture noteworthy? What makes a place beautiful? It is to these fundamental questions that the images and think pieces in this book are addressed. Martijn de Geus, co-founder of architecture firm Maison H in Beijing, says that this is not a “pompous pseudoscientific book” but reflects “how Kris sees China; rather than about what China is”. Provoost’s photographs capture a range of famous buildings in extreme close-up, from Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Station by Aedas to Beijing’s Wangjing Soho by Zaha Hadid Architects . The images are decontextualised – that is, the photographed buildings seldom relate to their surroundings, and it is clear that Provoost is attempting to reflect the scale at which people encounter these buildings. Indeed, out of the 118 photographs in the book, there are very few that provide any street view or sense of scale. Li Shiqiao, author of Understanding the Chinese City and an academic, describes the images as “visually engaging, but a bit mysterious”. They are “isolated details [and] we are not informed by the book about the buildings – there are no plans, no contextual images, no data”. Provoost says that the photos are primarily celebrations of certain colours, patterns, shapes and volumes, and he describes them as providing “a purified look at the architecture in China”. Many of these photographs look skywards; we never see the whole structure, implying that many of these huge iconic structures cannot be conceived in totality. We crane our necks alongside the photographer at the height of NBBJ’s Tencent Seafront Towers in Shenzhen; we appreciate the tectonic qualities of Buro Ole Scheeren ’s Guardian Art Centre in Beijing. Through Provoost’s lens these buildings become a mere abstraction, best expressed in the almost incomprehensible exterior complexity at the Morpheus Hotel at City of Dreams in Macau, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects. Chinese architects are … moving away from iconic architecture Kris Provoost From UN Studio’s Raffles City in Hangzhou to Bernard Tschumi Architects’ Binhai Science Museum in Tianjin, Provoost admits that “the majority of projects in this book are by Western architects”. Many are a blizzard of acronyms such as OMA, SOM, KPF and MVRDV. “But many projects are actually designed by Chinese architects who don’t get the credit they deserve,” Provoost explains. This is partly because, for the 10-year span of work and the 78 buildings that this book represents, “China was looking for icons”. Since 2010, many Western designers have flooded into China to take advantage of its architectural gold rush. While Provoost believes that “Chinese architects are … moving away from iconic architecture”, Chris Hardie, the Shanghai-based design director of Danish architects Schmidt Hammer Lassen, suggests that, for many Chinese officials, architecture is still one of the most visible ways to showcase whether a developing city is worthy of attention. In some ways, this book is a response to the question of whether architecture plays the role of a commodity, a brand, an object or a tool for development. Equally, we might ask whether an appreciation of these architectural photographs is purely subjective, or are they beautiful in their own right? The jury may still be out on whether these architectural projects are any good, but here we are allowed to appreciate them on our own terms.