Freedom of expression – China's design criteria

18 December 2015

Since President Xi Jinping railed against the proliferation of ‘weird architecture’ in October 2014, the freedom of foreign architectural firms to pursue their singular design priorities has come under increased scrutiny. A year on, Greg Noone talks to Ma Yansong, the founder of MAD Architects, and Patrik Schumacher, director at Zaha Hadid Architects, about how the firms perceive the future of urban planning in China.

"I don't have the slightest difficulty in saying, or showing, or demonstrating, that CCTV is a very serious building," said a somewhat defensive Rem Koolhaas, in an interview in November 2014. Koolhaas was responding to a statement that the president of China had made to the effect that Beijing, and the country at large, should refrain from commissioning more of what he termed 'weird architecture'.

In so doing, he had singled out Koolhaas's headquarters for China Central Television in Beijing, a building intended to resemble an angular loop but nicknamed 'big boxer shorts' - and worse - by local residents. Since its construction, the project has sat at the centre of a stormy debate among architects, politicians and ordinary citizens as to the future course of Chinese urban development, as well as becoming a lightning rod for those critical of the vast influence that foreign architectural firms have hitherto wielded in that landscape. In that sense, its construction - as well as that of similarly unorthodox-looking commercial projects, like the Lotus Building in Wujin and the Guangzhou Circle - has become an embarrassing example of the excess that has characterised the economic boom of the past 30 years.

Design priorities

Despite his comments only having been published on the website of the People's Daily for a couple of hours before being deleted, Xi's views - delivered in the forbidding setting of an official symposium on arts, and within a wider speech on the proper role they should play within society - had a profound, almost immediate impact on the planning process for major new urban developments in China.

In December 2015, The New York Times reported that senior officials within the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development had held several meetings to classify new planning rules that would restrict the proliferation of 'weird architecture'. Beijing Deputy Mayor Chen Gang was quoted as saying that the city would "implement necessary rules on the size, style, colour, form, shape and materials of buildings".

Further down the food chain, international firms like Zaha Hadid Architects soon began to feel a commensurate squeeze on their relative freedom to design and act independently within China, in contrast to national firms. Responsible for striking projects like Galaxy SOHO, the Guangzhou Opera House and the Beijing New Airport Terminal Building, the firm had been associated more than most with the seeming pre-eminence of international architects in realising China's landmarks. However, as its second-in-command Patrik Schumacher recalls, the signs of such restriction were already in the offing before the president decided to throw down the gauntlet.

"We first came across this change in attitudes in our bid to design the National Museum in Beijing," recalls Schumacher. The rules of the competition mandated that any international firm participating had to partner with an equivalent Chinese counterpart. "We'd already found a local partner anyway, but then they changed the rules of the competition, and had Chinese and international firms competing separately. Even then, the shortlist that emerged only consisted of foreign designers. And in the end, the contract went to Jean Nouvel. What was interesting there was that we saw that, first of all, the agenda of 'Chinese-ness' was very prominent. But they thought maybe a world-class institution still required an international leader to design it, which is a curious tension."

Further down the food chain, international firms like Zaha Hadid Architects soon began to feel a commensurate squeeze on their relative freedom to design and act independently within China, in contrast to national firms.

After Xi's comments, demands from developers and planning authorities that the firm's designs be altered began to ramp up. "When the announcement came out, we felt addressed," says Schumacher. "We had a tower under development in the south of Beijing. After the announcement, we were encouraged by the local planning authority to 'tone down its iconicity', as it were."

Schumacher is keen to emphasise that he did not perceive undue pressure on the local planning bureau from central government, and that in the end they were happy to incorporate the suggestions since they did not alter the atrium that formed the centrepiece of the design. Nevertheless, it was perceived that "a kind of sensibility shift" had occurred. Not that Schumacher believes this has necessarily excluded Zaha Hadid Architects from future projects, which is demonstrated in the firm's recent winning bid to build the Beijing New Airport Terminal Building.

"Our overall style is parametricism, which centres on the idea of an adaptive organic differentiation of the nestling and embedding of a building into a context," he says. In that sense, despite some of their projects being singled out as precisely what Xi was arguing against, the firm's work is in fact perfectly compatible with his broader vision of architecture rooted in a specifically Chinese narrative. "So we are quite happy to give our product that local affiliation and also that cultural identification, while of course not veering into nostalgia."

Nevertheless, Schumacher feels compelled to defend the design of the CCTV building against its critics. "I would say it is something that has a coherent logic and motivation," he says. "It makes a lot of sense as a twin tower that reconnects on the podium and on top again, becoming more of a networked condition. It contains really exciting spaces and more internal connectivity than, for instance, you would be able to have in a usual tower."

Back to the land

"I think Rem Koolhaas's intention behind the CCTV building was to try to challenge the typical high-rise, which is usually only vertical and distinguishes itself through its height," says Ma Yansong. "And I think that's a good idea. It doesn't explain, though, why this building has to be angled and has to look so strong. I think for most people, the key element they got from this building is that it's a gigantic monster."

Yansong is one of China's leading avant-garde architects. His work on the Ordos Museum in Inner Mongolia, the Absolute Towers in Ontario and the Harbin Opera House has won him and his firm MAD Architects praise from national and international quarters. A former alumnus of Zaha Hadid Architects himself, his projects have drawn comparisons to those of the international firm for their sweeping lines and often striking contrasts to their locality. However, unlike Schumacher, Yansong feels his work as still lying on the margins of Chinese architectural orthodoxy.

Yansong is one of China's leading avant-garde architects. His work on the Ordos Museum in Inner Mongolia, the Absolute Towers in Ontario and the Harbin Opera House has won him and his firm MAD Architects praise from national and international quarters.

"I think the whole modernisation process China has undergone in the past 30 years was basically a process of Westernisation," says Yansong. "It's very similar to what took place in Japan throughout the '50s and '60s. Unlike the Japanese, however, we had a cultural revolution that wiped out a lot of understanding of our history and broader traditions. The continuity was broken, and I think we need to spend a lot of time trying to re-engage with how some of that older thinking could inspire modern development."

Yansong's own design principles were largely shaped by upbringing in the hutongs of Beijing, a maze of gardens and courtyards that form the remnants of the old city. "Beijing was built in a very flat area," explains Yansong. "The landscape was and is very dry. When the old empire decided to build their capital there, they transformed the entire area. They constructed the Forbidden City, but they also dug lakes, formed islands and built a small hill. And then they built a residential area in this landscape.

"So people lived in a garden," he adds. "Nature and urban life could co-exist, and in a way I grew up in this environment. It made me think that modern architecture can do the same. To build for an urban environment in this way is, I think, a core value within Chinese culture." Practically speaking, Ma's vision has been realised in projects including Chaoyang Park Plaza, a set of twin residential skyscrapers inspired by mountain ranges, and more powerful expression in his concept of a 'floating city' above Beijing consisting of gardens, theatres and an artificial lake resting atop giant pillars.

Yansong is among a growing cohort of prize-winning Chinese architects emphasising the need for urban design to be rooted in local context. Yung Ho Chang, the founder of China's first private architectural firm in 1993, expressed to ArchDaily his desire for natural influences to play a more prominent role in national design priorities. Wang Shu, recipient of the Pritzker Prize, was cited by that award's jury as having won because of his ability to push the boundaries of modern architecture in his enthusiasm to design buildings that are suffused in historical memory.

The approaches of these architects implicitly reject the notion of architecture in China being defined by singular landmark projects. Yansong, meanwhile, is more explicit in his criticism. "I think Chinese cities still need to adopt an experimental approach to urban design, but it needs to be rooted in architectural theory, research and the context of the locality," he says. "We have ended up with projects that look like the White House in Washington DC, wine bottles, even basketballs. And these buildings might seem funny initially, but by and large they become symbols of excess and therefore in very bad taste."

Yansong is more optimistic about the next generation of Chinese-born architects, however; those draughtsmen and women who have bypassed the city for inspiration altogether and headed for the smaller towns and villages of the interior. "When this group of architects move their focus to larger, urban issues, then there'll be a big change I think," predicts Yansong. "The present state of urban planning is quite conventional, and these are independent architects who regard themselves as intellectuals standing apart from the system."

Whether this is what Xi precisely envisioned for the future of Chinese architecture is open to debate. What is more certain is that the period where the relevance of a design is equated largely with its distinctiveness of shape or form within a largely uniform urban environment is reaching the end of its life. It seems, instead, that something a lot deeper is being sought, a reach towards the older philosophies of a time before the boom, before the opening to the world, before the beginning of the Chinese state as it exists today. Perhaps, it seems, before the city itself.

The Beijing New Airport Terminal Building will be “extremely user-focused, efficient, addable and sustainable for future growth to serve the world’s fastest-growing aviation sector”, according to Zaha Hadid Architects.
Guangzhou Opera House by Zaha Hadid Architects is a structure that rises and falls at the foot of Zhujiang Boulevar.
MAD Architects’ Harbin Opera House is the focal point of the Cultural Island.

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