China’s place as a leader in cultivating creative architecture may be waning. President Xi Jinping offered a glimpse of coming changes in 2014 when he criticized “weird architecture” such as the CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, known to locals as “big pants.”
More recently, the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the State Council released a guideline for urban planning and architecture on February 21. According to China Daily, the document forbids “bizarre architecture that is not economical, functional, aesthetically pleasing or environmentally friendly.”
A subjective description, to be sure, that could include the Beijing National Aquatics Center, also known as The Water Cube. Designed by Sydney-based PTW for the 2008 Olympics, the Water Cube continues to garner accolades. The project has recently been selected as an IAKS All-Time Award Winner by the International Association for Sport and Leisure Facilities.
Rich with innovation and unconventional in appearance, does the Water Cube represent great design, or is it an example of how architecture in China has gone too far? Many would say it fits the former description, but criticism of “bizarre” architecture is also legitimate. The desire of local officials to claim some of the spotlight for their cities by building the most grandiose structures has been cited often, not to mention the corruption that has accompanied many projects.
A further concern is the potential for the recent edict to disadvantage foreign firms in favor of Chinese firms that have a stronger connection to “traditional” Chinese architecture. Is this a protectionist measure in disguise? Do the ruling powers in China want to ditch “weird architecture” for a return to past glories?
China has been the architect’s playground for two decades, and it can be disquieting to consider the country changing tack, especially with a “nostalgic” movement. President Xi Jinping’s own words may tell us what’s coming.
"Fine art works should be like sunshine from the blue sky and the breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles," he said.
Australian architecture firms have successfully operated in China since the 1980s and have produced some signature projects.
“There are currently over 80 Australian Architectural Studios active and over 300 that have won work in China," noted the Australian Trade Commission. "More than 1000 Australian architects have worked in the market for Australian, foreign and Chinese design institutes.”
Other “bizarre” buildings that might not receive approval under the new edict include some of the best-known in China:
The Bird’s Nest
Beijing National Stadium, popularly known as the “Bird’s Nest,” was constructed for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Located at the Olympic Green near the Water Cube, the stadium has received great acclaim.
Architecture critic Paul Goldberger, writing in The New Yorker, said the Water Cube and Bird’s Nest “are as innovative as any architecture on the planet, marvels of imagination and engineering that few countries would have the nerve or the money to attempt.”
The stadium was a joint project among the Swiss firm of Herzog & de Meuron, project architect Stefan Marbach, Chinese firm CADG, and artist Ai Weiwei.
The China Central TV Headquarters, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren of OMA, is a 234-metre, 44-storey structure in the central business district of Beijing. The building won the award for 2013 Best Tall Building Worldwide from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.
Though some have mocked the design, referring to the building as “big pants,” or a woman on her hands and knees, others have marveled at the project. Critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, writing in The New York Times, called the structure “one of the most beguiling and powerful works I’ve seen in a lifetime of looking at architecture.” Ouroussoff also recognized the power of the project in helping Beijing advance.
“No building has since done more to burnish the reputation of Beijing as a city of the future than Koolhaas’s,” he noted.
The Sheraton Huzhou Hot Springs Resort
This dazzling structure opened in 2013 as part of the Sheraton Hot Spring Resort. Designed by Ma Yansong of Beijing studio MAD, the structure contains 319 guest rooms and 83 suites, and spans 27 storeys. Its unique shape and placement on the edge of Taihu Lake give a dramatic feel and inspire nicknames such as “horseshoe hotel” and “doughnut hotel.”