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China’s President calls for an end to “weird buildings”

November 5, 2014

The Chinese leader’s recent comments have the potential to affect the landscape of architectural practice worldwide, as China’s construction boom has created a catalyst for contemporary architecture, with many Western practices relying on the business of providing extravagant projects.

Above image: MAD Architects’ Shanshui City, a concept inspired by Chinese landscape paintings. Image Courtesy of MAD Architects.

The President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, has reportedly called for an end to the “weird buildings” being built in China, and particularly in the nation’s capital, Beijing. In a two-hour speech at a literary symposium in Beijing last week, Mr Xi expressed his views that art should serve the people and be morally inspiring, identifying architectural projects such as OMA’s CCTV Headquarters as the kind of building that should no longer be constructed in Beijing.

With China’s construction boom being one of the most talked about features of today’s architecture scene – and many a Western practice relying on their extravagant projects to prop up their studios – the Chinese leader’s comments have the potential to affect the landscape of architectural practice worldwide. But what is behind these sentiments?

The building has been nicknamed ‘Big Pants’ by the people of Beijing. Image © OMA / Philippe Ruault

 

Perhaps the most simple reading of Mr Xi’s pronouncement on architecture is that it is an extension of his mission to crack down on corruption and extravagance within the Chinese Government, having removed 51 officials from government as of August. Though high-profile and popular with the international press, CCTV Headquarters has been criticised for being a number of years late to complete (it was originally intended to be open for the 2008 Olympics), and has been nicknamed ‘Big Pants’, by locals thanks to its unusual shape.

In particular his statement that art should “inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles” seems to link art with moral purity, and it is this kind of attention-grabbing extravagance that Mr Xi perhaps wants to avoid, particularly in state-owned buildings such as CCTV.

Zaha Hadid’s Galaxy Soho has also been criticised for its impact on Beijing. Image © Iwan Baan

 

Another interpretation, offered by Wolfgang Georg Arlt in Forbes magazine, links Xi Jinping’s comments to architectural tourism, saying: “Chinese outbound tourists used to be impressed by futuristic buildings they encountered in places like Dubai and recently also London, but with more and more of such projects realised in Beijing… the pull factor of contemporary architecture for them is diminishing.”

Arlt also notes that the number of foreign tourists visiting Beijing has steadily declined in recent years, but while he concludes that ”maybe this argument will help to sustain future projects by world-class architects”, it could also have the opposite effect: perhaps Mr Xi realises that the draw of ‘weird architecture’ is not strong enough to sustain China’s tourism industry, and therefore not worth the financial and reputation risks it poses.

However, maybe the strongest interpretation is that Mr Xi’s comments on art reflect his tendency towards Chinese nationalism (part of what some people last year rather hastily referred to as Xi Jinping’s ‘Maoist turn’). The New York Times quotes one section of his speech where he says that Chinese art should “disseminate contemporary Chinese values, embody traditional Chinese culture and reflect Chinese people’s aesthetic pursuit”. It is not such a stretch to equate his criticisms of “weird buildings” with either Western architects or even simply a Western style of design, and his speech has reportedly been met by support on Chinese social media with people saying that “China is not foreigners’ test field.”

Wang Shu’s designs have been praised for their combination of Chinese and Modernist influences. Image Courtesy of Amateur Architecture Studio.

 

Previously it had been thought that Chinese culture was simply not strong enough to support its building boom without the help of foreign architects: in early 2012, Mr Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao wrote that “the international culture of the West is strong while we are weak”. However, mere months later, the Pritzker Prize was awarded to Wang Shu, the first time it had been awarded to an architect both born and working in China. Furthermore, Wang Shu has been noted for his Critical-Regionalist approach, combining Western modernism with traditional Chinese influences.

Wang Shu is currently being joined by a new generation of Chinese architects such as Ma Yansong of MAD Architects, whose Shanshui City concept is explicitly inspired by traditional Chinese painting. With this renewed interest in traditional inspirations for Chinese architecture, perhaps Mr Xi sees now as the time to take action on Hu Jintao’s call to “take forceful measures to be on guard and respond” to the “ideological struggle” between Chinese and Western culture.

In his provocation for ‘Absorbing Modernity’, this year’s national pavilion theme at the Venice Biennale, the designer of CCTV Headquarters Rem Koolhaas lamented the homogenisation of cities worldwide. Ironically, it seems he is the first to be caught in the backlash.

“Why China’s President Says ‘No More Weird Buildings’” by Rory Stott originally appeared on ArchDaily21 October 2014.

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