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Foreign Devils?

Sustainable design is a relatively new concept in China, but some things about doing business in the country never change. Understanding the culture is still paramount.

Daly attributes his firm’s success on the mainland to this respect for the country’s culture, plus his decades-long experience of working here. Unfortunately, some foreign architects in China have been accused of lacking this cultural understanding.

Domestic observers have criticized foreign architects working in China, saying they use China as a trial space for controversial designs.

One well-known critic, architect Peng Peigen, a professor at Tsinghua University, is on record as saying: “They’re [foreigners] using China as their new weapons testing zone. The stupid things they build could never be built in their own countries, in this life, the last life or the next.”

A commonly held opinion, often expressed in vitriol on the country’s micro-blogging service, Weibo, is that these projects lack any consideration for domestic architectural traditions. By ignoring the built environment around their projects, foreigners are creating eyesores, critics say.

Foreign firms point out that they won design competitions for these projects that Chinese firms were free to enter, and that cashed-up Chinese firms want brand-recognition and media coverage – bang for the architecture bucks.

But this shock-and-awe architecture may be on the way out as Chinese firms get better at designing buildings that Westerners can’t – identifiably Chinese projects in greater harmony with traditional Chinese aesthetics.

Back to Roots

“Ten years ago, foreign architects in China were given a blank slate to chisel their dreams. Nowadays, local firms are still interested in absorbing Western technical expertise, but the focus is on indigenizing design,” says Peter Schubert, a partner at Ennead Architects, an award-winning New York City design studio with a presence in China.

“There’s only so much you can do with skyscrapers. They’re a modern –Western, I should say – concept: a symbol of monetary success. But it’s hard to build unique features into them that represent a culture. Now, as China sets about building its new wave of cultural developments – museums, universities, research centers, mixed-use corporate campuses and civic spaces, there’s room for the local culture to shine through,” he says.

One Chinese architect who has gained an international reputation for his efforts to bring an indigenous aesthetic to domestic architectural design is Wang Shu. Wang won this year’s Prizker Prize – known as the “Nobel Prize of Architecture,” becoming the first Chinese citizen to do so.

Some of Wang’s notable designs, which are all in China, include the stunning Ningbo Contemporary Art Museum and Xiangshan campus of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, where he salvaged two million tiles from demolished traditional houses to cover the roofs of campus buildings. Wang also designed the library of Suzhou University’s Wenzheng College to be half-underground so as to take into account Suzhou gardening traditions that suggest buildings located between water and mountains shouldn’t be prominent.

Indigenized design is now being championed thanks to trailblazers like Wang, but that doesn’t equate to a wholesale rejection of Western aesthetics, says Peter Schubert. “As people get richer, they have more time to spend on leisure activities. Civic spaces and walkable communities become more important, and citizens want that mix of corporate, retail, residential and outdoor spaces that makes city life exciting,” he says.

Europe and American architects should have something to offer in creating mixed-use buildings and especially in the design of urban spaces, Schubert argues.

“If you look at Europe, the spaces in front of buildings were traditionally very important – the squares, piazzas, parks and so on. In China, ‘wall culture’ meant that it was the spaces inside – the courtyards and inner sanctums – that were the focus. Over the next decade in China I think we’ll see more spaces built for street life beyond the walls. U.S. and European firms have expertise in helping that life blossom. In Shanghai, the European architectural overlays in the city mean it’s already happening there.”

“It’s all about improving the living standards of China’s urbanites,” Schubert says. That seems like a goal on which foreign and local architects can work together.

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VOL.59 NO.12 December 2010 Advertise on Site Contact Us