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    The role of culture in shaping cities

2004-05-19 06:21

The country's thriving urbanization, which began in the 1990s, has brought delight to Chinese-American architect and businessman James Jao in his quest to fulfill what he sees as his mission in China.

Day in and day out, Jao is busy shuffling between cities, seeking to realize his dream of creating a unique architectural style that combines features of both Western and Eastern design.

"Chinese clients, developers and city officials are too eager to build these days," said Jao. "But the golden rule in design is that good dishes require a longer cooking time."

China gave the world the Great Wall, flying eaves, screens and other architectural innovations. Yet that was centuries ago.

At this time, Chinese developers and clients are more drawn to Western than to traditional Chinese architectural styles, preferring to climb on board current international trends.

Jao says that for some of his clients Chinese style seems to carry the stigma of the past - a past that they seem not very proud of.

"We, as American-trained architects in China, are trying to fuse the two styles as much as possible - with a Western look on the outside but a Chinese feel to the interior decoration," said Jao, whose company has been involved in many garden, office and residential projects in China over the past 10 years.

He boasted his home in Beijing is a perfect example, as it has all the amenities and conveniences of Western architecture design, but incorporates many Chinese antiques and paintings in its interior decoration.

As Jao and many industry insiders point out, China is the only place in the world where talented architects have the opportunity to experiment with their design ideas because of the booming economy and real estate market.

About 40 per cent of the nation's 1.3 billion people live in 660 cities and around 20,000 towns, and the government has decided to increase urbanization at the rate of 1 per cent annually.

In the wake of the 1990s building boom, nearly all the cities of the country are once again in a state of architectural ferment. Many big cities, including Beijing, plan to become major world metropolises in the future. Late last year, Yao Bing, a senior official with the Ministry of Construction said that up to 182 of the country's 660 cities have claimed they are planning to build themselves into "international metropolises," or "cosmopolises."

Even smaller cities have expressed their ambition to join the big leagues, such as Fuyang, in East China's Anhui Province, which has dreams of overtaking the provincial capital of Hefei and catching up with Shanghai.

Regardless of whether it is possible to have so many Parises, Londons or New York cities in China, such ambitions are bringing about opportunities.

Governments and developers are tearing down old-fashioned buildings and going for the concrete blocks and chrome and glass towers that herald cities' embrace of modernization.

So, for some of the world's top architects, the country offers incomparable opportunities. Topping the roster of architectural stars who are drumming up business in China are fabled Western architecture firms like the famous Pei family, which designed the Bank of China's new Beijing headquarters. Renowned French designer Paul Anderu created Beijing's new National Grand Theatre, which is now taking shape on the western side of Tian'anmen Square next to the Great Hall of the People.

Then there are the huge firms. Skidmore Owens & Merrill, which practically invented the skyscraper, branding skylines around the world with its distinctive towers for several decades, has done a repeat in Shanghai's Pudong Area, with China's tallest building, the US$540-million, 88-storey Jin Mao Building.

"China is like a fresh source of vitality," 66-year-old German Meinhard von Gerkan once said. The German architect's concepts for planned communities are under consideration by the officials of several Chinese cities. "Europe is all finished," he says. "Here you have the freedom to build."

Architecture shapes the appearance of a nation's cities and its international image.

During the past two decades of rapid economic growth, many problems have arisen in China's urban expansion and renovation. A large number of high-cost and tasteless buildings have punctuated the skylines of many cities.

Zhang Zugang, president of the Architectural Society of China, mourned the disappearance of some historical buildings in Beijing and expressed concern over some of the new high-rises in the ancient capital.

"But new cities all look the same. Their original ancient feel has been destroyed. Traditional architectural styles are ignored," Zhang said.

He said the authorities should learn from other countries to avoid repeating their mistakes. He urged greater attention to urban planning, protecting the city's cultural traditions, including the colour of the buildings.

"We must not allow the developers to do what they want, filling our cities with gaudy edifices," Zhang said.

Zhang's call has been echoed by other experts and architects, who are concerned about the increasing inflow of Western ideas in architectural design.

"The construction mania has left thousands of nondescript modern buildings all over the country, which detract from or even destroy historical sites and original city layouts," said Zhu Bingren, a traditional brass sculptor from East China's Hangzhou, a city famed for its picturesque West Lake.

Zhu hopes to initiate a nationwide drive to be called the "New Culture Heritage Campaign" to promote traditional architecture.

"Some cities blindly pursue foreign-style buildings while others are obsessed with imitating ancient Chinese architecture only to attract tourists. Both tendencies are fraught with dangers," said Zhu.

Zhu believes that responsible planners should design structures that embody both genuine local features and a modern spirit, and should not rush blindly into the real estate race.

"It's our responsibility to leave something which will be treasured and regarded as a legacy to be proud of by future generations."

James Jao said that good style and good taste will take time to develop, and emphasized that patience and the education of clients are essential.

"I. M. Pei always told me to choose my clients more carefully than my projects, as there will be many changes during the construction process."

Jao says there are more sophisticated clients in China now than before, but he still thinks the architectural design industry in China is short on talent and taste.

Jao agrees with Zhu's push to preserve traditional Chinese architecture but emphasizes that one must first define the essence of traditional design before deciding what should be preserved.

"Unlike American and European culture, Chinese culture has a very long and mixed history and it will be a complicated and demanding task to set architectural priorities that will ensure the preservation of designs elements that embody the best values of the culture," said Jao.

Jao said in the United States anything over 35 years is considered worth preserving. "We must define what is worthy of preservation and what is not. Otherwise, we may blindly block modern development."

As China is evolving rapidly, more excellent design projects such as the new CCTV building design and the Beijing Olympic Stadium should be encouraged. "There are still too many developers who don't understand that time and money must be spent if you are going to develop a good design concept," said Jao.

Ma Guoxin, chief architect with the Beijing Architectural Design Institute, seems more optimistic. He believes there is no cause to fear that Chinese aesthetics will be crowded out in the rush to modernize.

"The foreign 'invasion' will help domestic architects and planners learn new techniques, leading to cross-fertilization and, ultimately, the emergence of a modern Chinese architectural style," Ma said.

"With the help of traditional Chinese disciplines - such as the relationship between man and nature - we can turn Western concepts into something uniquely Chinese."

Jao said Ma's insights help explain the prosperity of his (Jao) business in this country full of opportunities.

(China Daily 05/19/2004 page5)