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Growing pains of Beijing architecture
By Kevin Holden (Beijing Weekend)
Updated: 2005-06-29 10:37

The city of Beijing wakes from a short slumber. It shakes off yesterday's dust and immediately braces for impact.

An army of workers salute and in real time architects, designers and demolition troops swivel in for another round of expansions. They are battling against time and space and they are winning.

"China is building at hyper-speed" in an effort to keep up with the lightning-paced march of its peasants into the cities, says Neville Mars, a Dutch architect who set up the Dynamic City Foundation to study China's record-breaking race toward urbanization.

Dynamic City co-founder Saskia Vendel agrees, citing that 38 percent of China's 1.3 billion populace now live in the cities, but this number is likely to at least double, or triple, by 2020.

"China has to build an entirely new country in terms of urban living space," says Mars.

This means China's architectural landscape has the potential to change more over the next two decades than it did during two millennia of imperial rule.

Looking Back to See the Future

Archeologists say that China developed fluted, wing-tipped roofs and raised-platform palaces similar to those in the Forbidden City as far back as the Shang Dynasty [1750-1040 BC].

For centuries, China's advanced architecture, along with its writing system and Confucian philosophy, rippled out across Asia.

But during the Cultural Revolution, 1966-76, China declared war on its past: Across the country Confucian halls were burned down, Buddhist temples were razed and imperial city walls were torn apart brick by brick.

Architects, researchers and artists scattered across China are now trying to salvage remnants of the past, says Shanghai Museum curator Li Chaoyuan.

"The more deeply we understand ancient Chinese civilization, the better we can construct an enlightened future," says Li.

The Shanghai Museum's design, which features a circular roof above a rectangular base, is at the cutting edge of Chinese architecture, but also symbolizes the union of heaven and earth in a modern echo of centuries-old Chinese temples.

The design of Beijing's Millennium Art Museum similarly incorporates dynasties-old icons, but these attempts to breathe new life into China's architectural past are the exception to the rule. For the overwhelming majority of Chinese architects, form is only a faade to be pasted onto a building that functions - and as quickly as possible.

Cookie-Cutter Architecture

China's limited reserves of architects and Big-Bang-like explosion of its cities are forcing building designers to work harder and faster than their Western counterparts. Rem Koolhaas, a renowned architect and expert on the expansion of mega-cities worldwide, says that south China, Guangzhou, Dongguan, Zhuhai, Shenzhen and Hong Kong will see their population triple to 36 million as they form a megalopolis over the next 15 years.

This city of cities is being created by Chinese "architects who design the largest volume in the shortest time for the lowest fee (an efficiency 2,500 times that of an American architect)," says Koolhaas, whose designs include Beijing's brave new "twisted donut" CCTV tower. China's construction boom is producing architects who use laptops to quickly cut and paste buildings into existence - some in only two days.

"Photoshop allows us to make collages of photographs - this is the essence of [China's] architectural and urban planning," says Koolhaas. "Design today becomes as easy as Photoshop, even on the scale of a city."

As Shenzhen was Photoshopped into existence, its population skyrocketed from nearly zero to over three million in just 15 years. China's Minister of Civil Affairs has proposed building at least 20 new cities like Shenzhen each year until 2020.

Sky Wars

If Chinese cities from Guangzhou to Chengdu continue to expand at the current pace, living space will become incredibly dense. As developers build ever-higher and ever-closer, they could trigger "sky wars": the rich and powerful competing for sunlight and sky-views by moving to the highest buildings or those that are - temporarily - on the city's always-expanding edge.

Conversely, the proletariat in China's mega-cities - those stuck on low-level floors or at the densely packed core of construction - will face ever-shrinking skylines.

For this reason Neville Mars founded Dynamic City in an effort to combat what he calls "the present dream and the future nightmare" of people-packed mega-cities in China.

"Most big-name architects in China now - including Rem Koolhaas with his CCTV tower and Paul Andreu with the National Theatre - are designing high-prestige monuments rather than space for the common people," says Mars. Indeed, the march of cloned buildings for the Chinese masses seems to gain speed second by second.

Yet there are signs the architectural times may be turning away from carbon copy buildings to a more diverse architectural future.

A Look Forward

Chinese artists-turned-architects are gaining the limelight with blueprints for Beijing's futuristic Olympic Stadium or cool interiors for Shanghai's Bund waterfront, and could be forerunners of a new class of Chinese "renaissance designers."

Qinghua University, which holds one of China's top architecture schools, is now merging with an art school, and will require architecture students to take a spectrum of art courses. Schools across the nation could follow suit, numbering the days of Chinese schools churning out assembly-line architects.

Recently, a few promising architects have emerged from artistic backgrounds to rebel against China's mundane architectural future, with strong opinions on Western influence and visions of a more exciting China. They dream of delivering China from an architectural death by boredom to a future full of unique constructions that the world will envy. Meet the architects who are breaking the mold:

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