Oh, to be in, um, China!

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Poster celebrating first anniversary of Mao’s Yangtze swim in 1956. (chineseposters.net)

It seems the People’s Republic of China has finally followed through on its maximum leader’s threat a year and a half ago to bar goofiness from its architecture. I penned a post, “Xi a Chinese visionary?” expressing my pleasure, or at least my astonishment, but stopped short of exulting with hosannahs at the possibility that Beijing might host the next Renaissance. But here is a passage from CNN’s report of the new regulations:

On Sunday, China’s State Council released new urban planning guidelines. According to the document, “odd-shaped” buildings – or “bizarre architecture that is not economical, functional, aesthetically pleasing or environmentally friendly” would be forbidden in the future. The document follows a 2014 call by Chinese President Xi Jinping for less “weird architecture” to be built.

Buildings are henceforth to be designed so as to better reflect Chinese culture. Imagine that!

“Architects can be creative within constraints,” says James Shen, a founder of the People’s Architecture Office, in Beijing, who adds, “It’s not having enough constraints that causes problems.” Working within constraints was key to beauty in classical architecture over centuries, even millennia, before the anything-goes design era began about a century ago. Since then, warped definitions of creativity have caused most architects to eschew innovation that lifts the virtue of artistic methods to ever higher levels in favor of innovation that strikes an attitude that lasts a few years – or minutes.

Of course, Western architects and their camp followers are crying in their beer. “Is this the end of ambitious Chinese architecture?” wail CNN’s Matt Rivers and Stephy Chung, who prove in “Future Chinese Skylines Could Look More Uniform” that they do not understand the very idea of creativity.

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Their story says, “The golden People’s Daily headquarters has also been made fun of. Midway through construction, a doctored photo of the phallic building superimposed under the CCTV’s ‘pants’ went viral.”

Two things that are not in the story should be mentioned. First, the “phallic” newspaper headquarters is not just phallic (most tall buildings are phallic); it literally looks like a penis. And, of the CCTV building, it is never ever asserted that, while it arguably looks like “Big Pants,” the big pants look very clearly to be in the act of Stomping on the People. Dollars to doughnuts the architect, notwithstanding his reputation, was not being subversive. Quoth the masses: Thank you, Rem Koolhaas!

Chinese architecture, like China’s government, has bigger problems than the definition of creativity, and some of the new regulations appear unlikely to solve them. But to celebrate the admittedly modest promise represented by this new Cultural Revolution we’d gladly swim across the Yangtze River.

Off with our Mao caps to Dan Morales for sending this tidbit along to TradArch.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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