Changing cities in China

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Shanghai away from its center-city supertowers. (Paulson Institute)

Over a half century or so, China has changed from a largely rural to a largely urban country. The communists had brutal power and used it brutally, a sort of cultural revolution without the violence. China went from cities of small streets stitching together networks of courtyard houses to superblocks on the Corbusier model. Streets went from a lane or two clogged with bicycles to eight or ten lanes clogged with cars. Smog stank up the place, sickened the population, and you couldn’t see much of anything, not that in the New Red China there was much worth seeing.

This situation only grew worse after China decided that it must copy Western capitalism in its infatuation with Western celebrity architects. Beijing’s CCTV headquarters, for example, is designed by Rem Koolhaas, and looks as if it is stomping on the people. In a clear effort to deflect the obvious power of that authoritarian metaphor, they gave the building a cute moniker, Big Pants.

And we’ve all heard about new Chinese cities that are built but not yet occupied.

Now the Chinese seem to be undergoing yet another massive social about- face. Now they desire to at least pretend to be setting a green agenda for their economy. They realize that superblocks and superhighways cause pollution and stultify the mobility of goods and services. So with the signature of a authoritarian edict, China is again trying to do the exact opposite of what it was doing five minutes ago, on a massive scale.

And this, one must suppose, is good. The soft total state is surely preferable to the hard total state, assuming the trains still run on time. Beijing has hired Peter Calthorpe, the leading advocate in America of transit-oriented design, to help China flip from unlivable to livable urbanism. He has been surprised at how open the government has been to planning concepts that take people into account and leave a smaller carbon footprint.

Calthorpe discussed “China’s new agenda” in an interview with the Future of Places Research Network. After answering questions about China’s new green policies and its more sensible urbanism, Calthorpe fielded a question on its shift in architecture:

Q: The government is calling for architecture that preserves Chinese culture—an apparent about-face from the radical designs seen in cities like Beijing. What brought about this change in mentality?

They’ve come to realize that they’ve been destroying their identity and cultural continuity as well as the environment. In a way, we did the same thing in the U.S. when urban renewal gutted our cities in the ’50s and ’60s. We didn’t have historic preservation laws. Piece by piece, great historic buildings came down. In China, the superstar architecture world was wreaking havoc with buildings that looked like they were flown in from outer space. Now, the government is saying [to] focus more on durability, function, and energy efficiency. To modern architects it is controversial, ambiguous, and challenging — to find an architecture that relates to place and climate rather than image.

Q: Do you consider yourself an anti-modernist?

I am for modern architecture, but I want it to be historically, culturally, and environmentally connected to its place. The construction quality and materials in China are such that buildings barely last 30 years. The government is now basically saying, “Let’s make buildings that stand the test of time.”

Good luck with that! If Calthorpe can get that kind of modernism from actual modernists, let’s not hesitate to notify the Nobel Prize committee. Last year, “odd-shaped” buildings were forbidden by edict. (See “Oh to be in, um, China!“) Maybe the Chinese will ramp up their program of copying Western tourist attractions. Not that there’s anything wrong about providing the public with urbanism it likes, even at second hand. It would be interesting to hear what Calthorpe has to say about Chinese “copy the past” cities. Maybe China will decide, under its new agenda, to copy its own past.

Still, all chuckling aside, this is good, and combined with recent news from Steven Semes about change afoot in the American preservation movement (see “News for preservationists“) maybe the future for us all is not so bleak.

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, 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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