China bans novel archivirus

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CCTV headquarters (center right), in Beijing, known as Big Pants. Or is it stomping on the people?

The People’s Republic of China, taking time off from other matters, has issued a decree banning copies of foreign design in its architecture. The decree, as described in the BBC’s “China ‘copycat’ buildings: Government clamps down on foreign imitations,” also bars “weird” design, which was already banned in 2016, and limits building heights to 500 meters (or 1,640 feet). The decree calls for “a ‘new era’ of architecture to ‘strengthen cultural confidence, show the city’s features, exhibit the contemporary spirit, and display Chinese characteristics.'” The BBC adds:

The statement, issued on 27 April but only reported this week, singles out stadiums, exhibition centres, museums and theatres as public facilities where it’s especially important to ban plagiarism.

According to the Global Times, the “fake, shoddy versions” of foreign buildings appear in “many third and fourth-tier Chinese cities.” The government did not say what will happen to existing “foreign” buildings, but does say there will be “city inspections” to check for problems.

“City constructions are the combination of a city’s external image and internal spirit, revealing a city’s culture,” the government statement says. It was unclear how rigorously the decree would be enforced. It was also unclear how architects are supposed to interpret the language of the decree.

One wonders what kind of design would exhibit the contemporary spirit while displaying Chinese characteristics. Doesn’t almost all recent Chinese architecture copy some sort of modern architecture built elsewhere in the world? How would clients and designers manage under a regime in which copying global modernism is banned? China’s architects are encouraged by the decree to “show the city’s features”; how is it even possible to design a building that does not show the city’s features? Any new building becomes a feature of the city automatically, and cannot do otherwise. At this point, does anyone still know which architectural features are characteristic of a Chinese city and which are not?

Perhaps the real intent is to put a stop to districts taken directly, often almost literally (though with little competence), from European cities such as Paris and London. No doubt their popularity embarrasses China’s architectural apparat. Perhaps the decree is intended to jumpstart a new era of copying the past of Chinese architecture – that is, to reverse decades of canceling China’s culture, such as the hutong alleyways that were demolished to make way for the Chinese Olympic Games in 2008. Maybe the cultural heritage of the Middle Kingdom can be resuscitated in time for the Chinese Olympic Games planned for 2022. Not holding my breath.

(Here is a 2013 BBC article with photos of copycat historical architecture inspired by European tourist meccas. Here’s another, by insider.com, from last year. Here is a 2006 piece from the UK Telegraph on the removal of the historic hutong alleyway neighborhoods in Beijing, including some right near the Forbidden City. But here is another piece, from a 2018 edition of the Urban Land Institute‘s newsletter, that reports on an effort to preserve one of Beijing’s few remaining hutongs.)

The photo atop this post includes the China Central Television headquarters, designed by starchitect Rem Koolhaas and popularly known as Big Pants. To me (as I’ve said at least a million times) it looks like Big Pants is stomping on the Chinese people. Supposedly it cannot be copied. But maybe I am missing the point. Perhaps the new decree seeks a sort of mau-mauing of pre-existing reality, in which the Chinese state seeks to rediscombobulate “weird” design as a feature of contemporary Chinese character.

It may be that a novel twist on Chinese cultural bat guano is about to escape from the lab. Let’s hope the Chinese do a better job of containing it this time.

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Thames Town, in Shanghai.

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, 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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4 Responses to China bans novel archivirus

  1. Pingback: Krier on living communities | Architecture Here and There

  2. Pingback: Et slags Gulag-samfunn – LeveVeg

  3. LazyReader says:

    Translation: China spent the last 20 years copying the west, We’re not impressed by anything except the speed at which it’s built. People don’t realize the skyscraper is destined for obsolesence, they’re not built to accommodate the boom and bust cycles of real estate. This is best summed up in places like Dubai where highrise construction has broke record pace, yet they’re virtually empty. What do you expect when the heat where it costs as much as 1,000 a month just to air condition your condo and they’ve saturated the market with too many highrises.

    China too has built too many highrises. At 128 stories, the Shanghai tower in Shanghai is the 2nd tallest building in the world, despite this the building is a commercial failure. For one the buildings sheer height (2073 feet) in order to gain fire/safety certification the bureaurcratic red tape took years. Tenants were reluctant to move into a building that wasn’t officially certified as…….Safe.
    Two, the buildings twisting drill bit shaped facade produced a floor plan that’s not particularly efficient. With only half the floor space practical for use.

    China is building whole cities for a populace that cant afford them, cause a third of their economy is state sponsored construction which is ridiculous even thou China has a billion people their population density is not high, prior to the 90’s they were still very rural people. All this construction is resource use for resource use sake. For thousands of years the pyramids at Giza and temples in Asia were some the tallest man made structure in the world; So I guess the Middle east and China is building glittering highrises to recapture that glory and to hopefully attract people to reassure them not to fear the hazards of radical Islam and communism. And China is doing it cause to not to means sending millions of Chinese either back to the collectivist farms or the Nike factories.

    China was building these Copies to take tourist money, Chinese tourists were flocking US and Europe. Now they built all this so tourists can visit facsimiles without it’s citizenry leaving the enclave. This is Not a new phenomena either. In the 1700s the Qingling emperor commissioned European architects to design European style palace complexes. By proxy, showcasing their economic superiority; they’ve copied Europe/West’s most cherished architectural achievements — the literal halls of power for their use. This is the new world order made visual. But we’re not impressed by this……………..namely because in the long run they have to maintain it. And now we see it falling apart. Combine top down legal authority for approval of all projects with a propensity of contractor corruption and shoddy quality construction. Buildings falling apart in China are common Youtube videos. The point being China can build all the stuff it wants, in the long run they have to maintain it. From 2004-2008 China spent more on infrastructure in real terms than the whole of the 20th century. And that’s gonna come back to bite them in the future. Buildings are being constructed in China basically to fall down and be built again. Most of the buildings going up now in China have lifetimes of just 20 to 30 years, essentially rendering cities virtually disposable.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. leveveg says:

    Finally the research of the excellent Chinese Professor Dr. Bin Jiang is carrying fruits:-)

    – Special Issue “New Applications and Development of Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order”: https://www.mdpi.com/journal/urbansci/special_issues/new_applications_development_nature_order

    Like

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