Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The country wants stricter building standards—and fewer teapot-shaped buildings and knockoff White Houses.
Some of China’s most eye-catching buildings can only be described as “weird”: A hotel made in the form of traditional gods, a teapot-shaped information center, and of course, the CCTV tower, nicknamed “Big Pants.” Then there’s the copycat architecture long popular in the country, including replicas of the Sphinx, the Eiffel Tower, and even the White House.
But the central government thinks country’s attraction to eccentric and grandiose buildings has gone too far. In a directive issued Sunday, the State Council of the People's Republic of China criticized the present state of urban architecture for lacking any signs of cultural heritage and for being “oversized,” “xenocentric,” and, yes, “weird.” It also called for future building projects to be “suitable, economic, green, and pleasing to the eye.”
The directive echoes criticisms that President Xi Jingping made in 2014 when he lambasted Chinese buildings shaped like doughnuts, trousers, and genitalia. "Fine art works should be like sunshine from the blue sky and the breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste, and clean up undesirable work styles," he said at the time.
Architecture has always been a way for China to flaunt its wealth and power. Take, for example, the Forbidden City, constructed during the Ming dynasty in the 15th century. With more than 900 buildings covering 720,000 square meters, it was reserved for emperors and other royalty. In more recent history, Beijing spent $480 million to create its 90,000-seat Bird’s Nest stadium as a symbol of its rising economic status. Built for the 2008 Olympics, it was meant to mesmerize the international community and earn China recognition as an emerging superpower. As National Geographic reported at the time, the stadium was only part of China’s $40-billion building spree during the two-week sporting event:
The buildings say that China is big and powerful, but also inventive, sophisticated, and open. Look at three of the most prominent new structures: One is a stadium that looks like a bird's nest, another an aquatic center that resembles a blue bubbly cube, a third an arts center in the form of an egg as big as a city block. Nests, eggs, and bubbles—a whimsical, approachable China.
Rarely are these buildings very practical. Years after the games, the Bird’s Nest stadium costs a whopping $11 million per year to maintain, and yet sits virtually empty. That’s a problem as China continues its rapid urbanization. First-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai are growing increasingly crowded as Chinese migrants—250 million by last count—leave the countryside in search of jobs and a better life there. But space is limited, rents are high, and many workers end up living underground, in bomb shelters and even sewers. The last thing China’s cities need are more splashy buildings that cater to foreign tastes rather than local needs.
The new directive stops short of outlining specific guidelines. But Wang Kai, vice president of the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design told The New York Times that form should follow function: “We shouldn’t go overboard in pursuit of appearances.”
Indeed, as the University of California, Berkeley, architecture professor Renee Chow argued in her 2015 book Changing Chinese Cities: The Potentials of Field Urbanism, urban development in China needs to shift away from “figures and objects.” By doing so, she writes, China has filled its skyline with recognizable but disconnected structures, and cities are “becoming a loose chain of buildings with swaths of wasted spaces between objects that are neither sustainable nor legible.” Instead, Chow pushes for “field urbanism”: Cities should modernize without losing sight of their traditional bearings, respond to its environment, and adapt to the needs of residents.
The rise of China’s strange-looking buildings shows a lack of confidence according to Du Xiaodong, an editor of the Beijing-based magazine Chinese Heritage. "China is not confident of its own designs, and people prefer to try something new," he told National Geographic. ”The results are disconnected from whatever's next door. And the newest building in the world sits next to some of the oldest, standing together like strangers."