Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
This new book helps English-speaking travelers and architecture enthusiasts find the projects that best exemplify the country’s post-Mao landscape.
Between 2011 and 2013, China used more cement than the United States did during the entire 20th century. It’s a mind-blowing statistic that only begins to put into perspective just how much the country has grown since its post-Mao economic reforms. Modern skylines have sprouted in old cities, and new cities have been built from scratch. With all these changes, visitors—and locals—could use an architecture guidebook to help get the lay of the land.
With a focus on the country’s best examples of state-supported growth, Architectural Guide: China by Evan Chakroff, Addison Godel, and Jacqueline Gargus takes readers on a 388-page building tour divided into 11 cities, each one with a helpful introduction and summaries of noteworthy buildings.
Photos and blurbs for each project are accompanied by GPS coordinates as well as a QR code that takes you to a map to use during your travels. It’s still a rewarding read for architecture enthusiasts at home with its thoughtful essays on the art, politics, and commerce behind China’s history and current building culture.
While reforms have lifted half a billion people out of poverty around the country since 1978, the authoritarian government still maintains an atrocious human rights record, creating a moral conflict that some international architects grapple with before before accepting projects in China. Many have chosen to see their work (at least publicly) as an opportunity to push the country towards becoming a freer society through ambitious design—a concept perhaps best exemplified by CCTV’s new headquarters in Beijing.
Referred to by some locals the “Big Shorts” thanks to its shape, the project allowed OMA’s founder Rem Koolhaas to pursue his long publicized dream of creating a new type of skyscraper. Completed in 2012, its two towers are anchored by a common base and a 245-foot cantilever, making it an unmistakable landmark in the capital city and a design that will likely endure as a symbol of early-21st century China.
A more exciting chapter of architecture is emerging as the country begins to establish its own crop of native firms. Highlighted in the guide’s essay on modernity, public spaces by Ai Weiwei and buildings by Pei Zhu and Liu Jiakun may not receive a lot of western press, but they’re some of the boldest and most intelligent additions to urban China of late. Architectural Guide: China will surely need an update sooner rather than later.
Architectural Guide: China, $59.95 at DOM Publishers