Wang Shu, Anti-architect

August 13, 2012

China has made its position clear on how to develop new towns, cities, and campuses: hire expensive Western Starchitects to design prototype buildings and ensembles, then copy them ad infinitum until you have a Modernist nightmare. The 2008 Olympics set the tone, and Chinese have been complaining ever since.

Strange, then, that China’s only Pritzger laureate is Wang Shu, an architect who hates Western-style excess and lives in the middle of nowhere. Jane Perlez of the New York Times has visited him in Hangzhou, and observed that all of his buildings are “touched by old China” and that he “is an outlier in his profession.”

It’s hard not to like Mr. Wang, who with his wife Lu Wenyu runs a small studio with mainly part-time student help. He practices calligraphy like an old Chinese poet-scholar, and recycles all sorts of traditional building materials in his work. He drives an old station wagon and lives modestly. He took some time off to learn about traditional building craft from old masters. He is nothing like the high-flying darlings of the architectural media in the west.

Of course, once he won his Pritzger, Chinese officials embraced him as their new exemplar and Western academic architects claimed that he was solidly within the “modernist” camp that they espouse. That he finds both of their positions distasteful and hypocritical seems beside the point to the media. Brava to Ms. Perez for pointing some of this out in her article.

It’s hard to be a real revolutionary in a culture where everything is immediately consumed and labeled. Mr. Wang and Ms. Lu are clearly railing against the status quo in their quiet way. They are acutely aware of the effects of government corruption, land graft, and the alienation of Modernist urbanism. In a very real sense they are anti-architects, at least as the profession is currently practiced in China and almost everywhere else. Hurray for that.

The tragedy of lives lost in a fire is always hard to bear, but particularly so when the accident might have been averted. Beijing’s recent building fire adjacent to the CCTV tower was horrific, particularly in videos that have appeared on YouTube, but the interest in the blaze has gone beyond mere empathy for its victims (construction workers mainly, who were celebrating with fireworks). A number of commentators, both in China and the West, have asked questions about the architecture, and the famous architect, Rem Koolhaas, who designed both the hotel and the communications tower next door. Did hubris play a part in the blaze? Was this a bad omen? Would western starchitects be invited back to Beijing following the disaster? Was the building safe for its prospective occupants?

In a previous post about Chinese architecture and urbanism, I questioned the country’s choice of high-profile western designers who were hired, and given carte-blanche, to remake Beijing for the summer Olympics. The billions spent on showcase buildings, all with silly nicknames, seemed ridiculous last August, and seems even more shortsighted in today’s dismal economic climate. It appears from reports of the fire that the glamorous hotel in the CCTV complex might not be rebuilt, given the enormous cost involved and the severity of the destruction. The tragedy will lead reasonable people to question the wisdom of locating so many thousands of  workers in Koolhaas’s bizarre tower next door, which offers little safety against fires. Here is why: not only is the building tall at 75 stories, it twists in a strange cantilever, preventing people on many of the floors from getting to an exit. Occupants are literally hovering above the ground with no vertical circulation nearby for hundreds of offices. The speed of the destruction of the nearby hotel indicates just how vulnerable people would be were the larger building to catch fire. The World Trade Center catastrophe would pale by comparison.

When will architects and clients recognize the folly of such experimentation with building form? Following 9/11 many architects and engineers began to question the wisdom of constructing massive skyscrapers, given the near impossibility of evacuating them in large fires. Yet this did not stop egotistical builders in many Chinese cities from erecting towers over 50 stories, the limit of safe elevator egress. To those of us who care about the environment, the era of the skyscraper is over–energy concerns will drive builders to reconsider tall buildings as heating and cooling them becomes ever more difficult. An architect who pretends to care about cities and their residents, as Mr. Koolhaas does (and his hypocrisy shows here as elsewhere), has no business constructing such death traps.

Poetic justice? Ominous portent? The Chinese have followed omens for centuries, and there is no reason to doubt them now.

Bombast in Beijing

August 6, 2008

Architecture in China is the new focus of every critic and publication in the field. The New York Times has published a dozen or more stories on Beijing’s buildings in just the past month alone. Has anyone stopped to look critically at these monstrous, egotistical displays of conspicuous wealth, albeit made with Asian capital and vast consumption of the earth’s resources? I have yet to read a measured, truly thought-provoking piece in any publication, professional or popular, that even attempts to grapple with the consequences of this kind of building.

Most newly wealthy and powerful cultures choose to display their prowess with new buildings, so it’s no surprise that the Chinese stepped up with characteristic bravado and hired just about every “starchitect” in Europe and America to provide a monument in the capital city, each rushed to completion in time for the big moment in August 2008. The buildings now go by popular nicknames–not necessarily flattering ones–such as “the egg,” the “bird’s nest,” and the “mobius strip.” One thing you can say about all of them is that they were obscenely expensive to build, used vast energy resources, and stretched the limits of current technology. Many architecture critics believe that these are salutary characteristics; I don’t share their enthusiasm.

Though the new airport by Norman Foster and the Olympic Stadium by Herzog & de Meuron are undoubtedly fine monumental buildings, deserving of some of the praise doled out in such publications as the New Yorker, nothing built in Beijing during the recent boom has merited the awestruck admiration that characterizes most of the writing in the American and European press. Like the ill-conceived and now pilloried “Grand Projets” of Francois Mitterand in Paris, the new icons of Beijing will become rusting eyesores in the smog before the next decade is upon us. Indeed, most of the writing on these buildings has been biased toward praising Chinese economic power and technology, with little comment on the formal, social and cultural values embodied by such gargantuan construction projects. Do Westerners really cower under the bombastic gestures of the new Asia?

What is more disturbing  about the architectural coverage of the new Beijing is the awestruck acceptance of Chinese style urban “planning” as the new standard for how to build cities. The architects of Beijing, trained in modernist anti-urban strategies, have created a city modeled on Houston, Los Angeles or Dubai–but executed at an unprecedented scale. We are told by observers of this phenomenon–notably Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times–that we must accept this scary new megalopolis as a guide to what our cities will look like in the future. Why? The Times critic argues that China has seized the moment to experiment with new building types and technology, admitting that its urbanistic paradigms are borrowed from the 1920s (read the Ville Radieuse, the Bauhaus, and other avant gardes). As America and Europe contemplate downsizing for a newly energy-efficient and sustainable world, he encourages us to look to Chinese adventurousness as a way out of our doldrums.

Can we afford to think seriously about building at such a scale and such a cost with oil at $140 a barrel and the earth’s oceans rising under the threat of global warming? The Chinese have predictably flexed their cultural muscles with these pretentious and wasteful buildings at a time when media-obsessed western countries are all too willing to fawn over such posturing. As observers have noted about athletic training programs, the host country generally sees gold medal performances as roughly equivalent to cultural capital in other arenas–architecture, film, music, art. In this respect the 2008 Olympics are little different from the politically-charged games of the 20th century, and the regimes that supported them. Perhaps these new Olympic monuments will some day remind us of the folly of designing merely to proclaim economic and political prowess, just as the buildings of other regimes–Stalin’s USSR, Hitler’s Third Reich, Mussolini’s Rome–now stand as testaments to the hollow ideologies of their patrons. China is a world power with aspirations no less grand than other 20th century totalitarian regimes, albeit underpinned by capitalist free markets. Why should we expect more from a 21st century power?

One reason is that the earth is now in greater peril than at any time in the last century. As China spends its resources on new buildings and infrastructure, it necessarily sends a signal to the rest of the world about its attitudes toward sustaining the earth. In the limelight during the summer of 2008, China’s signals have been disquieting at best. Outside of the architectural press, probing journalists have begun to look beneath the hype. Isn’t it time for a harder look at the ideas that produced cities with a hundred square miles of 50-story towers and asphalt expressways, cultural centers surrounded by moats in a climate that evaporates water faster than the Mohave desert, and mixed-use residential projects that hoist swimming pools 30 stories in the air?