Pods of forced civilization: The problem with China’s architectural boom

John Houghton-Brown

chinbuildingboomt 300x225 Pods of forced civilization: The problem with Chinas architectural boom

Photo by Chris Hopkinson

“China is undeniably growing. Driving North from Beijing, you can see miniature cities trying to spring up in the form of clusters of 25 storey residences in various stages of completion, etching civilization into the mountainous landscape. Presumably, occupation is a secondary thought in these suburbs, as there appears to be no commercial focal points, just buildings dropped in the valleys.” Chris Hopkinson, an English born architecture student, describes the rapid construction boom he has witnessed since moving to Beijing three months ago.

It’s a boom of epic proportions – construction on a scale which has taken a century to develop in the UK, completed in less than a decade. It has been said that the growth can be perceived in days.

Evidently an impressive transformation is taking place – creating a truly modern metropolis. However Mr Hopkinson alludes to an almost cancerous growth on the outskirts of the nation’s capital city, and states that new builds fail to represent Chinese culture and imagination. Building projects on the outskirts of the city are viewed on an individual basis, without context and appear to result in “grids of square buildings of equal height, in a square plot, with uniform facades”.

Mr Hopkinson believes that this leads to residents being unable to identify with where they live.

He adds: “Without identity, a sense of both personal and community pride is lost. Though the various posters that are up around the city advertising new developments present them in a nice, clean, friendly and liveable condition, the architectural production they depict seems to lack inspiration.”

It is unclear at this stage of China’s development how these regions will flesh out once they begin to become populated, but at present, they appear to be pods of forced civilization for people who don’t yet need, or are unable to afford their own flats. A forward thinking strategy is needed in order to avoid dormant new-builds, taking into account a potential decrease in economic growth, as has happened in other countries globally.

Building outside the boundaries of the city, rather than just on the fringes means that the land is cheaper, but this also results in a faster rate of city growth. The dense roads will slowly seep outwards, perhaps meaning that in the future, the 1/7 days that you may not use your car on the road in Beijing may have to be increased.

Mr Hopkinson points to some of the most successful and responsible residential projects in recent years, such as those found in Copenhagen, Denmark, on projects created by Bjarke Ingles and his practice Bjarke Inlgles Group (BIG). The group is known for their ability to tick all the boxes, integrating factors such as social, environmental, contextual, aesthetics and physical connectivity.

BIG’s most publicised project, The 8 House, is a template of concepts, and appears to be one of the most relatively resolved large scale projects. Mr Hopkinson says: “If separate global practices provide their own style, with such consideration for aspects of architecture, then perhaps the architecture industry would begin to recover as people would realize the value that comes from the profession, rather than relying on designers and construction companies to continue the sculpture of our urban spaces.

“I am not suggesting that China should adopt their own version of the 8 House, nor that they aren’t giving proper consideration to some of the most necessary aspects of architecture, but a country with a rapidly growing population (despite family restrictions) should be wary of the vast difference between building fast, and building right.”

Evidently China is still an expansive canvas ready to be expressed upon. But it must be done so by giving proper consideration to the building programme, the potential user and the country’s culture, both aesthetically and accessibly.

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