China is signaling a “new era” for architecture with a ban on upgrading skyscrapers and copycat buildings

China is signaling a “new era” for architecture with a ban on upgrading skyscrapers and copycat buildings

He wrote Oscar Holland, CNN

Interruption of “copycat” buildings and bans skyscrapers more than 500 meters high, are among the Chinese government’s new guidelines for architects, construction developers and urban planners.
Highlighting what he calls the “new age” for Chinese cities, circular issued earlier this year by the State Department of Housing and the National Development and Reform Commission, also propose other important measures to ensure that buildings “embody the spirit” of their surroundings and “highlight Chinese characteristics.
With height restrictions already applied in places like Beijing and 2016 Government Directive calling for an end to “oversized, xenocentric, strange” buildings, the guidelines seem to formalize changes that were already underway.

Shenzhen’s Ping Finance Center is currently the fourth tallest building in the world. Credit: ANTHONY WALLACE / AFP / Getty Images

However, according to Chinese architecture experts, some less attractive proposals – such as appeals for heritage protection, a credit system for designers and the appointment of chief architects – may signal a more subtle evolution in the way Chinese cities are planned,

“The document isn’t really just height,” Li Shiqiao, a professor of Asian architecture at the University of Virginia, said in a telephone interview. “It’s about Chinese culture, the urban context, the spirit of the city and the look of modernity.”

“It’s been in academic debate a lot, but somehow so far in a government document.”

Cut to size

Of the 10 completed buildings over 500 meters high worldwide, half are located in mainland China.

Among them are the second tallest skyscraper on the planet, the winding Shanghai Tower 632 meters high (2,073 feet) and Shenzhen’s Ping An Financial Center, which is 599 meters (1,965 feet) from base to peak.

They have joined them in the last two years Peking Citi Tower and Tianjin CTF Financial Center, the seventh and ninth tallest building in the world. But the tide against the huge skyscrapers has been turning for some time.
Number of new buildings in China of 200 meters or more fell by almost 40% last year, according to data on the construction of the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH). In Beijing’s central business district, the height limit already applies to new proposals – a cap of only 180 meters (591 feet) according to report for 2018 by the property of Jones Lang LaSalle.
Elsewhere in the country, the projected Wuhan altitude center has shrunk from 636 meters (2,087 feet) to below 500 – a decision made in 2018 after construction began, demanding a significant redesign – along with local media referring to airspace regulations, Suzhou Hungnam Center has since planned to reduce altitude from 729 meters (2,392 feet) to 499 meters (1,637 feet), and new skyscrapers in Chengdu and Shenyang are also “suffering the same fate,” according to the state tabloid. Global Times.

Fei Chen, a senior professor of architecture at Britain’s Liverpool University, described the 500-meter limit as “quite arbitrary”, adding that the 499-meter skyscrapers were “still very, very tall buildings”. But the new document confirms growing intolerance of buildings that are “out of scale or out of context,” she said.

Chen also pointed to official concerns about the “reckless” use of tall buildings, with expensive and unprofitable towers used by real estate companies to market their development – or local governments – to put their cities on the map.

“(The Guidelines) respond to the identity crisis we’ve all noticed since the 1980s, when cities started borrowing standards and types of buildings from international contexts,” she said in a telephone interview. “And since the 1990s, cities have been promoted as competitive in the marketplace through the construction of landmarks and large public buildings.”

As such, the new constraints apply as much to economics as to design. Above a certain height, the cost of building a skyscraper increases exponentially with each additional floor. Chinese techniques are now full of unfinished towers as economic growth slows and developers face a credit crunch.

Workers at Greenland’s Wuhan Center, which remains unfinished eight years after construction began.

Workers at Greenland’s Wuhan Center, which remains unfinished eight years after construction began. Credit: STR / AFP / Getty images

According to CTBUH data, about 70 Chinese buildings that were supposed to stand more than 200 meters are currently “on hold” after construction has already begun. The three of them were expected to cross 500 meters, including Tianjin’s huge Goldin Finance 117, which broke more than a decade ago. Wuhan’s aforementioned Greenland center has remained unfinished and largely intact since 2017, despite a reduced planned height.
According to Li, the government’s new measures affect the “new paradigm” for Chinese cities – one that relies less on market skyscrapers and speculative financing. To illustrate the shift, he compares Shanghai’s Pudong district, a huge financial district that has risen from almost everything in the last two decades, to Xiongan, a brand new city being built 100 kilometers southwest of Beijing. Unlike Pudong, new 2.5 million people satellite city it will be of relatively low growth, with its real estate market to be subject to strict state controls.

“If you take Pudong as a paradigm of Chinese urbanization from 2000 to the present, then Xiongan – not dominated by real estate speculation or iconic buildings – sees it as a new paradigm … then it’s an amazing change. I testify.”

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New frame

Yet Li holds that the 500-meter height limit is, from an academic standpoint, “probably the least interesting” part of the new government guidelines.

Otherwise, the circular contains a number of other measures, including a ban on “plagiarism, imitation and copying behavior”. The Chinese Eiffel Tower and the London-inspired city of Thames outside Shanghai are the two most extreme – and ridiculed – examples of how imitation architecture thrived in the 2000s.

A replica of the Eiffel Tower in Tianducheng, a luxury real estate development in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.

A replica of the Eiffel Tower in Tianducheng, a luxury real estate development in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. Credit: JOHANNES EISELE / AFP / Getty Images

This official shift, again, may simply reflect the changing design culture in China. But an explicit ban on plagiarism could still prove useful in a country where “the degree of quality is so diverse,” Chen said.

“There are already recognitions in the architectural industry that (copying) is not welcome,” she said. “But China is huge, and some cities are doing better than others.

“In East Coast cities or more developed areas, architects have better design skills and produce better buildings. But in inland cities, you still see buildings copying other people’s styles or architectural languages, and that doesn’t result in very good design.”

The government document also proposes a credit system – and, conversely, a blacklist – for architects, to encourage compliance with planning laws and regulations. It warns of the demolition of historic buildings, traditional architecture or even old trees to make room for new development, a step in line with the growing emphasis on heritage preservation in China. (Two Shanghai Art Museums, created from used industrial oil tanks and old power plants, are one of the recent significant reconstruction projects in a country that was once known for the indiscriminate destruction of old buildings).

But one of the government’s new proposals in China is proposing something completely new: chief architects for each city.

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Moscow and Barcelona are among the cities already appointing an individual to approve or veto new proposals. Li welcomed the idea as a way to ensure that the designs fit the whole urban context.

“Hesitation is whether ensuring uniformity means the city is becoming predictable and disinterested or whether you are actually maintaining some degree of creativity,” he added. “But we have a new generation (of Chinese designers) that is great both for maintaining the urban fabric and for creating a very interesting architecture. The key is to establish a system that guarantees that process.”

Sketch of Chongqing, in southwest China.

Sketch of Chongqing, in southwest China. Credit: Wang Zhao / AFP / Getty Images

How – or even whether – the government’s investigative proposals will achieve results remains to be seen. The new guidelines provide a broad framework for cities, but smaller details need to be addressed locally, said Chen, whose research focused on urban governance in China.

Characterizing the circle as a series of red lines that cannot be crossed (more “don’t” than “dos”), she also suggested that work still needs to be done to positively articulate what constitutes a good design.

“There are policies and documents that talk about what you do no need do … which is a good thing, but they never said what you are Need Indeed, “she explained.” Architects and urban planners can benefit from very specific instructions on what good design is.

“But it has to be related to the local context, so I wouldn’t expect a national government to give guidelines like this. What works in one context may not work in another.”

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