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.
A ship-shaped “supertail” skyscraper transforms the outline of Beijing
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. Credit: STR / AFP / Getty images
“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.”
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. 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.”
But one of the government’s new proposals in China is proposing something completely new: chief architects for each city.
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. 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.”