The table was buzzing last night in Beijing. A small group of architects joined me and colleagues from McGraw-Hill for dinner and informal discussions on architecture in China. We gathered at Kengo Kuma’s Opposite House Hotel in the San Li Tun District—an attraction in itself (on a tour, the wooden soaking tubs and sinks in the uber-hip guest rooms drew admiration and wonder).
The question of the evening for the group was whether there is a Chinese architecture emerging today. If so, can it be characterized? Or does the question have relevance at all? Japanese architecture, for example, is recognizable. Li Hu, the architect who has overseen Steven Holl’s “Linked Hybrid” project said that China’s diversity precludes any talk of a defined Chinese architecture. And what defines a Chinese architecture anyway: is OMA's CCTV project, designed by a Dutch architectural firm, Chinese? What of Chinese architects trained abroad who have returned? Are they Chinese?
Xu Tiantian, who heads an intentionally small woman-owned firm, mentioned a certain flexibility in scheduling and client demands that was necessary to practice in China—perhaps that could be the distinguishing characteristic. But her answer prompted shaking heads on several counts--"how can you relate a term like 'flexibility' to a Chinese architecture,' one countered?
Ma Sonyong and Deng Qun of MAD Architects showed me projects that extended the topography of a country that needed to take advantage of every square inch of natural terrain in a kind of urban sustainability. Were there any discernible building materials or systems, or reflections on the past, that the group could name? “Think about the United States,” one architect asserted. Can you think of a U.S. architecture? China is not that different.” After a full and comforting meal, we wandered into the smokey evening.