With economic growth slowing and a once-in-a-decade political transition happening behind the scenes in Beijing, some people are wondering if China will continue to play an XL-size role in the world of architecture. For the past two decades the country has been building at a frenetic pace and in recent years has become fertile soil for some of the most innovative architecture on the globe. Nowadays, it's hard to imagine OMA's CCTV, Herzog & de Meuron's Bird's Nest, Steven Holl's Vanke Center, or Morphosis's Giant Interactive Group Headquarters happening anywhere but China. The country's enthusiastic embrace of everything new and big, though, has also brought the destruction of old neighborhoods, a dangerous housing bubble, and the construction of some awfully weird buildings.
But if you are an international design firm or even a talented young architect on your own, China has been a powerful magnet for at least the last 10 years. Its pull grew stronger after the 2008 financial crisis hobbled economies in the U.S. and Europe and squeezed the job market for designers in the West.
American universities have been looking to China too for opportunities to grow their programs and tap into the world's biggest market for higher education. Many architecture schools run studios in China these days and the University of Southern California has been one of the most aggressive. With its dean, Qingyun Ma, hailing from China and still running a practice in Shanghai, USC has extensive connections there. Not long after becoming dean in 2007, Ma set up the American Academy in China (AAC), a program that gives the school a presence in his native country and serves as a multi-directional conduit for transferring architectural knowledge.
Since 2008, the AAC has run a summer program in China that brings together students and faculty from a number of universities in the U.S., China, and other parts of Asia. Its connection to Tongji University in Shanghai is especially tight and that school's campus has served as the program's hub for the past few years.
This summer, USC's Neil Leach and Tongji's Philip Yuan organized an AAC conference entitled XXL: SuperTall Buildings, using Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau's seminal book S, M, L, XL from 1995 as a starting point for examining what is happening in China right now. Presentations by Astrid Piber (UNStudio), Ma Yansong (MAD), Thom Mayne (Morphosis), and Patrik Schumacher (Zaha Hadid Architects) showed a broad range of approaches to high-rise design. I participated in a panel discussion that compared developments in Shanghai and New York City.
Shanghai, where the American Academy in China's 2012 conference took place.
Mayne told the AAC audience, "Tall buildings are a simple problem. They're essentially a solution to an economic problem; they're machines for making money." As a result, he suggested that architects "locate the problem outside the type" and look for ways to "push the generic nature of highrises in different directions." In the design of the Phare Tower in the La Défense district of Paris, for example, Mayne and his team tried to express the multiple flows of cars, pedestrians, buses, and trains—using the skyscraper as a way of connecting the area's famously disjointed pieces.
Schumacher, who noted that Hadid's firm spent its first two decades mostly exploring the horizontal layering of low-rise buildings, said the firm is now working on a number of tall buildings. Its first highrise—an office tower in Marseille, France—was completed in 2010. Now it has an office/retail/housing tower under construction in Milan, a mixed-use complex with a tower under construction in Beijing, and skyscrapers in various stages of development in Romania, Singapore, Poland, and other places. "We are a networked society," he stated, and highrises "must broadcast their internal complexity" and make "the complex legible."
Zaha Hadid's Galaxy SOHO project under construction in Beijing.
Anyone who has spent much time in China knows it's a place with a lot of different layers, many of which are barely legible. According to the AAC, there are more than 930 highrises in Shanghai alone—making it hard to tell the forest from the trees. For all its faults—terrible pollution, political corruption, shady business practices, and a growing divide between its wealthy and the rest of its population—China is still chugging along. It is investing huge sums of money in infrastructure, education, and green technologies, while other countries (including the U.S.) are cutting back in these areas. It will probably stumble in the near term, as its trading partners cut back on purchases and its own economy confronts overbuilding in certain cities and sectors.
But China has enormous cash reserves and a growing sense of destiny. More than 200 million Chinese have moved to cities in the past 20 years and another 200 million are expected to do the same in the next two decades. All these people will need places to live, work, learn, and play—generating huge opportunities for businesses and architects. If the country can develop its own domestic market for the things and services it produces, it will become less dependent on foreign markets and create the kind of virtuous economic cycle that propelled the United States in the 20th century.
Having visited in recent years Chinese architecture firms such as Urbanus, standardarchitecture, MADA s.p.a.m., MAD, Open Architecture, Amateur Architecture Studio, Atelier Deshaus, Atelier Feichang Jianzhu, DnA Design and Architecture, Jiakun Architects, Studio Pei Zhu, TAO, Vector, and others, I have seen a remarkable level of innovation taking place on drawing boards and computer screens around the country. Add to this all the talent employed at foreign firms in China and you get a vibrant mix of human resources. I'm not an economist and I don't have a crystal ball, but the work coming out of architecture studios in China tells me that a remarkable wave of invention is just starting to make itself felt. If you think China is over, you should think again. And take a look for yourself.
The workplace of Trace Architecture Office (TAO) in a Beijing hutong house.