Architecture should serve the people

Architecture should serve the people

Steven Smit RAIA.

In October 2014 the Chinese president Xi Jin Ping commented on ‘strange’ Chinese architecture in a speech to Chinese professionals active in the cultural fields (‘art should serve the people’). What he probably means is less waste, fewer frivolous building designs and more responsibility exercised by designers and building approval bodies.

The speech has started a serious discussion among Chinese and international architects and property developers, as all of a sudden, after two decades of creating thousands of ‘strange’ or iconic buildings replacing drab state architecture, the introduction of additional icons are becoming a risky proposition.  If the president does not approve of ‘strange’ buildings in China, local planning officials are not going to argue with Beijing.

The difficulty of course is to define ‘strange’.  At the moment everyone is waiting to see if the president’s statements can and will be issued as building policy or code, for instance, by setting limits to the cost per square meter by building category; this would prevent approval for an apartment block in the shape of an apple tree (complete with apple balconies) for example.

For everyone who has traveled to Chinese cities, it is obvious that requests by Chinese clients from their award winning architects (often in competition with other award winning architects) to surprise everybody with the next unique idea have indeed culminated in the development of strange buildings. Many foreign architects in China have been uncomfortable with the production of icons for icon’s sake for some time. But sometimes strange buildings win international design awards; case in point, the new CCTV headquarters  in Beijing which is currently everyone’s favourite strange building!

I think this discussion kick-started by the president is beneficial for architecture in China. It could lead to a more considered, constrained design culture, in other words, a more ‘mature’ architecture. In every country exists a fine line between good architecture, strange architecture, ugly architecture and plain bad architecture. Architects around the world respond to a design brief and many factors, especially cost, influence the end result. In China, originality comes cheap with construction workers earning approximately $200 a month: more bang for you buck, you could say.

In China the property market is maturing rapidly, with rising construction costs (in particular labor costs) and now the ‘icon boom’ may be over for good. Clients and government bodies in China in charge of approvals, like their western counterparts, will begin to judge designs more on core performance parameters (including sustainability) and less on pure idea and shape alone. It would be too risky otherwise; the president is watching!