Bye-bye Bizarre Buildings!

The Chinese government recently declared that “no more weird buildings” would be allowed for construction. The statement came from the State Council after leaders met for the Central Urban Work Conference. Xi Jinping initiated this idea two years ago during a speech at a literary symposium, saying that such art should “serve the people.” Some Chinese citizens and Westerners are sad about the new policy, that it might result in further depletion of creativity from Chinese society. Others, including myself, are quite hopeful. This is perhaps a bizarre step in a very good direction.

I just finished a small research project on global sporting events and realized the costliness (short term and long term) of extravagance, especially construction of ostentatious buildings. One major consequence of excessive building is (forced) relocation of the poor and pushing them into the city peripheries. Reports show that at least 1.5 million people were displaced during construction for the Beijing Olympics, and that their compensation was minimal or nonexistent. Even worse, the magnificent Water Cube building is underused, making the displacement of those citizens appear to be for a fickle cause.

This ruling against “weird buildings” is also significant for environmental reasons. The government criticizes “bizarre architecture” that is not “economical, functional, aesthetically pleasing, or environmentally friendly.” These structures use up a tremendous amount of resources to build AND to operate. I remember my interviewees from Beijing complaining about all the dust in the city from the construction. So outlawing these bulbous, impractical structures will surely make the country’s environmental goals more feasible.

Stopping excessive building may also encourage more sustainable and practical building strategies. Reports over the years show the numerous ghost towns in China, a result of overambitious real estate developers and overlooking citizen demand and needs. This change may be a transition into into a more conservative, realistic strategy for real estate.

The government’s statement could also signal a new era of development for the country. It is an end to extravagance and a beginning of practical, sustainable growth. China’s recent slowing growth has terrified Western economists, and it surely must be a root cause of the Chinese government’s current plans. Explosive growth will not be sustainable forever – not socially, not economically, not environmentally. Better housing provisions for poorer residents in cities will require a shift in priorities from sparkly capitalist endeavors to more inclusive and sustainable plans. Reducing carbon emissions and pollution will require more attention to sustainable building materials and architecture. China cannot afford to keep building outrageous, useless buildings, and there is no longer a need to boost the country’s reputation and impress the global community with flash.

It is curious that the Wuhan Phoenix Towers were not mentioned, though. These otherworldly towers will be powered with new green technologies and adorned with numerous culturally significant symbols. However, few updates have been given on the towers’ progress, with a completion date of 2018, so there is no evidence on how true the project will stay to its aims. But the plans provide hope that practical structures can still be breathtaking.

While occasionally an extraordinary feast for the eyes might be welcome, reducing the number of these projects in favor of more economically, environmentally, and socially responsible buildings is for the best. The new urban blueprints don’t mean architectural creativity is gone, they just mean creativity will be used in a different way.

Some “weird” architecture in Beijing (Soho Galaxy Shopping Center, left) and Guangzhou (Guangzhou Opera House, right)

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