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China signals a ‘new era’ for architecture with a ban on supertall skyscrapers and imitation buildings

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China signals a 'new era' for architecture with a ban on supertall skyscrapers and imitation buildings

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

The end of the “copycat” building and the prohibition of skyscrapers more than 500 meters (1,640 ft) high are among the Chinese government’s new guidelines for architects, property developers and urban planners.
Describe what he calls “the new era” for Chinese cities, a round issued by the country’s housing ministry and the National Development and Reform Commission earlier this year also proposed other steps to ensure buildings “embody the spirit” of their environment and “accentuate Chinese characteristics.”
With height restrictions already in place in places like Beijing, and 2016 government directives calling for an end to the “big, xenosentric, strange” buildings, the guidelines seem to formalize the changes that are already taking place.

The Ping An Finance Center Shenzhen is currently the fourth tallest building in the world. Credit: ANTHONY WALLACE / AFP / Getty Images

But according to Chinese architectural experts, some less interesting suggestions – such as requests for protection of inheritance, a credit system for designers and the appointment of major architects – might signal finer evolution in the way Chinese cities are planned.

“The document is really not just about height,” Li Shiqiao, an Asian architecture professor at the University of Virginia, said in a telephone interview. “It’s about Chinese culture, city context, city spirit and the appearance of modernity.”

“This has been a lot in academic discussions, but somehow it hasn’t been in government documents until now.”

Cut to size

Of the 10 complete buildings measuring above 500 meters worldwide, half are found in mainland China.

Among them are the second tallest skyscraper on the planet, the twisted Shanghai Tower 632 meters (2,073 feet) high, and the Ping An Financial Center in Shenzhen, which is 599 meters (1,965 feet) from the base to the tip.

In the past two years, they have joined the Beijing Citic Tower and the Tianjin CTF Financial Center, each of the seventh and ninth tallest buildings in the world. But the surge against the surging skyscraper has changed for some time.
The number of new buildings measuring 200 meters (656 ft) or more in China fell by almost 40% last year, according to construction data from the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH). In downtown Beijing’s Central Business District, height restrictions have already been applied to the new proposal – hats are only 180 meters (591 feet) according report 2018 by property company Jones Lang LaSalle.
Elsewhere in the country, the Wuhan Greenland Center is projected to cut the height from 636 meters (2,087 feet) to under 500 – a decision made in 2018, after construction began, requires significant redesign – with local media citing airspace regulations. The Suzhou Hungnam Center has planned cuts from 729 meters (2,392 feet) to 499 meters (1,637 feet), with upcoming skyscrapers in the cities of Chengdu and Shenyang also “suffering the same fate,” according to the government-run tabloid. Global Times.

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Fei Chen, a senior architecture professor at Liverpool University in England, described the 500-meter boundary as “very arbitrary,” adding that the 499-meter skyscraper was “a building that is still very, very high.” But the new document confirms increasing intolerance towards buildings that are “out of scale or out of context,” he said.

Chen also expressed official concern about the use of “reckless” tall buildings, where expensive and unprofitable towers were used by real estate companies to mark their development – or by local governments to put their cities on the map.

“(The guideline) responds to an identity crisis that we have all noticed since the 1980s, when cities began to borrow standards and types of buildings from an international context,” he said in a telephone interview. “And since the 1990s, cities have been promoted as competitive in the market through the construction of landmarks and large public buildings.”

As such, these new restrictions concern economics and design. Above a certain height, the cost of building a skyscraper increases exponentially with each additional floor. The Chinese ceiling is now filled with unfinished towers due to slowing economic growth and developers facing credit pressure.

Workers at the top of the Wuhan Greenland Center, which are still not completed eight years after construction began.

Workers at the top of the Wuhan Greenland Center, which are still not completed eight years after construction began. Credit: STR / AFP / Getty Images

Based on CTBUH data, some 70 Chinese buildings that were supposed to stand over 200 meters are currently “detained,” after starting construction. Three of them are estimated to be more than 500 meters in size, including surging Goldin Finance 117, which erupted more than a decade ago. The Greenland Center previously mentioned in Wuhan has stood unresolved and has largely been untouched since 2017, despite the planned height being reduced.
In Li’s view, the government’s new steps symbolize a “new paradigm” for Chinese cities – which are less dependent on marketable skyscrapers and speculative financing. To illustrate this change, he compared the Pudong district of Shanghai, the soaring financial district that has risen almost from zero in the last two decades, to Xiongan, a new city being built 100 kilometers southwest of Beijing. Not like Pudong, the new one 2.5 million people are satellite cities will be relatively low, with the property market tightly controlled by the state.

“If you consider Pudong as the paradigm of Chinese urbanization from 2000 to today, then you see Xiongan – which is not dominated by real estate speculation or iconic buildings – as a new paradigm … then that is a very amazing change we are witnessing.”

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New framework

But Li stated that limiting the height of 500 meters was, from an academic point of view, “perhaps the least interesting” from the new government guidelines.

Elsewhere, the circular contains a number of other steps, including a ban on “plagiarism, imitation and imitation behavior.” The Chinese-owned Eiffel Tower and London-inspired Thames Town outside Shanghai are two more extreme – and ridiculed – examples of how imitation architecture developed rapidly in the 2000s.

The Eiffel Tower replica in Tianducheng, a luxury real estate development in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.

The Eiffel Tower replica in Tianducheng, a luxury real estate development in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. Credit: JOHANNES EISELE / AFP / Getty Images

This official shift, once again, might only reflect changes in design culture in China. But explicit bans on plagiarism continue to prove useful in countries where “the level of quality varies greatly,” Chen said.

“There is already recognition in the architecture industry that (copying) is not accepted,” he said. “But China is very big, and some cities are better than others.

“In the east coast cities, or more developed areas, architects have better design skills, so they produce better buildings. But in rural cities you still see buildings that mimic other people’s styles or architectural languages, and it does not produce very good design. “

Government documents also propose a credit system – and, conversely, a blacklist – for architects, to encourage compliance with planning laws and regulations. This warns against the destruction of historic buildings, traditional architecture or even old trees to make way for new developments, a step in line with the increasing emphasis on preserving heritage in China. (Two Shanghai art museums, which were made from unused industrial oil tanks and old power plants, are among the recent high-profile renovation projects in a country that was once known to indiscriminately knock down old buildings).

But one of the new suggestions the government proposed was something completely new in China: the chief architect for each city.

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Moscow and Barcelona are among the cities that have appointed an individual to approve or veto new proposals. Li welcomed the idea as a way to ensure the design was appropriate for the overall urban context.

“The doubt is whether ensuring uniformity means that a city can be predictable and unattractive, or whether you really maintain a certain level of creativity,” he added. “But we have a new generation (Chinese designers) who are great at maintaining urban structures and creating very interesting architecture. The key is to institutionalize a system that guarantees that process.”

The city skyline of Chongqing, in southwest China.

The city skyline of Chongqing, in southwest China. Credit: Wang Zhao / AFP / Getty Images

How – or even whether – more exploratory government advice begins to produce results remains to be seen. The new guidelines provide a broad framework for cities, but better details must be completed at the local level, said Chen, whose research focuses on urban planning in China.

Characterizing a circle as a series of red lines that must not be crossed (more “no” than “dos”), he also suggested that work was still needed to positively articulate what constituted good design.

“There are policies and documents that talk about what you are should not do … which is a good thing, but they never say what you are Should do, “he explained.” Urban architects and designers might benefit from fairly specific guidelines about what design is good.

“But this needs to be linked to the local context, so I would not expect national governments to produce guidelines like this. What works in one context might not work in another context.”

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