Editor’s Note: This feature is part of a wider CNN Style series on how culture in China is evolving in the Xi Jinping era.
Four years into the construction of Beijing’s tallest skyscraper, its architects received an unexpected request from the city’s authorities.
Despite already being more than half built – and despite the fact its shape was explicitly based on a “zun,” a ceremonial wine vessel popular in the Shang dynasty – the tower needed to be more “Chinese.”
“Apparently, the client got a call from the vice mayor’s (office) saying they were doing a review of all new construction in Beijing,” recalled Robert Whitlock, design principal at Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), the US-owned architecture practice behind the 1,731-foot skyscraper. “And (they) thought that the flat top of the building wasn’t Chinese enough.”
Over the following months, the firm held a series of meetings with city planners to negotiate last-minute changes to the design. While the architects resisted what they saw as “literal” interpretations of Chinese culture, officials pointed to pagodas and temple roofs as sources of inspiration, said KPF director, Li Lei.
“One of the suggestions (was) to look at the Temple of Heaven – whether there was a way for us to interpret the traditional elements of the tiered roof … somehow, and put it on top of the building,” Li said, “which we immediately thought wouldn’t work.”
What resulted was an exercise in compromise. Citic Tower’s crown would become more curved and exaggerated at its corners, reflecting the flowing lines of traditional Chinese architecture. The showpiece skyscraper was completed last year, with state-owned conglomerate owner, Citic, set to move in this winter.
“We tried a bunch of schemes and ultimately got (city authorities) to understand – or we convinced them – that the subtle flare at the top mimicked the slope of a traditional roof, and that it was consistent with the tower’s bottom,” said Whitlock.
But, in retrospect, the timing of the request may have been no coincidence.
Less than a year earlier, in 2014, President Xi Jinping had made a speech at a Beijing literary symposium in which, according to state media reports, he criticized the construction of unusual buildings – presumably referring to the novelty towers, experimental shapes and unduly tall skyscrapers that had come to define contemporary Chinese architecture.
KPF’s Li does not believe the request was a “direct initiative” from the president. Indeed, it would be another year before the State Council, China’s cabinet, issued a more explicit 2016 directive calling for the end of “oversized, xenocentric, weird” buildings, in favor of those that are “suitable, economic, green and pleasing to the eye.” But the vice mayor’s request seemingly reflected changing attitudes within Chinese officialdom.
Today, in a country once seen as an architects’ playground, there are growing signs that planners are no longer beholden to Western design. And architects – whether influenced by Xi’s position or the inspiration behind it – are increasingly looking to the country’s own history and culture for expressions of modernity.
New cultural confidence
Before the 2000s, contemporary Chinese architecture barely registered on the global radar.
The years following the 1949 communist revolution were characterized by a utilitarianism that considered the discipline a matter of engineering, not art. Communist China founder Mao Zedong’s disdain for history also saw the widespread destruction of old structures, and only a last-minute intervention by his premier, Zhou Enlai, allegedly prevented him from tearing down the Forbidden City itself.
In the latter stages of the 20th century, few buildings of international interest or renown were ever realized on the mainland. One of the noteworthy exceptions, the late I. M. Pei’s tranquil Fragrant Hills Hotel, fell into disrepair shortly after opening in 1982.
But a post-millennium construction boom changed all that.
Developers had money to spend, and planners were eager to put their cities on the map with eye-catching landmarks. Foreign architects flooded into China, viewing the country as both a new source of revenue – even more so after the 2008 global financial crisis – and a loosely-regulated tabula rasa on which to test bold new ideas.
Notable successes emerged from the gold rush. Acclaimed British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid refined her space-age curves through the pebble-like Guangzhou Opera House and the uniquely textured Nanjing International Youth Cultural Centre. In the capital, Dutch firm OMA’s gravity-defying CCTV Headquarters (now known as China Media Group Headquarters) remains widely admired in architectural and engineering circles, despite its odd shape and subsequent local nickname “da kucha,” or “big pants.”
Yet, for every success, there were countless opportunities for ridicule: a coin-shaped office block in Guangzhou, an arts center in Zhengzhou resembling a collection of otherworldly eggs, and a gate-like Suzhou skyscraper whose likeness to a pair of pants was pointed out with far less affection. Local architects followed suit, with buildings resembling teapots, musical instruments, a cellphone and even a giant crab.
These bizarre forms make up just a fraction of the country’s architectural output, according to Lu Andong, a professor at Nanjing University’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning. But the media became attached to the “weird China” narrative – so much so, that images of an unfinished tower went viral for its seemingly rude appearance, despite the final design being no more phallic than any of its neighbors.
This unfortunate reputation will have factored into the government’s new stance. But changes in China’s architectural community were already underway, said Lu, who pinpointed 2008, the year Beijing hosted the Olympic games, as a more significant turning point.
“(Around this time), Chinese culture in general became more confident, because they were already at the world stage… they were a player, so they no longer looked to those leading (Western) architects,” he said in a phone interview. “They were quite confident in what they were doing.
“Around 2008 to 2010, there were more and more architects – many of whom were educated overseas – coming back to China. And they were familiar with how the international architecture sphere, or culture, operated… There was a change in the intellectual paradigm.”
This period, and the years immediately after, saw Chinese architects making their mark globally. By 2012, Wang Shu had become the first mainland Chinese winner of the Pritzker Prize, the “Nobel Prize” of architecture. And Ma Yansong, founder of MAD Architects, began garnering international recognition – and overseas commissions – for his flowing, curvilinear buildings inspired by Chinese art. (More recently, Ma was chosen to design the long-awaited Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in L.A., arguably the most prominent US project by a Chinese architect to date).
With a design philosophy drawn from traditional “shanshui” paintings (literally “mountain and water”), Ma represents, in many ways, the burgeoning cultural confidence that has seen architects look to the country’s history, arts and geography for inspiration. Yet, as a protégé of the late Zaha Hadid, he too may fall the wrong side of so-called “xenocentrism.” Indeed, his mountainous Chaoyang Park Plaza development, unveiled the year before Xi’s 2014 speech, was marketed online as possibly being “Beijing’s last abnormally shaped landmark building to enter the market in the coming 10 years,” according to the New York Times.
For Lu, however, skyscrapers and landmarks are not the only barometers of the architectural atmosphere. The book he co-authored, “China Homegrown: Chinese Experimental Architecture Reborn,” offers examples of small-scale projects expressing national character through vernacular architecture – the use of local materials, like bamboo, and region-specific construction methods or designs. Again, Lu said, the emergence of this movement predates the government directive.