A FLURRY OF NOTEWORTHY BUILDINGS recently constructed or near completion in and around Guangzhou has positioned the city as the next major Chinese metropolis to attract international critical architectural attention. Marked, overwhelmingly, by glittering facades and gaudy monumentality, these structures include the Guangzhou International Finance Center, designed by Wilkinson Eyre and slated to open this spring; Rocco Yim’s Guangdong Provincial Museum, which was completed in May; a television tower, by Information Based Architecture, which has been operational since October 1; the Zaha Hadid–designed opera house, officially opened last month; and the Guangzhou New Library, by Nikken Sekkei, due to be completed later this year. A composite of ten regional universities intended to support between 150,000 and 400,000 students and known as University City is under construction outside the city on Xiaoguwei Island.
Largely absent from these designs is any response to the obvious complexities of Guangzhou’s built environment. Rather, the city’s architectural bling reinforces what has become an essential part of securing major public commissions in China today: the winnowing of architectural expression into a series of constructed metaphors. The Hadid opera house was pitched as representing two boulders perched atop a riverbank, an ostensible nod to the adjacent Pearl River. Yim’s museum evokes a Chinese lacquer box. The interior spaces of the library building have been peeled apart to resemble . . . the pages of an open book.
The process seems to suit both architect and client. It absolves firms of the need to tether their buildings to any specific socioeconomic context; instead, trite cultural allusions will do. Some have argued that such vagaries also reflect the Chinese Communist Party’s interest in reframing its political power as less authoritarian than it in fact is, with Beijing’s Bird’s Nest and Water Cube both offered as architectural indicators of the government’s interest in projecting harmony and political benevolence. But such a claim may be more easily made with respect to the country’s capital, a city that remains literally and figuratively intertwined with key architectural symbols of the state. Outside Beijing, the relationship between city and provincial leadership is a tangle of regional power struggles and party hierarchies, making the calculated coordination of any overarching architectural ideology difficult if not impossible.
Nevertheless, Guangzhou’s new skyline leaves an impression of superficial overreach on the part of officials and architects alike. The sinuous TV tower, publicly christened the “Waist” for its slender profile, dazzles during the day, though at night, garish Day-Glo rainbows diminish the ingenious simplicity of its structure. The Guangdong Provincial Museum looks worn and incomplete despite the recentness of its opening. Visibly different shades of flooring indicate budgetary restrictions, as well as a contractor’s neglect, and hastily sprayed fire retardant on the structural supports remains exposed on the upper floors.
Hadid’s building, built for approximately two hundered million dollars, is arguably the most ambitious in the group, making its failings even more glaring. The single- and double-curved glazing intended to animate the building’s facade, for example, could not be machine-manufactured, requiring the cutting by hand of each of its complicated exterior panels. The result is a series of variations that leave the building’s triangular edgework and patterning pockmarked with unsightly inconsistencies. The massive steel nodes that hold its twelve thousand tons of steel superstructure together required individually constructed wooden models packed in sand and fired, one by one, at a bell foundry, resulting in roughly hewn units that distract from the building’s intended spatial and structural fluidity. Rainwater drains could not be successfully embedded within the building’s supporting structure, necessitating the addition of molding that snakes atop various interior seams like scar tissue.
This accidental brutalism may be attributed to the time limits imposed by city and provincial officials eager to open these buildings in concert with the start of the Asian Games last November. Coincidentally, however, it comes at a time in which, to echo critic Douglas Murphy, a more “flamboyant, transfigured,” and intentional variation on such idiosyncrasies could offer an intriguing counterpoint to the glossy parametrics with which much of the profession is enamored. For architects wishing to explore such a stylistic counterpoint, Louis Kahn’s National Assembly Complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, completed in 1983, offers a reminder that political ambition can both look striking and appear more attentive to its context of production. Accepting that his workforce would, on average, be able to pour approximately five feet of concrete a day, Kahn insisted that the visible lines marking the conclusion of each day’s work be highlighted in alternating flat and raised strips of inlaid marble. The resulting grid binds the entire structure together while providing an evocative trace of the labor involved in its creation.
As China’s second- and third-tier cities begin to assert themselves architecturally, such contextual detail may begin to appeal to Chinese officials. The popular and critical success of the Ningbo Historic Museum, for example, completed in 2008 by Wang Shu’s Amateur Architecture Studio using locally recycled bricks, evidences growing enthusiasm for site-specific work. At the same time, many municipalities remain wary of an architecture that recognizes, let alone celebrates, the raw materiality so evident in the country’s profound physical transformation. But for a foreign architectural community committed to working in China, conceptual acknowledgment of the socioeconomic and political forces enabling their designs to grow upward and onward may only strengthen the forms themselves.
Cole Roskam is an assistant professor of architectural history at the University of Hong Kong.