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China’s erection of odd buildings under fire
By Xu Qin

From an ancient coin-shaped building in Guangzhou to a pebble-shaped complex for real estate developer Galaxy Soho China, the increasing number of “funny” structures around the country has recently prompted President Xi Jinping to talk about “oddly shaped” buildings in a 2-hour speech at the Beijing Forum on Literature and Art.

“No more weird architecture,” said Xi at the forum two weeks ago, quoted by People’s Daily, whose own new headquarters in Beijing came under fire last year after being compared to a giant penis. They later explained that the building was still under construction.

As well as lambasting the CCTV Tower, nicknamed “the big shorts” in reference to its underpants-like shape, Xi also targeted a pair of bridges over the Yangtze and Jialing rivers in Chongqing, which have been compared to female genitalia.

Xi delivered his speech to some of China’s leading figures in the fields of art, theater and literature. He also spoke about the need for more inspiring artworks and urged China’s creative minds not to sacrifice artistic and moral values in favor of commercial gain.

“Fine artworks should be like sunshine from the blue sky and the breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles,” he said.

Among web users, Xi’s comments have quickly triggered a new round of counting strangely shaped buildings.

The designer of the new office building of People’s Daily is Zhou Qi, a professor of architecture at Southeast University in eastern China’s Jiangsu Province.

In an interview with Modern Express newspaper last year when the building first drew people’s attention with its bling-bling gold color, Zhou said, “It’s just a transitional phase of the building under construction. The gold is the thermal material underneath the exterior walls. Gray tiles will later be used to form a fully glazed facade on energy consumption.”

However, when the 150-meter-tall tower has finally removed its scaffolding upon completion recently, it looked like nothing but the model of a colossal phallus.

Zhou explained the design was inspired by the traditional Chinese philosophy of “round sky and square earth” — the tower tapers from a square base to a cylindrical top. He claimed the elongated spherical form was designed to recall the Chinese character ren (人) or “people,” from above. The fact that it might look like a male member from below was clearly a secondary concern.

“Our way of expression is kind of extreme,” Zhou said, “different from the culture of moderation that Chinese people are accustomed to.”

Like it or not, it is erected. And Zhou gave no comments lately.

“It is true that we cannot blame the architect for everything,” said Zhang Bin, vice chairman of Shimao Group, at a high-end dialogue of the Chinese architectural industry in Shanghai last week.

“The outcome of a building project needs substantial collaboration from all parties concerned, such as the client, the contractor, the consultant and the supplier, to meet their commitments and minimize negative impacts on construction project performance in relation to cost, time and quality objectives,” Zhang added.

The dialogue held by the Wootree International Consulting Co at the designers’ office of the China Building Center in north Shanghai’s Zhabei District invited a number of international designers, architects and big-name developers to discuss their own design manifestos for urban living and construction.

Wo Qian, partner of Wootree Consulting, said she sees the dialogue as “a good opportunity to educate the public about design, to bring designers from different parts of the world together to speak, to show their work and to engage discussion with the local media here.”

Take the Eiffel Tower in Paris for example. Erected in 1889 as the entrance arch to that year’s World’s Fair, it was initially criticized by some of France’s leading artists and intellectuals for its design, but it has now become both a global cultural icon of France and one of the most recognizable structures in the world.

Wo’s opinion is partly echoed by Yu Ting, an independent Shanghai architect. In the article “The Abnormal Death of An Architect” from his book “A Lander’s Grumbles,” Yu wrote, “Whether the work of an architect will be accepted by the public depends on social background and open-mindedness of the mass in general. In an age of information explosion, everyone gets informed by a variety of sources, and that breaks up the monopoly on the interpretation of the architecture by the architect alone. However, such a break based on pieces and patches of the knowledge acquired from a sea of miscellaneous fast reading materials online shall inevitably lead to misunderstanding.”

When asked what he thinks of the recent “weird architecture” in an interview with Shanghai Daily, Yu said: “The recent weird buildings are the result of China’s property boom in the past few years. With so many top architects from abroad coming to teach us what makes a novel design, we are lost. Some see the strange shapes as an innovation and a derivation from the tradition. I see it a lack of confidence and an absence of a modern Chinese architecture and design language.”

Li Jianbo, chief designer of HMD Architecture Design Co, agrees.

“Each building is a solidification of thoughts and ideas,” he said. “It speaks of the cultural values of a time and reflects directly the aesthetic judgment of the people through its shape and design.

“Throughout Chinese architecture history, the 5,000 years of Chinese civilization witnessed countless praiseworthy architectural masterpieces, such as the Palace Museum. The beauty of those old buildings lies in the fact that they are not only comfortable to live in but also look pleasant to the eye and stand in harmony with its environment and nature as a whole,” Li said.

Architecture is a profession that combines art, technology and humanity. For quite a long time, China has lagged behind in art education.

When shoddy copying from the West is no longer a way to brand our lifestyle and wealth, maybe it is time to seek inspiration from within, to improve the ability to judge beauty. To judge art and culture as a whole is crucial for decision-makers, architects, developers and ordinary people alike.

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