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China officially outlaws 'weird' architecture

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China’s state council has issued new planning guidance officially banning architecture deemed to be ‘oversized, xenocentric, weird, and devoid of cultural tradition’

The announcement comes two years after Chinese president Xi Jinping called for an end to the many ‘weird buildings’ emerging from the country’s enormous £42 billion-a-year construction sector.

According to the new guidance: ‘Bizarre architecture that is not economical, functional, aesthetically pleasing or environmentally friendly will be forbidden, while construction techniques that generate less waste and use fewer resources, such as the use of prefabricated buildings, will be encouraged.’

Simon Poole, head of design at Chinese developer Carnival Group suggested the new policy could be a ‘double-edged sword’ because there was no clear arbiter of taste.

’The use of prefabricated buildings will be encouraged’

He said: ‘China’s breakneck construction pace has meant huge developments all competing for the same market and as such developers have asked for interesting forms to differentiate.

‘If a building by regulation has to be efficient in resources, materials and energy, it’s going to quickly loose its quirkiness and conform to more regular forms and shapes.’

He continued: ‘The potential downside is the stifling of innovation and interesting design because it might not be considered aesthetically pleasing.

‘Design is subjective, and a sense of aesthetic beauty varies massively across a county where some of the population have seen the world’s architectural masterpieces and some have only seen the city they were born in.’

Simon Blore, co-founder of Benoy-offshoot Lead 8 – which recently won a contest for a 264,000m² mixed use development near Shanghai Railway Station – also argued a rush to adopt prefabrication within the rapidly urbanising country would be ‘too knee-jerk’.

He said: ‘We would suggest more emphasis on functional building forms with a mix of uses; more thinking and planning for public transport, walking, cycling, to reduce pollution, energy usage and congestion; more consideration of U-values and solar screening; and, a planning system that legislates for these.’

Fellow co-founder Meeta Patel argued prefabrication would require longer design periods which are uncommon in China.

She said: ‘As we know from our work in the region, we are often still designing while the structure is going up. Although prefabrication helps to reduce time on site, it relies heavily on accuracy of design and fabrication, which at present has a long way to go.’

Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects (SHL) partner Chris Hardie however downplayed concerns over the new guidance, claiming it does ‘not really change anything’ beyond perceptions of China’s architectural market from abroad.

He said: ‘It is simply an official government report encouraging city leaders to consider more carefully what they are building.

‘The “bizarre” architecture comment is more [a call for] future projects to holistically consider energy use, land use, materials, need and protecting the environment rather than a one-sided pursuit of an architectural image or style.’

He argued the report’s focus on sustainability, waste recycling, green space in urban areas, connectivity, public transport, free cultural facilities and historic preservation were more important.

SHL’s two recent competition wins – a waste-to-energy plant in Shenzhen and a new home for the West Shanghai Worker’s Palace – illustrate development in China has already moving in this direction, according to Hardie.

The British architect – who joined SHL in 2008 after working for Haworth Tompkins and David Chipperfield in London – said other key policy aspects included promoting more transparent competition processes and encouraging competition between local and foreign architects and young architects.

Initiatives to reduce construction waste and pollution, shorten construction periods and improve quality, promote passive design and energy saving, promote combined heat and centralized heating systems were also included in the guidance alongside full housing reform and support for the construction of schools, kindergartens and health facilities, he said.

Further comment

Ramόn Hone, design principal at 5+design

’It seems that this ban will now regulate the look of future projects in such a way that their aesthetic follows what has been deemed acceptable by approving bodies. This may include more than just the client and will most likely involve legal codes on what is allowed.

’All projects respond individually to a variety of conditions. So using new technologies to response to environmental and budgetary constraints will come more into play as a way of guiding and justifying the evolution of projects. This includes advances in prefabrication. But the ban seems clear on what it is against. So architects will have to be able to justify the look of their design if it calls for ’odd’ dimensions or shape. If all of this is shoehorned into an approved aesthetic, then whether it’s bizarre or not depends on which side of the lens you’re looking through.’

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