continued from page 44 they’ve been especially so in the
last few years because they’ve been brought in as gurus
coming from the West, here to show China the way. This
is, of course, changing. But, still, you have the superstars going there, and the red carpet is rolled out for
them. So already there is a certain removal from reality.
Architects like Rem Koolhaas argue that engaging
with China will have a democratizing effect.
Koolhaas has argued that? Well, I would have to see
exactly how he constructed that argument. But it seems
unlikely to me that the CCTV building is going to have
a democratizing effect. I’m not so sure that the presence
and activity of these Western design firms are going to
have an effect of bringing in the kind of political institutions that we’re familiar with here, number one being
democracy. And I don’t know how to answer the question
as to whether firms have a responsibility. China would
certainly say no. The Chinese view has always been not
to mess with another country’s political system. And I do
think that if any of these firms took a particularly noisy
stance on that, they simply wouldn’t get work anymore.
Folks who work in China in this regard quickly become
savvy to their place, their role, and the limits therein.
“It seems unlikely to me
that the CCTV building
is going to have a
Why were the Olympics so important to China?
It was largely framed by the government as a kind of
official sanctioning from the global community. Although
they wouldn’t say it publicly, a lot of people were fed up
with the amount of money—their tax money—that had
been channeled toward this grand party. Many people
were not happy about that at all. But China has just awed
the world with its sheer moxie, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. It’s created so much new
wealth. It’s become the workshop of the world. China is
like the newly rich industrialist who has been admitted to
the country club, and now he’s going to show them all
he’s ten times worthy of that gesture.
China is a country of stark contradictions. Sketch out
for me a best-case and worst-case scenario.
Worst-case scenario is that China is making all the mistakes we made. They’ve already begun to make a lot of
these: this explosive sprawl on the edges of cities, for
example. If you look at satellite photos of almost any
city, but especially the big ones along the coast, it’s like
a supernova, like an explosion across the landscape.
And what’s happening is that a lot of arable land has
been churned up for development—something on the
order of 44,000 square miles. Roughly the area of New
England has been lost in arable land. This has enormous
repercussions for the country. For the first time in history, China is now a net importer of food, whereas before
it was always able to sustain itself. China is actually
looking to Latin America, even Cuba, for leasable farmland to begin tilling for its own food needs.
There’s also their passionate embrace of the automobile. They will have the biggest national highway system
in the world by about 2020. In addition, a McKinsey study
predicts that China will be building something like 431
billion square feet of new construction over the next
seventeen years. We’re talking about a staggering and
historic amount of material need: cement, minerals,
timber. China is already scouring the globe for this stuff.
One interesting issue is this weird, neocolonial era that
Africa is in now. China has been pouring billions of dollars into development oriented toward whisking away
Africa’s natural resources. And, frankly, they don’t care
that much about the Africans. The endgame in that picture is not pretty. So, worst-case scenario, China goes
down the same oil-slicked path that we’ve been on.
And the best-case scenario?
There are lots of signs that China may well become a
model for a more sustainable way of urban development. Now, I’m being optimistic here, because every
time I get excited about these sorts of things, there will
be ten things that sober me. But there are several indications that China is already heading in the right direction. The government understands that the continued
growth of the economy and the happiness of the people
are predicated on reversing the terrible pollution in
China’s cities and putting a stop to the environmental
degradation. Going green is not a lifestyle option for
them. It’s a matter of survival. The government has
passed a lot of legislation to stop pollution. Now, the
enforcement of that is a whole other story. There’s a lot
of corruption, a lot of turning a blind eye. But China has
the world’s number one installed base of solar heating,
solar electricity, and wind power. These are areas where
China is already ahead of the rest of the world. And, if
they could apply the economies of scale—just the sheer
ambition and ability to manufacture on a large scale—to
making solar, photoelectric cells, then that really could
The twentieth century was the American century. Are
we in the Chinese century?
I think so. The rise of China will be one of the great stories of this century. I see a lot of historic parallels. At the
beginning of the twentieth century, Henry James had
spent about twenty years away from the United States.
They were critical years: the industrial revolution, large-scale immigration. And then he came back around 1904,
and he wrote about seeing those towers in Lower
Manhattan for the first time. The tone that he writes
with, regarding these buildings, had that same mix of
awe and fear, envy and admiration and befuddlement,
that I’ve felt myself and seen in others writing about
rising skyscrapers in Pudong, Shanghai, or Shenzhen.
Chicago, New York, and San Francisco were the Shenzhen and the Guangzhou of one hundred years ago. I
feel that we now look to China in a way that’s remarkably
similar to the way old-world Europeans felt about us. We
have become the Old World. Now, I’m not saying we’re
finished. But, as far as urban ambition, we are, I think,
finished. With the exception of sustainability and green
design, we have done almost nothing truly innovative in
the last thirty years in the U.S. in terms of architecture
and urbanism. So the muse of future urbanism has
moved to China. And that notion we used to have here—
that “make no little plans” kind of passion, to quote
Daniel Burnham—is long gone. Even in a Guinness Book
of World Records way, China has beaten us on all the
points: the biggest bridges, the longest tunnels, the tall-est buildings. You could j°ust go through the list. They now hold all the trophies.