THE CHINESE CENTURY
“The amount of urban fabric that’s been razed to
make way for new construction is unprecedented
in the peacetime history of world cities.”
A “South California lifestyle” is a
popular enticement for home buyers,
as in the above billboard for a villa
community in Guangdong Province.
Top: Construction on the entry gate
to Fortune Garden Estate, in Beijing.
continued from page 42 very Chinese. These suburban subdivisions are the best example of that. Years ago I thought,
China is basically building McMansions. And they are
doing that. But it’s also infused with a whole Chinese
tradition. So when you see these gated communities
that look like American-style McMansions, they are that
on one level, but they’re also a contemporary manifestation of an ancient tradition of gatedness and enclosure
that runs through Chinese urbanism from way back: the
imperial compounds like the Forbidden City, the gated
wall, the traditional courtyard house.
trails system around the lake and mountain there. I
remember looking at it, thinking, The happy medium is
somewhere between these two poles. In the U.S. we
have what I call an “excess of gavel”—too much participatory democracy. Anybody can come out of the
woodwork. It doesn’t take more than a couple noisy
people to bring a project to its knees for a long time. The
problem in China: they have the opposite set of issues.
They have no gavel. They have nothing but a sledgehammer. I’ve argued that we could use a little bit more
sledgehammer here, and China could use a little bit
How do you think this development is going to play
out over time?
When talking about the scale of building in China, speed
is the other amazing piece of the story. We have these
long time frames in America when it comes to urban
planning. I’ve served on the town-planning board in
Hillsborough, North Carolina, for several years, and there’s
this little river-walk project that we have been trying to
get built for about six years—coddling, wheedling, nurturing, and arguing with the landholders to convince
them to give an easement; trying to get funding for it;
writing grants. In the seven months that I was in Nanjing,
the local government built this incredible world-class
Do Western planning and architecture firms working
in China have some sort of responsibility to speak
out about human-rights violations there?
Western firms doing work in China are in a very odd position. They’re almost in a bit of a vacuum, because they
cannot actually be the architectural designer of record.
They can only consult, really. They have to hook up with
a local firm, which is usually referred to as a design
institute. It’s a quasi-governmental entity that has the
official sanctioning power actually to sign the documents, be the architect of record. The foreign architects
are in a kind of rarified space. And continued on page 47