Chinese architect blasts demolition culture

Posted on May 24, 2012

The Chinese winner of architecture’s most prestigious award has criticised the wanton demolition that has left many of the nation’s cities fragmented and almost unrecognisable to their citizens.

The comments from Wang Shu, who will on Friday receive the 2012 Pritzker prize in a ceremony in Beijing, highlight widespread complaints in China about urban planning amid a process of urbanisation that saw more than 20m rural dwellers move to cities last year alone.

    Mr Wang, the first China-based Pritzker winner, told a forum of previous laureates and local architects that Chinese cities had been largely stripped of their past distinctive character and beauty. “In 30 years we have built a completely new country,” he said.

    Property development has been a core driver of the Chinese economy in recent decades, transforming cities and creating demand for building-related commodities felt in markets around the globe.

    The frenetic pace of development could slow somewhat this year amid a recent weakening of the real estate market, but the government appears anxious to stop prices falling too far and construction is expected to continue on a vast scale. China’s finance ministry on Thursday announced Rmb66bn ($10.4bn) in subsidies for local governments to build more than 2m homes for rent in 2012.

    The rapid redevelopment of cities such as Beijing has drawn international attention and admiration, not least because of the construction of a host of high-profile ultra-modern prestige projects including sports stadiums, opera houses and high-rise apartment complexes.

    But Mr Wang criticised the standard procedure of allocating large plots of land for projects often largely separated from surrounding neighbourhoods. Such developments became individual “colonies”, with city residents unable even to walk between them, he said.

    The architect – who was little known internationally until winning the 2012 Pritzker but has long argued for the protection of architectural heritage – bemoaned a tide of globalisation that had stripped China’s cities of their distinct character.

    Mr Shu lived in a traditional courtyard home in a Beijing lane as a child and he spoke of seeing a book of photographs of the city from the early 20th century that showed a city “more beautiful than Paris”.

    “Now I don’t recognise it at all,” he said.

    In his own work, Mr Wang combines modern forms with traditional materials and techniques. His flagship history museum in the eastern city of Ningbo uses bricks and other materials salvaged from neighbourhoods that were demolished to make way for new developments.

    The award of the Pritzker prize to Mr Wang was seen by some observers as an attempt by its jury to strengthen calls for the celebration and preservation of what remains of China’s architectural heritage and urban fabric.

    “The selection sends a message to the Chinese authorities and the developers they coddle: ‘respect, don’t erase the past’,” the Architectural Review magazine said in an article last month.

    Glenn Murcutt, winner of the 2002 Pritzker, told the forum that China risked embracing a “Las Vegas model” of modernity. “China needs to be really careful about forgetting the past completely,” he said.

    Zhu Xiaodi, president of the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design, said the quality of life in the capital was threatened by the “privatisation” of public space in the capital as developers carved out separate zones.

    Beijing should take as a reference the “layering” of public and private spaces in its now largely lost neighbourhoods of lanes and courtyard homes, Mr Zhu said.

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