China marks new 'era' in architecture banning supertall skyscrapers and copycat buildings

China marks new ‘era’ in architecture banning supertall skyscrapers and copycat buildings

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

The completion of the copycat buildings and the ban on skyscrapers over 500 meters high are among the Chinese government’s new guidelines for architects, real estate developers and urban planners.
Describing what he calls the “new era” for Chinese cities, a circular issued by the country’s Ministry of Housing and the National Committee for Development and Reforms earlier this year also proposes other extensive measures to ensure that buildings “incorporate the spirit” of their environment and “highlight Chinese features”.
With height restrictions already in place in places like Beijing and a 2016 government directive calling for an end to “large, xenophobic, strange” buildings, the guidelines appear to formalize the changes that have already begun.

Shenzhen’s Ping An Finance Center is currently the fourth tallest building in the world. Credit: ANTHONY WALLACE / AFP / Getty Images

However, according to Chinese architecture experts, some of the less impressive proposals – such as the call for heritage protection, a credit system for designers and the appointment of architects – may signal an evolutionary development in the way Chinese cities are planned.

“The document is not just about height,” Li Li Shiqiao, a professor of Asian architecture at the University of Virginia, said in a telephone interview. “It’s about Chinese culture, the urban environment, the spirit of the city and the emergence of modernity.”

“This has been done a lot in the academic debate, but in a way it doesn’t exist in a government document so far.”

Reduce the size

Of the 10 completed buildings over 500 meters in length worldwide, half are located in mainland China.

Among them are the world’s second tallest skyscraper, the 632-meter (2,073-foot) rotating Shanghai Tower, and Shenzhen’s Ping An Finance Center, which is 599 meters (1,965 feet) from base to edge.

For the past two years, they have been part of the Beijing Citic Tower and the Tianjin CTF Finance Center, the seventh and ninth tallest building in the world, respectively. But the tide against rising skyscrapers has changed for some time.
The number of new buildings 200 meters long (over 656 feet) in China fell by almost 40% last year, according to Council building data for tall buildings and the urban habitat (CTBUH). In Beijing’s central business district, height restrictions have already been imposed on new proposals – a cap just 180 meters (591 feet) a 2018 report by real estate company Jones Lang LaSalle.
Elsewhere in the country, the Wuhan Greenland Center had its projected height of 636 meters (2,087 feet) in less than 500 – a decision taken in 2018, after construction began, which requires significant redesign – by local means. invoking airspace regulations. The Suzhou Hungnam Center has since reduced the planned altitude from 729 meters (2,392 feet) to 499 meters (1,637 feet), while the upcoming skyscrapers in the cities of Chengdu and Shenyang “also suffer the same fate,” according to the state tabloid. Global Times.

Ship-shaped “supertall” skyscraper transforms Beijing’s horizon

Faye Chen, a senior professor of architecture at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom, described the 500-meter limit as “arbitrary”, adding that the 499-meter-long skyscrapers are “still very, very tall buildings”. However, the new document confirms growing intolerance for buildings that are “out of scale or out of context,” he said.

Chen also noted the official concern about the “reckless” use of tall buildings, with which expensive and unprofitable towers are used by real estate companies to characterize their developments – or by local governments to put their cities on the map.

“(The guidelines) respond to the identity crisis we’ve all seen since the 1980s, when cities began borrowing standards and types of buildings from international contexts,” he said in a telephone interview. “And since the 1990s, cities have been promoted as competitive in the market through the construction of landmarks and large public buildings.”

Therefore, the new restrictions concern both finances and planning. Above a certain height, the cost of building skyscrapers increases exponentially with each additional floor. China’s skylights are now full of unfinished towers as economic growth slows and developers are facing pressure.

Employees in the center of Wang, Greenland, which remains unfinished eight years after construction began.

Employees in the center of Wang, Greenland, which remains unfinished eight years after construction began. Credit: STR / AFP / Getty Images

According CTBUH data, about 70 Chinese buildings that were to stand more than 200 meters are currently “waiting”, which have already begun construction. Three of them were expected to measure more than 500 meters, including Tianjin’s rising Goldin Finance 117, which broke ground a decade ago. Wuhan’s aforementioned Greenland Center has remained unfinished and largely untouched since 2017, despite its reduced height.
In Lee’s view, the new government measures suggest a “new example” for Chinese cities – one that is less dependent on marketable skyscrapers and speculative funding. To show the shift, he compares the Pudong area of ​​Shanghai, the rising economic district that has grown from almost nothing in the last two decades, to Xiongan, a brand new city built 100 kilometers southwest of Beijing. Unlike Pudong, the new Satellite city of 2.5 million people will be relatively low, with the real estate market subject to strict government controls.

“If you take Pudong as a model for Chinese urbanization from 2000 to the present, then you see Xiongan – which is not dominated by real estate speculation or virtual buildings – as the new example … then this is an amazing change that I am witnessing. “

A new framework

However, Lee argues that the 500-meter restriction is, from an academic point of view, “perhaps the least interesting” part of the new government guidelines.

Elsewhere, the circular contains a number of other measures, including a ban on “plagiarism, imitation and copying.” The Eiffel Tower in China itself and the city of Thames, inspired by London outside Shanghai, are two of the most extreme – and ridiculous – examples of how imitation architecture developed in the 2000s.

A copy of the Eiffel Tower in Tianducheng, a luxury property development in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.

A copy of the Eiffel Tower in Tianducheng, a luxury property development in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. Credit: JOHANNES EISELE / AFP / Getty Images

This official change, again, may simply reflect the changing design culture in China. However, an explicit ban on plagiarism could prove useful in a country where “the degree of quality is so different,” Chen said.

“There is already a recognition in the architecture industry that (copying) is not welcome,” he said. “But China is huge, and some cities are performing better than others.

“In cities on the east coast or in more developed areas, architects have better design skills, so they produce better buildings. But in the cities of the hinterland you still see buildings that copy the styles or architectural languages ​​of others and that doesn’t work very well. . “

The government document also proposes a credit system – and, conversely, a blacklist – for architects, to encourage compliance with design laws and regulations. It warns against the demolition of historic buildings, traditional architecture or even old trees to pave the way for new developments, a move in line with growing emphasis on preserving China’s heritage. (Two Shanghai art museums, created by unused industrial oil tanks and an old power plant, are among the recent high-profile renovation projects in a country once known for depressing old construction).

But one of the government’s new proposals proposes something completely new in China: architects for every city.

Moscow and Barcelona are among the cities already appointing a person to approve or reject a veto on new proposals. Lee hailed the idea as a way to ensure that the designs fit the overall urban environment.

“The hesitation is whether ensuring uniformity means that a city becomes predictable and uninteresting, or whether you really maintain some degree of creativity,” he added. “But we have a new generation (Chinese designers) who are great at both maintaining the urban fabric and creating very interesting architecture. The key is to establish a system that guarantees this process.”

Chongqing's horizon in southwest China.

Chongqing’s horizon in southwest China. Credit: Wang Zhao / AFP / Getty Images

How – or even if – the most exploratory proposals of the government bear fruit, we must see. The new guidelines provide a broad framework for cities, but more precise details need to be addressed locally, said Chen, whose research focuses on urban governance in China.

Describing the circular as a series of red lines that should not be crossed (more “should not” than “dos”), he also suggested that more work is needed to positively articulate what is a good design.

“There are policies and documents that talk about what you do should not we do … something that is good, but they have never said what you are must “, explained.” Architects and urban designers can benefit from very specific instructions on what a good design is.

“But that has to do with the local context, so I wouldn’t expect the national government to produce guidelines like that. What works in one context may not work in another.”

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