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

China signals “new era” for architecture by banning super-paid skyscrapers and copycat buildings

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

End of copycat buildings and ban on skyscrapers taller than 500 meters (1,640 feet) are among the Chinese government’s new guidelines for architects, developers and urban planners.
Outlining what he calls a “new era” for China’s cities, a round issued by the country’s housing ministry and the National Development and Reform Commission earlier this year also proposed other comprehensive measures to ensure that buildings “embody the spirit” of their surroundings and “emphasize Chinese characteristics.”
The height restrictions now apply to places like Beijing and a 2016 government directive calling for the end of “big, xenocentric, strange” buildings, the guidelines seem to formalize the changes that are already underway.

Ping An Financial Center in Shenzhen is currently the fourth tallest building in the world. Credit: ANTHONY WALLACE / AFP / Getty images

According to Chinese architecture experts, some of the less attractive proposals – such as an appeal for heritage protection, a credit system for designers and the appointment of chief architects – may signal a weaker evolution in the way cities are planned in China.

“The document really isn’t just about height,” Li Shikiao, a professor of Asian architecture at the University of Virginia, said in a telephone interview. “It’s about Chinese culture, the urban context, the spirit of the city and the look of modernity.”

“It’s been in the academic discussion a lot, but somehow not in a government document so far.”

Cut to size

Of the 10 completed buildings measuring more than 500 meters worldwide, half have been found in mainland China.

Among them are the second tallest skyscraper on the planet, the twisted Shanghai Tower with a height of 632 meters (2,073 feet) and the Ping An Shenzhen Funding Center, which is located 599 meters (1,965 feet) from base to top.

They have joined them in the last two years Beijing Citic Tower and Tianjin CTF Finance Center – the seventh and ninth tallest buildings in the world, respectively. But the tide against the jumping skyscrapers has been reversing for some time.
The number of new buildings measuring 200 meters (656 feet) or more in China fell by almost 40% last year, according to construction data from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH). In the central business district of Beijing, a height limit is already being applied to new proposals – a cap of only 180 meters (591 feet) according to report for 2018 from real estate company Jones Lang LaSalle.
Across the country, the Center of Wuhan Greenland has designed its height from 636 meters (2,087 feet) to less than 500 – a decision taken in 2018, after construction began, requires significant redesign – with local media referring to airspace rulesSince then, the center of Suzhou Hungnam has planned its height from 729 meters (2,392 feet) to 499 meters (1,637 feet), and the upcoming skyscrapers in the cities of Chengdu and Shenyang are also “experiencing the same fate,” according to the state tabloid. Global Times,,

A “supertall” ship-shaped skyscraper transformed the silhouette of Beijing

Fei Chen, a senior professor of architecture at Britain’s Liverpool University, described the 500-meter line as “quite random”, adding that the 499-meter skyscrapers were “still very, very tall buildings”. But the new document confirms growing intolerance of buildings that are “out of scale or out of context,” she said.

Chen also cited official concerns about the “reckless” use of tall buildings, in which expensive and unprofitable towers are used by real estate companies to brand their designs – or by local authorities to put their cities on the map.

“The (Guidelines) respond to the identity crisis we have all seen since the 1980s, when cities began to adopt standards and types of buildings from international contexts,” she said in a telephone interview. “And since the 1990s, cities have been touted as competitive in the marketplace by building landmarks and large public buildings.”

As such, the new constraints are as much about the economy as they are about design. Above a certain height, the cost of building skyscrapers increases exponentially with each additional floor. China’s skins are already littered with unfinished towers as economic growth slows and entrepreneurs face credit crunches.

Workers over the center of Wuhan Greenland, which remains unfinished eight years after construction began.

Workers over the center of Wuhan Greenland, which remains unfinished eight years after construction began. Credit: STR / AFP / Getty images

According to CTBUH data, about 70 Chinese buildings, which were supposed to stand more than 200 meters, are currently in “detention”, and construction has already begun. Three of them were expected to measure more than 500 meters, including Tianjin’s rising Goldin Finance 117, which collapsed a decade ago. The aforementioned Greenland Center of Wuhan has remained unfinished and largely untouched since 2017, although its planned height has been reduced.
According to Li, the government’s new measures embody a “new paradigm” for Chinese cities – one less dependent on tradable skyscrapers and speculative funding. To illustrate the change, he compares the Pudong area of ​​Shanghai, a towering financial district that has risen from almost nothing in the past two decades, to Xiongan, a brand new city built 100 kilometers southwest of Beijing. Unlike Pudong, the new one 2.5 million people satellite city will be relatively low, and the real estate market will be subject to strict state control.

“If you take Pudong as a paradigm for urbanization in China from 2000 to the present, then you look at Xiongang – which is not dominated by real estate speculation or iconic buildings – as the new paradigm … then it’s a pretty amazing change.” witness. “

New frame

However, Lee argues that the 500-meter height limit is, from an academic point of view, “probably 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 copycat behavior”. China’s own Eiffel Tower and the London-inspired city of the Thames outside Shanghai are two of the most extreme – and ridiculed – examples of how imitation architecture flourished in the 2000s.

A replica of the Eiffel Tower in Tiandacheng, a luxury real estate development in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.

A replica of the Eiffel Tower in Tiandacheng, a luxury real estate development in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. Credit: JOHANNES EISELE / AFP / Getty Image

Again, this official change may simply reflect China’s changing design culture. But an explicit ban on plagiarism could be useful in a country where “the level of quality is so diverse,” Chen said.

“There is already confirmation in the architectural industry that (copying) is not welcome,” she said. “But China is huge and some cities are doing better than others.

“In East Coast cities or more developed areas, architects have better design skills, so they produce better buildings. But in the cities inside, you still see buildings that copy styles in other or architectural languages, and that doesn’t lead to very good designs. “

The government document also offers a credit system – and, conversely, a blacklist – for architects to encourage compliance with planning laws and regulations. He warns against the demolition of historic buildings, traditional architecture or even old trees to create room for new developments, which keeps pace with China’s growing emphasis on heritage conservation. (Two Shanghai Art Museums, created from obsolete industrial oil tanks and an old power plant, are among the latest renovation projects in a country once known for the indiscriminate demolition of old structures).

But one of the government’s new proposals offers something completely new in China: chief architects for each city.

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

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

The skyline of Chongqing, in southwestern China.

The skyline of Chongqing, in southwestern China. Credit: Wang Zhao / AFP / Getty Images

How – or even whether – the government’s more exploratory proposals are being implemented remains to be seen. The new guidelines provide a broad framework for cities, but finer details need to be addressed locally, said Chen, whose study focuses on China’s urban governance.

Describing the roundabout as a series of red lines that should not intersect (more “no” than “dos”), she also suggested working to positively express what constitutes a good design.

“There are policies and documents that talk about what you do you should not do … which is a nice thing, but they never said what you did Must “she explained.” Architects and urban designers can benefit from quite specific guidelines on what good design is.

“But it has to be related to the local context, so I don’t expect the national government to give instructions like this. What works in one context may not work in another.”

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