China marks a “new era” for architecture with the ban on supertall skyscrapers and copy buildings

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China marks a

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

The end of “copied” buildings and the ban on skyscrapers taller than 500 meters (1,640 feet) are among the new Chinese government guidelines for architects, real estate developers and urban planners.
Outline what defines a “new era” for Chinese cities, a circular issued by the country’s ministry of housing and the National Commission for Development and Reforms earlier this year, it also proposes other radical measures to ensure that buildings “embody the spirit” of the surrounding environment and “highlight Chinese characteristics “.
With height restrictions already implemented in places like Beijing and a 2016 government directive calling for an end to “oversized, xenocentric, strange” buildings, the guidelines seem to formalize the changes that were already underway.

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

But according to Chinese architecture experts, some of the less appealing suggestions – such as an appeal for heritage protection, a credit system for designers and the appointment of leading architects – could signal a more subtle evolution in the way they are planned. Chinese cities.

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

“This has been in a lot of academic discussion, but somehow not in a government document so far.”

Cut to size

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

Among them are the second tallest skyscraper on the planet, the twisting Shanghai Tower at 632 meters (2,073 feet) high and the Ping An Finance Center in Shenzhen, which is 599 meters (1,965 feet) from base to tip.

In the past two years, they have been reached by the Citic Tower of Beijing and the Tianjin CTF Finance Center, respectively the seventh and ninth tallest buildings in the world. But the trend against soaring skyscrapers has been changing for some time.
The number of new buildings measuring 200 meters (656 feet) or more in China has decreased by nearly 40% last year, according to construction data from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH). In Beijing’s central business district, a new height limitation had already been applied to new proposals – a limit of only 180 meters (591 feet) according to a 2018 report by the Jones Lang LaSalle real estate company.
In other parts of the country, the Wuhan Greenland Center had its projected height cut from 636 meters (2,087 feet) to less than 500 – a decision made in 2018 after the start of construction, which required a significant redesign – with the local media citing airspace regulations. Since then the Suzhou Hungnam Center has had a planned height of 729 meters (2,392 feet) to 499 meters (1,637 feet), with the next skyscrapers in the cities of Chengdu and Shenyang “suffering the same fate”, according to the state-run tabloid Global Times.

The ship-shaped “supertall” skyscraper transforms the skyline of Beijing

Fei Chen, a senior architecture professor at the University of Liverpool in the UK, called the 500-meter limit “fairly arbitrary”, adding that the 499-meter skyscrapers are “still very, very tall buildings”. But the new document confirms the growing intolerance for “out of scale or out of context” buildings, he said.

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

“(The guidelines) respond to the identity crisis we’ve all noticed 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 competitively on the market through the construction of monuments and large public buildings.”

Therefore, the new restrictions affect both the economy and design. Above a certain height, the construction cost of skyscrapers increases exponentially with each additional floor. China’s skylines are now littered with unfinished towers as economic growth slows and developers face a credit crunch.

Workers on top of the Wuhan Greenland Center, which remains unfinished eight years after construction begins.

Workers on top of the Wuhan Greenland Center, which remains unfinished eight years after construction begins. Credit: STR / AFP / Getty Images

Second CTBUH data, about 70 Chinese buildings that were supposed to exceed 200 meters are currently “on hold”, having already started construction. Three of them were to have measured over 500 meters, including the soaring Goldin Finance 117 in Tianjin, which began over a decade ago. The aforementioned Greenland Center in Wuhan has remained unfinished and largely intact since 2017, despite its planned height being reduced.
According to Li, the new government measures embody a “new paradigm” for Chinese cities – one less that relies on marketable skyscrapers and speculative funding. To illustrate the change, compare the Shanghai Pudong district, the soaring 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 Satellite city of 2.5 million people it will be relatively low, with its real estate market subject to severe state controls.

“If you take Pudong as a Chinese urbanization paradigm from 2000 to today, then look at Xiongan – which is not dominated by real estate speculation or iconic buildings – like the new paradigm … then it’s a pretty surprising change that we are witnessing.”

A new painting

However, Li argues that the 500m 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 imitator behavior”. The Eiffel Tower of China and a London-inspired Thames Town outside Shanghai are two of the most extreme – and ridiculous – examples of how imitation architecture thrived in the 2000s.

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

A replica of the Eiffel Tower in Tianducheng, a luxury real estate development in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. Credit: JOHANNES EISELE / AFP / Getty Images

This official shift, again, may simply reflect China’s evolving design culture. But an explicit ban on plagiarism could still prove useful in a country where “the degree of quality is so different,” said Chen.

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

“In cities on the east coast, or in more developed areas, architects have better design skills, therefore they produce better buildings. But in inner cities you can still see buildings that copy the styles or architectural languages ​​of others, and this is not very good design. “

The government document also proposes a credit system – and, conversely, a blacklist – for architects to encourage compliance with planning laws and regulations. It warns against the demolition of historic buildings, traditional architecture or even century-old trees to make way for new developments, a move in line with the growing emphasis placed on heritage conservation in China. (Two Shanghai art museums, created from disused industrial oil tanks and an old power plant, are among the recent high-profile refurbishment projects in a country once known for old structures that demolish indiscriminately.)

But one of the government’s new suggestions proposes something completely new in China: the main architects of each city.

Moscow and Barcelona are among the cities that already nominate an individual to approve or veto new proposals. The idea welcomed them as a way to ensure that projects fit the general urban context.

“The hesitation is whether ensuring uniformity means that a city becomes predictable and uninteresting or if a certain degree of creativity is actually supported,” he added. “But we have a new generation (of Chinese designers) that is exceptional both in maintaining the urban fabric and in creating a very interesting architecture. The key lies in establishing a system that guarantees this process.”

The skyline of Chongqing in southwest China.

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

It remains to be seen how – or even if – the government’s most exploratory suggestions come to fruition. The new guidelines provide a broad framework for cities, but the finer details need to be resolved locally, said Chen, whose research focuses on urban governance in China.

Characterizing the circular as a series of red lines not to be crossed (more “do’s not to do” than “dos”), he also suggested that it is still necessary to work to positively articulate what constitutes good design.

“There are policies and documents that talk about what you do should not do … which is a good thing, but they never said what you do they should “, has explained.” Urban architects and planners can benefit from a fairly specific guide on what good design is.

“But this has to be connected to the local context, so I don’t expect the national government to produce a guide like this. What works in one context may not work in another.”

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