It’s good to be emperor. Chairman Xi Jinping said he couldn’t stand the “weird buildings” popping up around China. So Beijing’s banned them to soothe his eyes.
The National Development and Reform Commission has again proclaimed “the construction of ugly architecture must be strictly banned”. Chinese buildings must be “suitable, economic, green and pleasing to the eye”, it has declared.
However, it doesn’t define “ugly”. Nor did it describe “pleasing”.
The only actual guidance it gave is that no skyscraper should be more than 500m tall. And no copies of Western cultural icons.
Mr Xi first expressed his displeasure with trends in Chinese architecture in 2014. He announced his desire to end “oversized and weird” buildings – such as the cubist CCTV headquarters in Beijing – while addressing the launch of a culture symposium.
Since then, his tastes have begun working their way through the Communist Party system.
A slew of buildings – many of them headquarters for government institutions – have drawn down his ire. The People’s Daily news service headquarters in Beijing was attacked for resembling a giant penis, as does the Guangxi Center of New Media in Nanning, Guangxi. Several bridges looked like “female genitalia”.
More mundane examples of “weird architecture” include a doughnut-inspired skyscraper in Guangzhou and a cluster of buildings shaped like pebbles.
And then there’s the un-Chinese desire to transplant pieces of Europe throughout the country.
“Fine artworks should be like sunshine from the blue sky and the breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles,” Mr Xi proclaimed.
This isn’t the first time Beijing has sought to regulate national architecture.
Last year, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a decree ordering the “plagiarism” of buildings be “strictly prohibited”.
It referred to a spate of large-scale constructions across China that sought to replicate iconic foreign architecture, be they European renaissance towns or American neoclassical halls of governance.
A replica of the Eiffel Tower soars over semi-Parisian surrounds in Tianducheng. An Austrian village graces Guangdong. Hogwarts castle can be found in Hebei. And Sydney’s Opera House once stood in Liaoning – until it was ordered dismantled.
Everywhere, pockets of Europe have been reproduced as real estate marketing attractions – selling lifestyles, aspirations and individuality.
John Darlington, the author of Fake Heritage, argues in his 2020 book that this isn’t only about replicating foreign tourist attractions.
“It is easy to be critical of such initiatives,” he writes, “but the original aspiration was, and remains, to improve urban living.
“The copycat towns are an attempt to learn from other places, recognising that the standard Chinese model for new towns has led to endless grid towns, each orientated north-south, characterised by tower-block regularity, dreary functionality, congestion, pollution and a lack of soul.”
But Chairman Xi has had enough.
He wants to make China great again.
“To embody the spirit of the city, to show the style of the times, and to highlight Chinese characteristics, we hereby notify the relevant matters as follows,” his new architecture policy decrees. “Architectural designs must conform to urban design requirements in terms of shape, colour, volume, height and space environment,” it orders.
And regional Party officials must “comprehensively carry out urban physical examinations, and promptly remediate various ‘urban diseases’ including strange buildings”.
Chinese characteristics challenged
China’s Communist Party is worried about what it is to be Chinese. And communist.
It has imposed an all-pervasive surveillance system upon its subjects. It has sealed them off from the rest of the world through its “Great Firewall”. It’s even encouraging citizens to dob in their neighbours for expressing “mistaken opinions”.
It also insists all new architecture must “display Chinese characteristics”.
But not all of them. Nor too much.
It seems patriotic architects can take the concept of “Chinese Characteristics” too far. Among the structures deemed “ugly” is an enormous statue of the Chinese war god Guan yu. It stands as if sledding on the roof of an 8000sq m museum in Jingzhou, Hubei.
Local Communist Party delegates are still trying to decide what to do with it.
Analysts say it’s symptomatic of China’s new race towards greatness.
And it’s not yet sure what that greatness is.
“We’re in a stage where people are too impetuous and anxious to produce something that can actually go down in history,” Tongji University College of Architecture and Urban Planning deputy head Zhang Shangwu told the South China Morning Post. “Every building aims to be a landmark, and the developers and city planners try to achieve this goal by going extreme in novelty and strangeness.”
And Communist China’s “new rich” remain keen to “display a noble style and mimic ‘old money’ qualities,” the Global Times reported in 2018. It was referring to a rush at the time to build replica castles.
But such “borrowing” of successful design isn’t anything new, a University of Technology Sydney article states.
“Around the world, architects copy openly and relentlessly, and rarely acknowledge their sources,” it reads.
“In singling out “alien” architectures, the Chinese Government acknowledges architecture as a critical form of national self-realisation. Xenophobic and nationalistic impulses aside, it also shows architecture’s capacity for cultural production still matters – at least to select governments.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel