Once upon a China
 2020041488, 2020041489, 9781138224414, 9781138224438, 9781315402543

Table of contents :
Dedication Page
Title Page
Copyright Page
Chapter One: Domesticity
Dream of the Green Mansion
Chapter Two: Consumerism
Journey to the North West
Chapter Three: Democracy
The Margin of Water
Chapter Four: Adaptability
Romance of All Kingdoms
Project + Reproduction Credits

Citation preview

Dedicated to Fran Ford



CJ Lim + Steve McCloy

First published 2021 by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, OX14 4RN and by Routledge 52 Vanderbilt Avenue, New York, NY 10017 Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business © 2021 CJ Lim / Studio 8 Architects The right of CJ Lim / Studio 8 Architects to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by them in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe. British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Lim, C. J., author. | McCloy, Steve, author. Title: Once upon a China / CJ Lim & Steve McCloy. Description: Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY : Routledge, 2021. | Includes bibliographical references and index. Identifiers: LCCN 2020041488 (print) | LCCN 2020041489 (ebook) | ISBN 9781138224414 (hbk) | ISBN 9781138224438 (pbk) | ISBN 9781315402543 (ebk) Subjects: LCSH: Architecture--China--Themes, motives. | Architecture--China--Comic books, strips, etc. Classification: LCC NA1540 .L537 2021 (print) | LCC NA1540 (ebook) | DDC 720.951--dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020041488 LC ebook record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020041489 ISBN: 978-1-138-22441-4 (hbk) ISBN: 978-1-138-22443-8 (pbk) ISBN: 978-1-315-40254-3 (ebk)






Dream of the Green Mansion




Journey to the North West


Chapter Three: DEMOCRACY


The Margin of Water




Romance of All Kingdoms






Once Upon a Time…’ is the threshold by which we enter a

narrative past. A closer translation of the typical Chinese story opening 很久很久以前 is ‘a very, very long time ago’. The time travelled into the past is of course totally ambiguous in stories, as is the requirement for the narrative to speak of true real-life events. Tales passed down by the spoken word and re-writing are subject to degradation of their empirical evidence – versions of events carried between generations are shaped, textured and coloured by their consecutive bearers, and inevitably begin transforming into legends or myths. These Chinese ‘whispers’ should primarily be explored through empathy and imagination. History is contaminated with seductive and narcissistic assertions, shadows, lies and age-old deceptions. It is also seasoned and spiced by bizarre and idiosyncratic customs and cultural activities, and by stories of great beauty, honour and sadness.



During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 until 1976, the Communist Party of China (CPC) ordered a bibliocaust, the mandatory burning of books. Mao Zedong, the chairman of the party, deemed that the majority of literary works were ‘poisonous weeds’ and the drastic actions were intended to destroy the legacy of feudal and capitalist narratives, clearing the fields of independent thoughts for the planting of a newly constructed collective ideology. ‘There is no revolution like the Communist revolution. You simply burn all the books, kill all the thinking people and use the poor proletariat to create a very simple benchmark to gauge social change.’1 More than four decades later, books are migrating back into households and libraries all across the country. Preoccupied by alternative ideas of Chinese living, Ou Ning, the activist, artist and curator, is confident that bringing a branch of Nanjing’s Librairie Avant-Garde to the rural Bishan would be a key ingredient for his utopian artistic commune: ‘Today, bookstores are far more popular than museums in China’s cities. Chinese people are more interested in books than art. A book might be helpful for their job or education, and there is a strong cultural belief that books can change your life.’2

Bookstore frenzy is part of a 21st century capitalist phenomenon that has not been lost on China. Thousands of fans would form huge lines and even camp outside stores in time for the release



of new titles in the ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Hunger Games’ series. Some Chinese students read the Potter stories to improve their English, translating every unfamiliar word by using a dictionary with their friends.3 But this hunger pales into insignificance compared to that for the first shipments of Western classics following the Cultural Revolution. Author Yu Hua, still a child in the late 1970s, recalls the excitement and the queueing that was required just to enter the bookstore, and ultimately the disappointment of those (including himself) who were too late: ‘We would gather around somebody we knew and enviously reach out a hand to touch their reprints of Anna Karenina, Le Père Goriot, and David Copperfield. Having lived so long in reading famine, we found it a matchless pleasure just to feast our eyes on the new covers of these classics. Some generously held the books up to our noses and let us sniff their subtle, inky smell. For me that odour was a heady scent.’4

In China, ‘Dream of the Red Mansion’, ‘Journey to the West’, ‘The Water Margin’, and ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ are regarded as the Four Great Classic Novels. These seminal pre-modern fictions are extensively read, from scholars to governing rulers, and contain diverse voices and philosophical perspectives on history as well as satires that have defined past developments of Chinese societies and politics. Fiction has not always enjoyed high status in



traditional China, as a result of ‘moral and aesthetic judgements rather than a political one’.5 The Tang dynasty marks the era in which scholars first came to distinguish fiction from history, and the narratives were some of the earliest examples of storytelling employed to achieve social change in China. During the literary inquisition of the Manchus, all works containing anti-dynastic sentiment were comprehensively destroyed. Confucian themes of loyalty, filial piety, chastity and righteousness, played a role of unquestioned importance in the development of Chinese fiction, but the situation changed – storytelling started to make the readers question their own lives, which included ‘the practise of consulting an astrologer in matters of betrothal, employing match-makers in arranged marriages, the demands made on women, the excessive emphasis placed on having a male heir, the privileges of the upper classes, and other inequities inherent in the social system’.6

Storytelling has always had great power, and writing can spread empathy and ideas like no other medium. This is clearly demonstrated by the ideas gleaned from the writings of Confucius and Karl Marx – the foundations for many of China’s political structures and personal belief systems. There recalls a time where the only books anyone had in China were unopened box-sets of Mao’s collected writings, and the ‘Little Red Book’ (1964). During



the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party of China printed an estimated five billion copies of the ‘Little Red Book’, over 500 editions and 50 languages – considering a total world population of around four billion in 1976 that equates to more than enough copies for each and every living man, woman and child on the planet. The principled texts sought to energise the poor into having a common aim for a utopian world, and a world-wide Marxist-Leninist victory, but recognised that contradictions would need to be faced with struggle and war. Mao prepared the ground for modern China, but just as in George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (1949), he instilled the dogma and belief that eternal peace meant eternal war.

For scholars of China, it is pertinent to understand the power that Mao attributed not just to literature but also to comics and cartoons, having claimed that their widespread effect on peasants was akin to a population where everyone had been through ‘political school’!7 If only architectural drawings could employ similar humour, critique and storytelling, then they too might have significant relevance and effectiveness! In ‘Once Upon a China’, comics is the unorthodox but extraordinary medium for architectural speculations, the communication of design intent and the understanding of how urban form and its infrastructures affect our daily lives. The eccentric characteristics of comics enriches the process of



conception and conceptualisation of design – the fragmented yet sequential nature proves versatile in the imagination of spatial experiences, enabling the complex story of the place, brief and building to materialise gradually, perhaps even gaining a delightful and surprising sense of continuous drama as spaces unfold. At the same time, the politicisation of architecture through comics would offer the coming generations of Chinese architects the critical thinking to reimagine the urban condition beyond the exuberance of non-contextual Western capitalist models.

‘Once Upon a China’ is an architectural story with exploratory spirit and emotions, and each chapter is conceived as a specific theme of Chinese identity – domesticity, consumerism, democracy and adaptability. Correspondingly, ‘Dream of the Red Mansion’, ‘Journey to the West’, ‘Water Margin’, and ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ are employed to provide the humanity and poetic design stimulus for each of the case studies to re-evaluate and empathise with the nation’s identity – its different forms, its collective phenomena, and its fragility, freedom and limitation. Whether it is reconstructing an identity from the past, or importing from external sources, or adapting to the unexpected conditions of a future environment to identify new forms of architecture and urbanism, the narratives of the chapters are intricately linked. ‘Adaptability’ focuses on



the resilience of communities and the environment in the age of rampant ‘Consumerism’. ‘Democracy’ seeks to situate itself within sustainable policies and politics to adapt society, economy and the city. ‘Domesticity’ rekindles the optimism of the home-front and humanity in citizens who are pessimistic about relentless urbanisation and inequality, and the weight of material excess.

There is undoubtedly a synergy between the medium of comics and the city as a living organism of diverse identities. The editors of ‘Comics and the City: Urban Space in Print, Picture and Sequence’ (2010), Jörn Ahrens and Arno Meteling, emphasise how comics ‘specifically urban topoi, self-portraits, forms of cultural memorizing, and variant readings of the city have special competences for capturing urban space and city life, and representing it aesthetically because of their hybrid nature consisting of words, pictures, and sequences’.8 In the real and the imagined inhabitation of urban environments, ‘comics and other forms of popular media have circled back to the pulp magazine imagery of early science fiction in search of striking new ways to represent the directions our society is taking. In some cases, they do so to regain some of the giddy excitement about the world of tomorrow’.9 The comic-inspired drawings in this book seek to engender a sense of optimism and to reappraise Chinese futures,



especially when relating to socio-political visions, and to the current practices in Chinese urban design and architecture that take so little of humanity into account.

‘If I could think what I would do, other than architecture, it would be to write the new fairy tale, because from the fairy tale came the airplane, and the locomotive, and the wonderful instruments of our minds... it all came from wonder.’ – Louis I. Kahn10

COMICS AND ITS POLITICAL IDENTITY A city is an ongoing rehearsal of spatial choreographies influenced by many determining factors including political ideologies; and by the same token, comics is a palimpsest of how we act, think, fear and dream collectively. When ‘pen is put to paper’, narratives are written and re-written, cities are born and reborn, whether by the hand of the master architect, the visionary monarch, or the imaginative author. It is not just the great novels and treatises that inspire political engagement of the everyday citizen; the ephemeral commentaries of political satire and humorous imagery can communicate instantly and effectively. There exists a long history of comics shifting perspectives to reinforce power and ideas, a history that can be found in cultures from all over the world. The history of the modern-Western comics began in America around 1900; this is



a definitive moment where the essential qualities of the medium become ‘inseparably tied to the notion of the city’.11 In the Chinese context, the illustrated scrolls with calligraphy eventually led to ‘Manhua’ (impromptu sketches) and the ‘big-character posters’ of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The tradition of storytelling with comic-like illustrations dates from the Western Han dynasty. Pictures of heroes have been found displayed on walls, and carved into stones all throughout ancient times. John A. Lent and Xu Ying, authors of ‘Comics Art in China’ (2017), explained that ‘for centuries, Chinese painters poked fun at the social and political systems under which they worked. As with artists of dissent in similar circumstances, they veiled their meanings’,12 and related the golden ages in cartooning to the days where political and social life were deeply fraught. The relationship between the citizen and the political systems has played out even more prominently in the comics of the last few hundred years. ‘The unsettling and turbulent times were ripe for cartoonists, whose vitriol spewed out towards such a multitude of targets... humour was now considered an indispensable element of modernity.’13

Mao Zedong exploited comic-like illustrations for political gains – the Communist Party of China quickly grabbed onto the strategy of



using cartoons with simple slogans to produce widespread, speedy and effective weapons of propaganda and war. The printed image can deal a shocking and emotive blow to the reader; in a few attentiongrabbing seconds it can communicate and manipulate before the readers have time to consult their own thoughts or misconceptions on the matter. This form of graphical communication is ephemeral enough, fast enough and ambiguous enough to deliver political and ideological critique (and perhaps consequential urban change) to a wide, and perhaps quite inattentive, audience. For architects, comics is a powerful tool to instil their design with a socio-political position – be that of influence, awareness or even defiance (innovation). While the golden age of Manhua had been in the 1920s and 30s, the period that followed Mao’s death in 1976 was the highest point of freedom of expression, a time where printed cartoons and comics were employed to criticise government propaganda.14

In recent times, Manhua no longer relies on the printed media. With readily available social media and online publication, technology has offered unlimited opportunities for political animators and cartoonists. Comics, like other forms of cartoons and animations, has become increasingly digitised, and there are concerns that the exciting territory and the temptation of the three-dimensional is perhaps undermining some of the clarity of expression. Lent and



Xu argue that three-dimensional and vector-graphics are often ‘too additive – too detailed – in an art form that traditionally reduced things to their essentials’; they feel that the tools could marginalise political comic illustrators when trying to hold a critical thinking position within a larger theme, or when dealing with complex softwares.15 Yet we must work within our era - and so we embrace the contrary, mindful that digitisation has offered the comic-inspired drawings in this book the benefit of multidisciplinary and critical engagements with diverse aesthetic interactions between humans and the built environment in a literary, poetic or philosophical manner. Together, the two-dimensional analogue-made marks with the digitally aided three-dimensional layers retain the tension and nuance of a traditionally assembled collage.

As architects and designers, we are familiar and dexterous with tools which blur the distinction between reality and fiction. ‘Rem Koolhaas in his proposal for Euralille in the 90s, used the language of comics to get his idea of hyper-modernism across. To ensure that people (and the government) would understand and be able to identify themselves with a very conceptual project, the networked city, he didn’t use floor plans, elevations or perspectives. Instead he adopted the language of comics’, argued Francois Rambert, co-curator of the comics exhibition ‘Archi et BD, la ville dessinée’



(2010).16 Even with Koolhaas’s appeal for historic preservation of the Beijing Hutongs lending the architect a noble and considerate side to his reputation, there is a characterisation in ‘Batman: Death by design’ (2013) of ‘an affected, narcissistic genius’ Netherlandish master builder named Kem Roomhaus. The threat of Roomhaus and his techno-utopian, competition-winning proposals is finally ended by Batman and his alter-ego Bruce Wayne. The DC Comics’ graphic novel by Chip Kidd and Dave Taylor is a cautionary tale of corruption and architectural hubris highlighting the detrimental effects on civic culture of architectural destruction in Gotham City, but could equally be set in any Chinese city.

In the history of comics and the city, ‘Amazing Archigram / Zoom’ (1964) deconstructed the comic superhero, discovered modernity and became the stimulus for much of the heroic era of visionary architecture of the 60s and 70s. Archigram reinvented architecture for the age of the consumer by using bold comics language with speech bubbles and onomatopoeias, enriched with references to graphic narratives, Pop Art imagery, advertising and technology. The anthropologist and author Mélanie van der Hoorn also recognises the ability of comics to question contemporary society and identity: ‘…often dismissed as a light-footed, low-threshold form of amusement, but perhaps it is exactly for this reason that



comics functions as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, bringing serious and critical remarks in an unobtrusive way.’17 The colourful fourpage comic strip ‘Metaperlach: The strip on the end of planning tyranny and the beginning of democratic process planning’ (1969), famously derided bureaucracy and those who followed rules and prescriptions blindly when designing.

Might architecture be more accessible if they are designed as responsive satires? Following a similar line of enquiry, MVRDV’s Comic and Animation Museum in Hangzhou attempts to bring comics to life in a three-dimensional interpretation of the twodimensional speech bubble motif. Perhaps every city should have a comics store – a forum to bring together environmental, social and political protagonists from opposing positions. Comics and bookstores, immersed with their own beguiling stories, serve as sanctuaries and ‘should provide space, vision and nurture the city with its humanitarian spirit. It’s a place for people to have dreams in the city’18 declared Qian Xiaohua, the owner of Nanjing’s Librairie Avant-Garde located beneath Wutaishan Stadium, inside a former government underground parking lot once used as a bomb shelter. While the massive 4000-square-metre Nanjing outlet is perceived to be a ‘spiritual guide’, Ou Ning’s Librairie Avant-Garde in Bishan village – in a former cowshed converted from a local clan



ancestral hall surrounded by rice paddies – is a call for a renewed relationship with the countryside and economic revitalisation without resorting to industrialisation. The social experiment echoes the complementary infiltration of Archigram’s comic-strip Instant City (1968).

There is increased awareness of unsustainable environmental and unethical social practices, partly attributed to storytellers in the mass media. Science provides statistical proof that humanity is both perpetrator and victim, but statistical abstraction fails to engage the public imagination in the way story-shaped issues can. Over the following chapters, we will delve into China’s literature, myths, hear-says, political propaganda and dissident poetry; the act of interrogation is required to draw from diverse contexts to determine China’s built environmental futures. The populist, economic, political and historic stories of the world’s most populous country are immensely fertile resources from which to speculate new architectural imaginations through the ideas of representation and the potential of the hybrid text-and-image medium of comics.

CHINESE TRAJECTORIES China was once the epitome of civilisation. And led by different ideologies and aspirations over the centuries, the nation along with



its comics art has reincarnated time and time again. Chinese comics has actively engaged in the years of socio-political dissatisfaction with national government and colonial or other interfering foreign nations. So often the wings of progress cast shadows of exploitation, the strength of riches threatens democracy and equality, and the corruption of power facilitates a reputation of greed and suspicion. But still China surges ahead.

In ‘Understanding the Chinese City’ (2014), Li Shiqiao identifies ‘… the overwhelming expansion of Chinese cities today and the viable economic life they accommodate that brought a pressing need for theory. The unexpected but compelling development of Chinese cities since the 1980s have aroused tremendous attention outside the relative confines of sinology; there is a genuine sense that what is taking place in China could indeed become a common but unfamiliar future.’19 There is the need for, and the reality of, new social interpretations and imaginative spatial politics, and it is in this arena that we situate the chapters of ‘Once Upon a China’ – for the benefit of the joint endeavours of local and foreign interpreters and agents of change, who will determine the next era for China.

Mao Zedong’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ campaign led the nation into a tumultuous period in the late 1950s and early 60s. The radical



social system swiftly relinquished power to Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, which unleashed China’s economic boom and capitalist ambitions. The ‘opening of China’ has affected all areas of life, and one of the beneficiaries is the built environment – China has since been building cities at a rate of knots. The state has ushered in a massive construction boom that has achieved what seems like astronomic progress to some, and to others this vast consumption of resources has left unforgiveable waste and terrifying environmental damage. The expansion of generic and expedited construction styles has torn huge gaps in historical urban fabric, with local communities pushed out of their home cities and replaced by those drawn by the magnet of commerce. Grand architectural gestures such as those for the 2008 Beijing Olympics have had massive political emphasis, but in many cases the aspirations were poorly constructed, while icons designed for once-in-a-lifetime sporting events lay dormant and almost completely misused.

At the time of writing, China’s population is estimated at around 1.4 billion and is equivalent to 18.59 per cent of the world’s total population according to the United Nations Population Data. Despite innumerable new ‘instant cities’ built across the country, these ‘mathematical model’ cities, complete with housing, cultural



centres and civic spaces, lack inhabitants apart from the employees of government institutions. The critical mass of Chinese migrants from rural areas remains captivated by the megacities such as Beijing, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Beijing, as observed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, had already quadrupled in size between 1999 and 200920 before announcing that in coming years, the capital will be further transformed and grow the metropolitan zone to around six times that of New York. ‘Beijing is the most inhuman city that I have ever lived in, even among Chinese cities. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this. Since we are an inhuman society, we should have an inhuman city’,21 lamented Ai Weiwei, the celebrated Chinese political artist.

It is a sad and frustrating set of affairs, to consider that the country’s recovery from a cultural revolution may not really include all that much re-investment in ‘real’ culture. The capitalist system seems so antagonistic and the business world so treacherous, that the quality of heritage, literature, art and storytelling is almost completely missing, or confined to the shadows. What remains, apart from the pastiche, is a cynical commercial antiquities platform, where artefacts are judged to be an attractive currency to store wealth. Those same private investors and custodians serve what they believe to be a patriotic duty, to carefully protect and



invest in the treasures of cultural history while operating under high risk, especially in a market where the authentic and the replica are difficult to determine.22 With ever more global challenges facing China, now far-outgrown of its adolescent stage, interrogation can be made into how historical and cultural approaches in design speculation might offer clues for alternative spatial models.

Historically, the operations and consequences of Chinese domesticity, consumerism, democracy and adaptability have often received criticism from the West. Before the 2008 Olympics, severe traffic controls and temporary closures of factories and power stations were imposed in Beijing and its surrounding areas as the city was required to improve air quality for over half a million tourists and sports fans visiting.23 In December 2015, Beijing issued the first ever air pollution ‘Red Alert’24 – smog has served as an uncomfortable warning that the country’s existing manufacturing and coal-fired energy production are threats to future generations.

Nevertheless, China remains critical to the global clean energy story as Climatescope 2020 reported, ‘China and India continue to be the biggest markets for clean energy investment with China far and away the largest. Between them, the two nations accounted for $94 billion of new wind/solar investment and 76GW of wind/solar



build in 2019. China led the world with 62GW of wind/solar added. India built 14GW.’25 While renewables provide significant economic growth opportunities and the Chinese are likely to continue in that vein, ‘China, to be clear, is still the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and it doesn’t plan to peak its emissions until 2030. But its early commitment to clean energy means it can continue its rapid rate of growth with far less pollution than it would produce otherwise.’26

China’s urbanisation also faces other complications, as a result of the country’s ‘one-child policy’ and increased life expectancies; the threat of a 4-2-1 family will play heavily on the minds of the young. When economic migrants of working age move to cities, they leave behind two generations of elderly, but continue to have the traditional responsibility to provide financial security for the parents and sometimes four grandparents. Furthermore, the country’s workforce is beginning to diminish as a percentage of the whole, and with it comes the shrinkage in the country’s capacity as the world’s factory. There have been predictions that by 2030, China will have to import workers from outside its borders rather than exporting them. ‘In the absence of predictable institutions, all areas of Chinese society have relied on guanxi, the web of connections that often has extended family relations at the centre. But what



happens when there are fewer extended families? One result could be a move towards a more predictable legal system and (possibly) a more open political culture.’27 As of 2016, the national birth planning policy became a universal ‘two-child policy’ per family.

Society is changing, energy consumption needs changing, and together with the changing climate, China’s resilience depends on being a fully connected society, and on reimagining relationships between globalisation and localisation, amongst individuals as well as governments and corporate decision-makers. The future of Chinese urbanism and architecture will be radical, but should learn from the mistakes of the past, from the laboratory-cities of the West, and perhaps from the virtues of its own identity and stories – without first being wiped clean. And if the rest of the world wants to connect with China, to work together across borders and mindsets, we have to know each other’s stories. Former US President Barack Obama advocates: ‘If you know someone, if you’ve talked to them face-to-face, if you can forge a connection, you may not agree with them on everything, but there’s some common ground to be found, and you can move forward together. We want people to be able to get outside of themselves and experience and understand the lives of somebody else, which is what a good story does. It helps all of us feel some sort of solidarity with each other.’28



NOTES 1. WW Ai, ‘Weiwei-isms’, Larry Walsh (ed.), Princeton University Press, 2013, p.43 2. N Ou, ‘The China Issue’, ICON magazine, James McLachlan (ed.), March 2018, p.73 3. Xinhua News Agency, ‘Chinese “Muggles” Meet Harry Potter Together with the World’, China Daily, 21 July 2007 [http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2007-07/21/ content_5440958.htm], retrieved 11 February 2018 4. H Yu, ‘China in Ten Words’, AH Barr (trans.), Anchor Books, New York, 2011, p.55 5. WLY Yang & CP Adkins, ‘Critical Essays on Chinese Fiction’, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1980, p.1 6. WLY Yang & CP Adkins, ‘Critical Essays on Chinese Fiction’, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1980, pp.xii–xiv 7. JA Lent & Y Xu, ‘Comics Art in China’, University Press of Mississippi, 2017, p.24 8. J Ahrens & A Meteling (eds.), ‘Comics and the City: Urban space in print, picture and sequence’, Continuum, London, 2010, p.5 9. J Ahrens & A Meteling (eds.), ‘Comics and the City: Urban space in print, picture and sequence’, Continuum, London 2010, p.9 10. LI Khan, ‘Conversations with Students’ (second edition), Rice University School of Architecture and Princeton Architectural Press, Houston, 1998, p.15 11. J Ahrens & A Meteling (eds.), ‘Comics and the City: Urban space in print, picture and sequence’, Continuum, London 2010, p.4 12. JA Lent & Y Xu, ‘Comics Art in China’, University Press of Mississippi, 2017, pp.4–6 13+14. JA Lent & Y Xu, ‘Comics Art in China’, University Press of Mississippi, 2017, p.23 15. JA Lent & Y Xu, ‘Comics Art in China’, University Press of Mississippi, 2017, p.192



16. E Sommariva, ‘The City in the Comics’, Domus, 16 June 2010 [https://www. domusweb.it/en/architecture/2010/06/16/the-city-in-the-comics.html], retrieved 11 March 2018 17. M van der Hoorn, ‘Bricks & Balloons: Architecture in comic-strip form’, 010 Publishers, Rotterdam, 2012, p.96 18. F Cha, ‘Bookmark This! World’s Best Bookstores’, CNN: Travel, 4 August 2015 [http:// edition.cnn.com/travel/article/worlds-coolest-bookstores-new/index.html], retrieved 11 March 2018 19. SQ Li, ‘Understanding the Chinese City’, SAGE Publications, London, 2014, p.xxii 20. NASA Earth Science News Team, ‘Beijing Quadrupled in Size in a Decade’, NASA Finds, 5 June 2015 [https://www.nasa.gov/jpl/beijing-quadrupled-in-size-in-a-decade­ nasa-finds], retrieved 7 January 2021 21. WW Ai, ‘Ai Weiwei Speaks: With Hans Ulrich Obrist’, Penguin Books, 2011, p.34 22. N Collins, ‘Rise of the Chinese Antiques Market’, The Telegraph, 10 November 2010 23. J Yardley, ‘Beijing’s Olympic Quest: Turn smoggy sky blue’, The New York Times, 29 December 2007 24. BBC News, ‘China pollution: First ever red alert in effect in Beijing’, 7 December 2015 [https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-35026363], retrieved 6 January 2021 25. Climatescope, ‘Emerging Markets Outlook 2020: Energy transition in the world’s fastest growing economies’, Bloomberg NEF, 9 December 2020, p.3 26. T McDonnell, ‘China Is Absolutely Destroying the US on Clean Energy’, Mother Jones, 24 November 2015 [http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2015/11/china­ absolutely-destroying-us-clean-energy], retrieved 3 December 2015 27. The Economist, ‘China’s Achilles Heel’, 21 April 2012 [http://www.economist.com/ node/21553056], retrieved 3 December 2015 28. B Obama, ‘American Factory: A short conversation with the Obamas’, Netflix, 2019




Chapter One



Where do we begin with the plethora of urban and architectural stories that is the product of China’s 21st century triumph and its future trajectories? Perhaps, by taking a macro-view of domestic life before looking at re-definitions of Chinese culture and everyday life, sustainability, and global urban shifts. Infrastructure, governance and international relations have had an impact on the domestic conditions of the citizenry, from the traditional and vernacular, through to suburbia and into the futuristic living of dense megacities. We will examine if the past has any embedded values that the coming era could benefit from, or if in-fact it is the revolutionary capitalism and density of modernism that will provide the imaginative and enlightened homes of the future. In ‘The Private Future’ (1975), the architect and author Martin Pawley saw the Western world leading the private revolution, but this is no longer necessarily the case.



‘…society is on the brink of collapse – not into crime, violence, madness or redeeming revolution, as many would believe – but into withdrawal.’1 Pawley recognised that unexpected themes would come to define the future, and detailed how, en-masse, individuals enthusiastically abandon the whole system of communities, social constructs and shared values that had always grounded both public and family life, and gradually ‘live private lives of an unprecedented completeness with the aid of technology which is evolving more and more into a pattern of socially atomising appliances’.2

Since the 1970s, China’s population has grown by hundreds of millions, and the Chinese economy has grown from the 8th or 9th largest GDP to the 2nd largest. If predictions data are to be believed, China is likely to stride ahead and become the largestever economy, by a clear margin, in the coming decades. The revolutions of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping tore-up the rule books of society and urbanity respectively. In Deng’s economic reforms, ‘domestic stability is a precursor to modernisation which included bringing in investment and technology from abroad, accepting that some regions and individuals would “get rich quickly” and widen inequality, rewards for those advancing science, technology, and productivity improvements, and decentralisation of decision making’.3 Communism has since given way to ‘capitalism


Chapter One

with Chinese characteristics’ – tens of millions of the population are either preparing to move or have already moved to urban areas, where they share a collective ambition: individual progress. The Population Reference Bureau estimates that by 2050 about 113 billion people will have ever lived, meaning China’s astounding population (around 1.4 billion in 2050) comprises over one-and-half per cent of all the people ever to have born, even after thousands of years, and hundreds of generations of civilisation and cities.4 What is emerging is an enormous anthropomorphic experiment, and China has an identity crisis.

Privatisation is spreading rapidly through China. The genius of the Chinese model is that individuals react more readily as consumers, and with power and industry going hand-in-hand in the form of politics and production. If ‘no one knows his place any more, only what he (or she) wants’5 then that allows the isolated, singular ambition of the private endeavour to be fed by consumption of technology, mass marketed goods and energy – proportional to the isolation and disengagement. As we neglect our place in society, the opportunity is left open for our roles to be re-written by power and commerce. It is understandable that large economies, often with a self-interested leadership, may relish a regime that maintains the order of the consuming masses.



Satellite imagery reveals astonishing constellations of domesticity glowing-out in the night. ‘China’s recent urbanisation push can be seen as an all or nothing gamble on developing an insulated economy that is based on domestic production and consumption. To this end, the country has physically, economically and socially restructured itself. Thousands of villages have been swept off the face of the earth; hundreds of new cities and myriad new towns have taken their place, well in advance of the populations and businesses that are intended to fill them’,6 wrote Wade Shepard in ‘Ghost Cities of China’ (2015). It is estimated that by 2030, one billion or 70 per cent of the Chinese population will be urbanites,7 and no zoning laws, no listed heritage or other well-intentioned concerns of democratic societies can obstruct the march of Chinese stateorchestrated urbanisation. ‘Cloud Citizen’, in Shenzhen by Urban Future Organisation, is one of many examples in the megacities building bonanza, characterised by multi-level vertical densification skyscrapers fuelled by such progress. With towers measuring 680 metres, the 1.7-million-square-metre infrastructures of housing are interweaved with offices, parks, and cultural facilities feverishly linked by sky bridges and plazas. It is as much a strategy for how to be a singular megacity, as it is a liveable future attempting to provide answers to China’s questions of identity and humanity – the humaneness of China is vital for the rest of the world.


Chapter One

Once upon a time, before the advent of inhumane and homogenous megacities, there were distinctive architectural typologies that have defined and re-affirmed Chinese domesticity for centuries, including the Fujian Tulou, the hybrid East–West shikumen terraces in Shanghai and the subterranean Sanmenxia in Henan Province. Throughout history, the most basic residential identity is the siheyuan, a courtyard form commonly found amongst hutongs in Beijing. Dynasties have changed along with traditional and vernacular typologies; their materials and construction wisdom have all too regularly been marginalised by low quality, generic or plagiarised Western styled concrete apartment complexes. We know that historical preservation is not a new idea in China, but for most purposes, it is an idea that is ignored in favour of developing the central business district, the highway and the shopping mall. At the same time, many former inhabitants of pre-1949 cities and former work-unit compounds have ‘traded their substandard privatised public housing for much more spacious and better equipped ones in newly constructed gated communities suburbs. There is a strong desire among homeowners to distinguish themselves from others through housing consumption and lifestyle, including the quest for privacy and escape from state surveillance.’8 In China, ownership of a dream home is a vehicle towards the good life.



FORMS ENRICHED BY LIVED EXPERIENCE The form of urbanism and the society that shapes it have a mutually dependent relationship; however, it is a relationship expressed in subtlety and nuance. It is, of course, quite possible to have a rich inhabitation of bland buildings, just as it is for a spatially intricate and exuberantly finished architecture to be abandoned. The dense urban centres of the past developed streets and compositions of built forms that depended on proximity of and symbiosis between economic and political factors; the intangible and invisible infrastructures that evolved over time extended far beyond the remit of ‘design’ per se.

A key area of study for architects and planners is to understand and resolve the sometimes dichotomous relationship between the urban form and its lived experience. For if we can understand how to humanise the city, we might enable a future with a rewarding and civilised domestic life. The geometrically precise and grand scale of new Chinese megacities and their architecture can be alienating for those who are used to the ad hoc, organic density of urban villages and rural towns as there is a marked shift from centres that rely on relationships to those of calculation. Across China, there is just a small percentage of settlements remaining that could be classified as embodying traditional characteristics – the Beijing Hutong


Chapter One

and the Shanghainese Shikumen Longtang, for example, inform the urban grain as well as the form of domesticity, drawing upon ideals, necessities and ways of social engagements that have been practised for generations.

The hutong is a like a fractal element of old Beijing, a microcosm of the overall city form of courtyards, gates and countless layers of domestic spaces. The historic grid pattern of centrally planned Beijing, from concentric rings of arterial roads and ceremonial axes to residential hutong lanes, radiates from the Forbidden City. In the early maps and plans, the vision and relationship between the palace and the urban patterns of the wider city are not just coherent, but intrinsic to one another. It was estimated there were over 6000 hutongs of all sizes, with 4500 located in inner city districts.9 Unlike the linear big streets and small streets which run north–south, the irregular and twisting hutongs mostly run east–west in order to connect the tightly packed traditional single-storey siheyuan courtyard houses of assorted sizes.10 The author Iain Masterton, who photographed Juer Hutong and Zhugan Hutong in ‘To the Hutongs’ (2006) before their traumatic demolition, reminisced, ‘I rode off the busy main streets and into hutongs and was immediately struck by how quiet and peaceful they were. The city immediately took on a much smaller scale and it felt as if I was in a rural village and not



a major metropolis. A man was having a shave in the street from a woman barber who carried her instruments around in a tricycle. Old men were playing mah-jong and groups of women were sitting in the lane passing the day. Whenever I turned a corner I came across something unexpected.’11

Typically timber-framed with grey brick and downward curving grey tiled eaves, the siheyuan comprises four buildings dispersed to create a rectangular form surrounding an inner courtyard. The houses engage with Beijing’s sunlight and climatic conditions to embody traditional Chinese morality and Confucian ethics in their spatial organisation. The northern main building is for the head of the family and is designed to block the bitter northern winds and sand while allowing sunlight from the south to light the main living spaces and an ancestral worship shrine. The wife and the inresidence concubines occupy opposite ends of the main building. With less sunlight, the east and west buildings are assigned to the sons. The eastern end of each block is always assigned to the person with seniority, for example the wife or the eldest son. The building on the south side with the least sunlight functions as family reception, dining room and study; and as China is the archetypal patriarchal society, the remaining spaces at the back of the south block are for servants and unmarried daughters.


Chapter One

Just as in the tulou in Fujian, the form of the siheyuan provides security and privacy. The courtyard, a peaceful open-air living room that cultivates cordial ambience and daily conversations amongst family members, is closely tied to the traditional Chinese domesticity. The rich have a succession of connecting courtyards, while the middle classes usually have a single courtyard with the occasional pavilion, and the poorer families might rent a single room off the courtyard.12 Siheyuan were subject to strict planning restrictions on height, design, colour and decoration; it was considered unthinkable for ordinary citizens to have houses taller or more opulent in their aesthetics than the imperial residence.13 The allocation of siheyuans were graded according to status: noble families with wealth were permitted to live closer to the centre of the ring on the east and west of the imperial palace. Commoners, tradesmen, artisans and labourers were further away from the palace on the north and south sides, with smaller configurations.

After 1949, each originally constructed single-family siheyuan gradually became a home for anywhere up to a dozen or more unrelated families. The cramped conditions were characteristic of the political ideology of the Cultural Revolution, requiring families to live in communal setting. By this time, the landscaped tranquillity of the courtyards was replaced with makeshift lodgings,



cooking utensils, hanging laundry, bicycles and mounds of cooking and heating coal. Having replaced the only composting toilet in every courtyard with building extensions, families resorted to post-revolutionary public toilets ‘consisting of a tiny room for each sex, in which a shallow ditch has been dug into the earth. A row of small concrete slabs bridges the open excavation to facilitate squatting. If partitions exist at all between stalls, they are rarely more than a metre high. Outside, there is a water tap.’14 A 2004 survey by the Tibet Heritage Fund International found 600 families share eight public toilets in Chaodou, 160 families share three in Yandai, and in Gulou, 130 families from 16 siheyuan share three toilets – that amounts to 40 families sharing a public toilet.15 The facilities, although maintained by local government, lacked hygiene and usually were not connected to any sewage system, so had to be emptied regularly via pump trucks.

Once numbered in the thousands, the hutongs are rapidly dwindling. In 2002, under the Conservation Planning of Historical and Cultural City of Beijing, the government listed 40 pockets of Beijing Hutongs as important cultural heritage and granted them protection against demolition. ‘These houses are volumes of the city’s history, written in brick and beams. The real heritage of Beijing that’s being lost isn’t just the architecture, but the dense social network within it.


Chapter One

Even in the hutongs that survive, the new class of siheyuan owner, some fear, may ultimately mean an end to that world’, said Michael Meyer, the author of ‘The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed’ (2019).16

The low density of the siheyuan has been a major issue of contention in deciding between their preservation and the modernisation of Beijing, which is not the case with the foreigninspired Shanghainese Shikumen Longtang. These urban alley communities first appeared in the late 19th century; their two– or three–storey shikumen houses were built by foreign developers for tens of thousands of Chinese who sought refuge in the foreign concessions, away from the unrest that was widespread in Chinesecontrolled neighbourhoods and regions. The arrival of the ‘floating population’ reflected an unprecedented mix of cultures from different parts of China, for the first time in large numbers. The form of shikumen longtang, a blend of the Western row houses and traditional Chinese architectural styles, is unique to Shanghai and inextricably woven with the everyday lives of the city. At the height of its popularity, Shanghai had over 9000 shikumen alleys with more than 200,000 such buildings covering 20 million square metres, and making up 80 per cent of the total housing stock.17 The reason why native Shanghainese accepted the Western architectural form was



that the whole spatial architectural model fits within the Chinese traditional ideology to protect and conceal, and crucially, it was adaptable and conducive to the situation at the time where the home had become a tool of capitalism. Many shikumen houses were also places of business: cobblers, grocers, barbershops, bicycle repair, porridge-cooking service, and even factories.

Jie Li in ‘Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of private life’ (2015) describes the intimate and congested shikumen longtang neighbourhoods where ‘virtue and vice, love and hate, pride and prejudice, conflict and strife are all magnified. Calculation and distrust may indeed be historical legacies of Shanghai’s housing shortage, but material scarcity and political campaigns of the Maoist decades also contributed to the breakdown of familial harmony in the post-socialist era, especially in the demolition and relocation process. Tracing how private spaces were used and divided up over time can tell us a great deal about the city’s political, social, economic, and cultural transformations.’18 The shikumen longtang follows a spatial hierarchy from the most public, the street, to the semi-public alley, the semi-private branch alley, the private individual houses and eventually, the domestic rooms.19 The front and back courtyards added to the porosity of the architecture to allow maximum natural ventilation and sunlight


Chapter One

from its south orientation. Before the Communist Party came to power, a shikumen house was a multi-generational family dwelling of single ownership, and often had a garret – a small room in the back courtyard rented out to a migrant. Li added ‘…since neither landlords nor tenants could afford to pick their neighbours on the basis of local origin or profession, the diversity of alleyway residents helped to foster the city’s unique cosmopolitan culture’.20

The portals to this almost hidden world of central Shanghai are the countless stone-framed ‘shikumen main gates’, located on the central axis of each dwelling – the lavishly decorated entrances also gave rise to the name. While the end units of each row formed a continuous solid commercial edge facing onto a main street, the alleys contained the community’s pulses, with each passage spinning tantalising stories of diverse colour, moods, textures and nuance within its three– or five–metre width. As private domestic telephones were uncommon until the mid-1990s, ‘the person in charge of the public telephone had to go fetch the person being called by walking over to her alleyway branch and shouting out the name, and that person would then run out to take the call. This way, many neighbours would find out when someone received a phone call, just as they knew about the arrival of certified mail and telegrams with the post-man’s bicycle bell.’21 If every phone call or letter was



a communal event, the melodious chanting and storytelling from travelling peddlers hawking lotus seed porridge, noodles and red bean soup, alongside sing-song girls and fortune-tellers, certainly created collective everyday excitement. The rich menu of intangible resources, from sights, smells and sounds to news, myths and objects of gossip from different shikumen longtangs across Shanghai, turned the labyrinth of alleys into captivating vessels for storytelling at a time of increasing monotony and newspaper and radio propaganda during the Cultural Revolution.

It was common to find men and women congregated in the alleys to gossip after dinner, acting as informal security guards. Sometimes, recreational busybodies used idle gossips as instruments of surveillance and informed the police about their neighbours’ private affairs. However, prominent writers of Shanghai, Wang Anyi and Eileen Chang, recognised this discursive mode of communicating alternative histories and memories of humanity and the city. Wang’s acclaimed novel ‘The Song of Everlasting Sorrow’ (1996) is an impressionistic tribute to the architecture of shikumen lontangs and alleyway gossips: ‘If the longtang of Shanghai could speak, they would undoubtedly speak in rumors.’22 Not just a speech, but also a landscape and atmosphere that sneaks out through the rear windows and the back doors.


Chapter One

One might question whether the forms of urbanism and their associated life in Beijing and Shanghai have not been a mechanism to ensure social stability, but rather one to subdue the masses during imperial and colonial times. Or have the effects of communism left a legacy of urbanism that is misguiding China? Architectural ‘wonders and risks’ from the last three decades in China reveal unprecedented external forms and structural prowess to produce images or branding, but yet deliver the expected physical corporate banality. Spaces are left unchallenged, yet to be filled properly with the paraphernalia of humanity and the poetics of a well-lived life. In 2016, Arch Studio in Beijing magnified the siheyuan courtyard form, and brought new poetic spatial meanings to a 1720-square-metre organic food-processing plant in Hebei province.23 At the same time, the shikumen longtang system has the potential of addressing the inhumane and chronic housing shortages in inner cities and suburban developments in China as well as in the West. Alas, some historian might still consider Beijing’s siheyuan courtyard a model of feudalism and the Shanghainese typology a constructed convenience of cynical management to facilitate capitalism.

IMAGINATIVE INTREPRETATION OF HEAVEN AND EARTH The architect Kuai Xiang was only in his early thirties when he received the commission from the Yongle Emperor, Zhu Di, to



design the largest ‘house’ in China – the Forbidden City in Beijing. The ambitious vermilion-walled complex took 14 years to complete and comprises a symmetrical array of palaces, pavilions, courtyards and gardens.24 The surrounding walls are ten metres high and 3428 metres long with ‘cricket-cage inspired’ towers standing proudly at the four corners of the city. It occupies an area of over 720,000 square metres, 150,000 square metres of constructed areas,25 with 9999.5 rooms26 – a utopian vision and epitome of Chinese imperial domestic ideals. Although separated from the rest of Beijing by a 52-metre-wide and 3800-metre-long moat, the Forbidden City has begun to let new rising powers into its inner sanctum – as the skyscrapers of the Central Business District (CBD) peep above its parapet, a luxury once granted only to visitors who climbed the 45-metre-high artificial hill in the imperial Jingshan Park immediately north of the palace.

The Forbidden City was the reclusive home to dynasties of imperial rule, until the Republic overthrew the last Qing emperor in 1911. Considered the largest wooden construction without nails, it has endured earthquakes and several tumultuous centuries, and commemorates a wealth of resources within China: hardwood from Sichuan, Guangdong and Yunnan, marble from Fangshan, coloured stones and granite from Hebei, paving tiles from Suzhou,


Chapter One

and from Beijing the yellow glazed tiles which represent life and nourishment.27 Since the emperor was believed to be the son of heaven, it was natural the imperial home was deemed the interpretation of heaven itself. The imperial palace was divided into two parts: the emperor ruled and conducted his ceremonial court affairs from the Outer Court, and lived with his empress, consorts and concubines and handled day-to-day work in the Inner Court. The Outer Court measures 30,000 square metres and amongst its collection of architecture has three vast halls: the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony. In the Inner Court and Imperial Garden, streets and alleys between vermilion walls connect residential palaces, halls, pavilions and temples to make up a ‘domesti-city’ within a city.

As with Marco Polo, who retold tales of his travels to Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler of China, in Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’ (1997), ‘I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways , and the degree of arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing.’28 The Forbidden City not only exemplifies its architecture and measurements of its magnificent spaces, its domestic tales of savage rivalry, intrigue, hatred and revenge are legendary and common of feudal households in ancient China.



Unsurprisingly, within a household of more than 6000 members, 6000 palace guards and no fewer than 70,000 eunuchs, jealousy was rife in the Inner Court.29 Within beautifully landscaped courtyards, the empresses, consorts and concubines socialised amongst themselves, but spent most of their lives in the Six Western Palaces, confined to bitter loneliness – the women plotted treacherous acts to gain the emperor’s affection and maintain power by guaranteeing a male successor to the throne.30 The power struggles among the women of Emperor Qianlong were fictionalised in the 70-episode ‘Story of Yanxi Palace’, China’s most popular show of 2018, despite being pulled from state-run TV channels as it promoted admiration for imperial life, consumerism and not socialist core values.31

With the exception of the Yongzheng Emperor and subsequent rulers who stayed in the Hall of Mental Cultivation, the Palace for Heavenly Purity was the residence of the emperor. For security, the emperor would on any one night randomly choose one of the 27 beds in nine bedrooms distributed over two floors.32 For the same reason, every dish was served on tableware with a silver strip to detect poison, and was tasted by a eunuch before it was served to the emperor. There was no fixed dining room: the celestial leader had his meals served wherever he happened to be, and no one else, including the empress and the empress dowager, was not allowed


Chapter One

to partake. Regardless of the precautions, there were assassination attempts, including one by 16 palace maids. Whereas the empress’s residence is nearest to the emperor’s, ranking and favouritism determines the distances separating the residences of the other women from the celestial ruler – the spatial organisation was a main cause of jealous rivalries.

The Ming emperors might have created an architectural spectacle which perfectly reflected their political and social achievements, but within the vermilion walls of dignity and solemnity, the palace lacks the necessary facilities for everyday conveniences. There were no latrines; everyone, including the emperor, had to use a commode. The daily ‘inconveniences’ became set pieces of theatre: the device made of sandalwood was laid out by a maid on a piece of oilcloth, coal ash or fragrant wood shavings were sprinkled to act as a form of deodorant, and after the deed was completed, the eunuch carried the device away on his head.33 In winter, bronze vats for fire protection had to be insulated with cotton padding and heated to prevent the water from freezing. Potable water for the imperial household had to be brought on donkey-carts from Mount Yuquan in the western suburbs of Beijing; the daily ritual started because Emperor Qianlong was partial to mountain spring water, even though the Forbidden City had 72 functioning wells.34



According to legend, the Empress Dowager Cixi had other uses for the wells – she ordered a eunuch to dispose of Emperor Guangxu’s favourite concubine, Zhen, down the well at the north-eastern exit after an altercation.35 For almost 50 years, the empress dowager ‘reigned from behind a curtain’, made political decisions and ordered decrees on behalf of several puppet emperors. Contrary to Cixi being remembered as one of the most fearful despots in ancient Chinese history, the author of ‘Empress Dowager Cixi: The concubine who launched modern China’ (2014), Jung Chang, praises the empress dowager’s progressive character: ‘She was a moderniser who espoused women’s liberation, looked to the west and brought in electricity, modern mining, the railways, telegrams, new business methods, diplomacy, a navy with ironclads and a modern education system whose legacy exists today.’36

The imperial household, especially the Empress Dowager Cixi, were notorious for their extravagances. Notwithstanding, Kuai Xiang displayed an astute understanding of energy conservation and sustainability in his design of the Forbidden City. He turned Beijing’s geographic location, long severe winters and hot summers into architectural advantages: rooms had to face south to catch the morning sun, the walls and roofs were thick to preserve heat, and the endless layers of vermilion walls defended against


Chapter One

strong winds from the desert. Some rooms had under-floor heating or ‘brick-beds’ which were heated with fires, and when additional heating was required, charcoal-burning gilded braziers were brought in.37 With equal ingenuity, Kuai Xiang tamed the summer heat by installing high roofs, thick walls and ice fans. Frozen water was gathered in winter from the surrounding moat and stored in preparation in underground icehouses in the palace.

The Forbidden City was an early working example of the work–live housing developments currently constructed in China. As the Palace for Heavenly Purity and later the Hall of Mental Cultivation became the centre of the imperial household and day-to-day government activities, the surrounding streets and alleys were crowded round the clock, not just with troublesome concubines, feverish palace maids, and eunuchs, but also with a constant flow of officials, guards and soldiers. Not surprisingly, Emperor Qianlong wrote fondly about the Yuhuayuan, the imperial garden: ‘Every ruler, when he has returned from audience and has finished his public duties, must have a garden in which he may stroll, look around and relax his heart.’38 The succession of connecting courtyards and garden landscapes provided an ambience of peace and was a refuge from the affairs of state and intrigues of court and household.



For Kuai Xiang, the commission brought the chance to bring not just architectural expressions but also urban patterns in line with Confucian and Taoist principles. The palace’s geometry, which measures 960 metres long from south to north and 750 metres wide from east to west, radiates out across the whole city – to live in Beijing is to live in an extension to the historic palace. Once, everyone in the ancient city knew their place (however great or lowly), but as we observe the modern metropolis, there are all kinds of influences and revolutions that will throw the young architect’s vision of planning, order and domesticity into chaos, disaster, experimentation and a future fast coming.

Approximately 900 kilometres away from the heavenly imperial home in Beijing, there are a series of idiosyncratic ‘earthly delights’ around Sanmenxia, located in the Loess Plateau in western Henan. Declared a national cultural heritage site in 2011, the ‘yaodong’ underground towns are probably of the most radical solutions of field domesticity. At first glance, the embossed patterns can easily be mistaken as ‘square-ish’ craters on the moon. The tradition of living within sunken pits, thought to be dated to the Bronze Age, became popular during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Since land for food cultivation was scarce, the local community, who were mainly farmers, decided to build their homes below the earth’s surface and


Chapter One

reserve maximum ground surface for agriculture. In Sanmenxia alone, there are 10,000 subterranean homes,39 while the provinces of Gansu, Shanxi, Shaanxi and Ningxia account for 35–40 million more living in dwellings hollowed out from the loess to this day.40 Depending on its location within the valleys, slopes or ridges of the Loess Plateau, there are two other typologies, ‘cliffside yaodong’ and ‘hoop yaodong’, apart from the sunken.

While the rest of the civilised world were looking to build ‘towers of Babel’ to reach the heavens, these communities in central China were digging to make sustainable housing units under the earth’s surface. It was relatively easy to carve and form the yaodongs from the soft high-porosity loess silt of the plateau. The thick silt material insulates the homes, keeping them cool in summer and warm in winter, in arid and semi-arid regions of hot summers and cold winters. The typical labyrinth-like underground dwelling consists of a sunken courtyard surrounded by rooms for different households on all four sides. Generally, every home measures nine metres deep, five metres wide, and about five metres to the top of the vaulted ceiling, and has separate spaces for washing, living and dining, and sleeping, which are lit and aired by openings onto the courtyard. The ingenious communal kitchen unit with a series of seven stoves works on the logic of gradual



heat distribution – firewood burns at the end that requires the most heat: from steaming, frying and stir-frying and ending with slow gentle stewing. Crucially, the homes boast earthquake-resistance and sound-proofing, and even incorporate large wells to manage storms and floods to ensure safety. The stone walls are covered with clay on the inside and plastered with lime on the outside to make a white surface to reflect sunlight.

Due to its stable climatic advantage and freedom from vermin, the subterranean typology has also accommodated food stores, schools, hotels, offices and factories. ‘One may see smoke curling up from the fields’, writes George B. Cressey in ‘Land of 500 million: A geography of China’, even though there is no building in sight.41 As a final point, subterranean earthly spaces in ancient China were not only for the living and working, but were also homes for the dead. Most ancient noble families were buried more than ten metres below ground. Gideon Golany wrote in ‘Urban Underground Space Design in China: Vernacular and Modern’ (1989), ‘the walls of the grave were completely coated by alternate layers of clay and charcoal. A thick layer of earth on top of the grave helped maintain constant temperature and moisture inside in a perfectly antiseptic environment. In Changsha, a woman’s body buried two thousand years ago under such conditions was found preserved in excellent


Chapter One

condition.’42 Amongst the Ming Tombs located north of Beijing, Ding Ling Tomb is one of the most ostentatious below-ground architectural designs. The 1195-square-metre subterranean palace, free of columns and beams, was built entirely of stone with vaulted ceilings and consists of gateways leading to an ante­ chamber, a central chamber with annexes on both sides, and a back chamber – the latter functions as the burial chamber and is the most important space. Ding Ling Tomb was the tomb of Emperor Shen Zong, known for his extravagance in life as in death.43

DREAM HOMES BY THE GREAT WALL ‘After 50 years of Communism, real estate developers are busy building “dream homes” for the first-time homeowners. The Commune is to influence a whole generation of architects, developers and consumers in China in our re-born “young” country. Emphasizing the experimental spirit for the Commune reflects our role as a patron of architecture and our choice of architects,’ declared Zhang Xin in ‘Collect the Art of Architecture: Commune by the Great Wall’ (2002).

Zhang’s experimental spirit for the Commune on eight square kilometres, next to the Great Wall, was awarded the ‘Special Prize for Individual Patronage of Architectural Works’ at the 2002



Venice Architecture Biennale. The Director of the world’s largest architectural event, Ricky Burdett, stated, ‘The Commune is a sophisticated real estate operation that places contemporary Asian architecture at the centre of a global stage’, compatible with Zhang’s simple yet strategic stance, ‘the more effective way to advance architecture is commercialization… without commercialization, architecture and art could not interact with the public’.44 The success of the Commune marked the rise of new developments in Asia, particularly in China, and was the result of a well-orchestrated media campaign to acknowledge the talents of 12 architects involved from the region: Shigeru Ban, Kengo Kuma and Nobuaki Furuya (Japan), Chien Hsueh-Yi (Taiwan), Kay Ngee Tan (Singapore), Kanika R’kul (Thailand) and Seung H-Sang (South Korea), and from China: Yung Ho Chang, Antonio Ochoa, Cui Kai, Rocco Yim and Gary Chang.

The Commune is on almost five miles of mountainous land next to the Badaling section of the Great Wall of China, the world’s largest work of military architecture. Now managed by a five-star hotel group, the development has since expanded to a collection of 40 houses with four to six bedrooms and butler service in each, including the 11 original residences. The houses share a common respect towards nature and the surrounding historical context,


Chapter One

while each has a distinctive spatial organisation and architectural character, with names such as Split, See & Seen, Cantilever, Twin, Forest, Distorted Courtyard, and Suitcase. Rocco Yim ‘distorted’ the traditional courtyard house and adapted the square to the topography and views. Kengo Kuma applied the formality of the Great Wall to the act of dwelling. The choice of material, bamboo, infused the Bamboo Wall Residence with cultural meanings and construction finesses. Yung Ho Chang ‘split’ the building in the middle to bring the Shan Shui (mountain and water) and other forms of nature into the house. His application of a traditional construction technique using local clay was not intended to resurrect the past, but is rather an attempt to illustrate a more ecological future for Chinese architecture. However, most of the houses did not share the same concern or display much interest in sustainability and environmental issues, and only reflect the mindset of China’s newfound wealth and appetite for progress.

Gary Chang questioned the proverbial image of the house to offer ‘freedom and choice’ to China’s new consumerist society. An archetypical demonstration of individualism as described by Martin Pawley in the 1970s, Chang’s Suitcase House ‘attempts to rethink the nature of intimacy, privacy, spontaneity and flexibility. It is a simple demonstration of the desire for ultimate adaptability, in



pursuit of a proscenium for infinite scenarios.’45 By creating spatial and functional ambiguities between envelope, interior and furniture as the house adapts to a series of non-hierarchical layouts, the design takes Le Corbusier’s most famous quote – a house is ‘a machine for living in’ – and applies it wholesale. The landscape of pneumatically controlled walls and floor panels slide effortlessly from one linear open space into a sequence of rooms, transforming themselves readily according to the nature of the activities, number of inhabitants, and personal preferences for a sense of enclosure and privacy. The result is a long, elegant 44-metre by five-metre self-contained timber vessel that evokes associations with the ‘pleasure and leisure’ interiors of a luxury cruise liner. Albeit on opposite ends of the scale, the Suitcase House obviously drew inspiration from Chang’s most ingenious architectural project, the Domestic Transformer – his own home in Hong Kong which ‘can turn into 24 rooms within a limited space of 32 square metres’.46 When he was sharing the same space with his parents and sister, the act of folding things away was a necessity, and now, as a single occupant, it is all about transformation, flexibility and maximising space. The metaphoric compactness of his apartment reflects the space-saving culture of domestic living and social pressures caused by the city’s ongoing space scarcity.


Chapter One

It is nearly 20 years since the Commune represented China’s first outing at the 2002 Venice Architecture Biennale. Since then much of the Chinese skyline and domestic architecture have transformed to align with national reforms, social demands and economic ambitions. In recent times, design questions concerning future living requirements and environments are no longer limited to property developers and the construction industry, but have also garnered much interest from the technology industry. At China House Vision 2018, the Chinese electronic giant Xiaomi in collaboration with Li Hu and Huang Wenjing of OPEN Architecture unveiled the minimal housing prototype MARS Case. The lightweight house is a compact 2.4 x 2.4 x 2 metre module, within which – ‘like a suitcase – all the house’s service components and inflatable living spaces can be folded and stored for easy transportation’.47 Marketed as an ‘industrial product’, the minimal living unit prototype recycles heat, exhaust, condensation and other generated by-products back into an integrated ecosystem to minimise consumption of our planet’s limited resources.

Another project of comparable design spirit and disposition to Gary Chang’s Domestic Transformer is dot Architects’ Baitasi House of the Future for Whaley, an internet tech company that specialises in family entertainment and smart homes. With the rise



of the sharing economy, nomad workers and technology in Chinese megacities, the subtle and unassuming insertion into a traditional Beijing hutong house aims to blur the boundary between home and society. The moveable furniture modules on tracks allow the reconfiguration for various scenarios and are controlled by a smart TV that additionally choreographs the lighting, curtains, security system and other home appliances. The designers, Duo Ning, Sun Qingfeng and Mao Yanyan, emphasised, ‘technology should serve people, not the other way around. Although equipped with many smart devices, we would like the house to be warm and cosy, with all the tech hidden behind.’48 dot Architects have also created the lightweight, mobile Bao House, a polyurethane foam cube attached to the back of a tricycle49 – an unusual interpretation of sustainable heritage and a poetic reminder of a time before expanding car ownership, traffic gridlock and serious pollution became common everyday conversation in Chinese cities. Perhaps MARS Case, Baitasi House and Bao House are the ‘real deal’, the ‘dream houses’ for future generations in China who will face fragmented lives, urban space limitations and unaffordable housing in megacities; for the prototypes display an emerging consumerist concern and responsibility towards healthy living, environmental sustainability, resources and humanity.


Chapter One

NOTES 1 + 2. M Pawley, ‘The Private Future’, Pan Books, London, 1975, p.12 3. V Cable, ‘Deng: Architect of Chinese Superpower’, in ‘From Deng to Xi: Economic reform, the new Silk Road, and the return of the Middle Kingdom’, Y Jie (ed.), LSE Ideas: Special Report, May 2017, p.3 4. Population Reference Bureau, ‘How Many People Have Ever Lived on Earth’, 23 January 2020 (https://www.prb.org/howmanypeoplehaveeverlivedonearth), retrieved 7 January 2021 5. M Pawley, ‘The Private Future’, Pan Books, London, 1975, p.8 6. W Shepard, ‘Ghost Cities of China: The Story of Cities Without People in the World’s Most Populated Country’, Zed Books, London, 2015, pp.197–198 7. N Davison, ‘China’s Obsession With Vertical Cities’, The Guardian, Resilient Cities, 30 October 2014 8. L Tomba, ‘Creating An Urban Middle Class: Social engineering in Beijing’, The China Journal, 2004, pp.1–26 9. P Reuber, ‘Beijing’s Hutongs and Siheyuan’, The Canadian Architect, vol.43, issue 10, October 1998, p.41 10. H Yutaka, L Dorje et al., ‘Beijing Hutong Conservation Plan’, Tibet Heritage Fund International Berlin, 2004, p.12 11. I Masterton, ‘To the Hutongs’, Islemount Market Development Ltd., 2006, pp.1–2 12. P Reuber, ‘Beijing’s Hutongs and Siheyuan’, The Canadian Architect, vol.43, issue 10, October 1998, p.42 13. H Yutaka, L Dorje et al., ‘Beijing Hutong Conservation Plan’, Tibet Heritage Fund International Berlin, 2004, p.17



14. P Reuber, ‘Beijing’s Hutongs and Siheyuan’, The Canadian Architect, vol.43, issue 10, October 1998, p.42 15. H Yutaka, L Dorje et al., ‘Beijing Hutong Conservation Plan’, Tibet Heritage Fund International Berlin, 2004, p.37 16. Quoted in D Levin, ‘In Ancient Alleys, Modern Comforts’, The New York Times, 24 July 2008 17. J Yang, ‘Fears for the Last of City’s Historic Shikumen’, ShanghaiDaily.com, 5 August 2014 [https://archive.shine.cn/metro/society/Fears-for-the-last-of-citys-historic­ shikumen/shdaily.shtml], retrieved 7 January 2021 18. SA Tay, ‘Conversations: Jie Li on Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of private life’, Shanghai Street Stories, 16 January 2015 [http://shanghaistreetstories.com/?p=7271], retrieved 23 August 2019 19. T Wu, ‘The Spatial Signification of Shanghai Shikumen Longtang: A semiotic approach’, in ‘Chinese Semiotic Studies’, YX Wang (ed.), De Gruyter Mouton, 2015, vol.11, issue 1, p.16 20. J Li, ‘Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of private life’, Columbia University Press, 2015, p.8 21. J Li, ‘Shanghai Homes: Palimpsests of private life’, Columbia University Press, 2015, p.150 22. A Wang, ‘The Song of Everlasting Sorrow: A novel of Shanghai’ (1995), M Berry & SC Egan (trans.), Columbia University Press, 2008, p.9 23. J Mairs, ‘Organic Food Plant by Arch Studio References China’s Hutong Housing’, Dezeen, 25 October 2016 [https://www.dezeen.com/2016/10/25/organic-farm-food­ plant-argricultural-arch-studio-hebei-province-northern-china], retrieved 26 August 2019 24. A White, ‘The Forbidden City’, London Editions (HK) Ltd., 2002, p.4


Chapter One

25. H Li & Q Zhang, ‘The Forbidden City’, Chinese National Photography Zhizhi Publishing house,1999, p.3 26. The Jade Emperor (the Supreme Deity of Daoism) has 10,000 rooms in heaven. Therefore, the son of heaven, the emperor, could build at most 9999.5 rooms. 27. A White, ‘The Forbidden City’, London Editions (HK) Ltd., 2002, p.12 28. I Calvino, ‘Invisible Cities’, Vintage, 1997, p.10 29. A White, ‘The Forbidden City’, London Editions (HK) Ltd., 2002, p.7 30. M Duhalde, ‘Life Inside the Forbidden City: How women were selected for service’, South China Morning Post, 12 July 2018 31. A Illmer, ‘Yanxi Palace: Why China turned against its most popular show’, BBC, 8 February 2019 [https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-47084374], retrieved 27 August 2019 32. QH Cheng, ‘Tales of the Forbidden City’, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 2004, pp. 18–19 33. QH Cheng, ‘Tales of the Forbidden City’, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 2004, p.46 34. QH Cheng, ‘Tales of the Forbidden City’, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 2004, p.47 35. P Neville-Hadley, ‘Beijing & Shanghai’, Dorling Kindersley Limited, London, 2007, p.67 36. M Brown, ‘Jung Chang Reveals the Truth of Another Chapter in Chinese History’, The Guardian: Edinburgh International Book Festival, 10 August 2014 37. QH Cheng, ‘Tales of the Forbidden City’, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 2004, p.47 38. A White, ‘The Forbidden City’, London Editions (HK) Ltd., 2002, pp.58–61



39. G Samuels & V Cheng, ‘Remarkable Aerial Pictures Reveal China’s Invisible Village’, The Daily Mail, 5 April 2016 40. G Golany, ‘Urban Underground Space Design in China: Vernacular and Modern’, Associated University Presses, 1989, p.17 41. Quoted in B Rudofsky, ‘Architecture Without Architects’, Doubleday & Company, New York, 1964, pp.14–16 42. G Golany, ‘Urban Underground Space Design in China: Vernacular and Modern’, Associated University Presses, 1989, p.21 43. G Golany, ‘Urban Underground Space Design in China: Vernacular and Modern’, Associated University Presses, 1989, p.26 44. XF Ren, ‘Building Globalisation: Traditional architecture production in urban China’, University of Chicago Press, 2011, pp.74–75 45. S Jian (ed.), ‘Commune By the Great Wall’, Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences Press, 2002, p.30 46. V Gardiner, ’24 Rooms Tucked Into One’, The New York Times: Home & Garden, 14 January 2009 47. E Baldwin, ’OPEN Architecture and Xiaomi Unveil MARS Case Housing Prototype at China House Vision 2018’, ArchDaily, 4 October 2018 [https://www.archdaily.com/903198/ open-architecture-and-xiaomi-unveil-mars-case-housing-prototype-at-china-house­ vision-2018], retrieved 22 August 2019 48. A Griffiths, ‘Baitasi House of the Future Features Moving Walls Controlled by a Smart TV’, Dezeen, 23 September 2017 [https://www.dezeen.com/2017/09/23/baitasi-house­ of-the-future-hutong-renovation-moving-walls-connected-home-smart-tv-wikihouse­ beijing], retrieved 22 August 2019 49. A Frearson, ‘Bao House by dot Architects’, Dezeen, 26 November 2012 [https:// www.dezeen.com/2012/11/26/bao-house-mobile-home-by-dot-architects], retrieved 22 August 2019






Dream of the Green Mansion


The romantic literature ‘Dream of the Red Mansion’ centres on the tragic love triangle of Jia Baoyu, Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochai, and the decline of the feudal ruling-class families. Set in the Qing dynasty, the story unravels in the illustrious garden Daguanyuan within the compounds of the Jias’ household, the Rongguo Mansion. When the Jia matriarchs become aware of Baoyu’s profound love for Daiyu, they devise a deceitful plot to separate them. They falsely promise Baoyu that he can be with Daiyu but have him secretly marry Baochai instead. In their minds, Baochai, an astute, courteous archetypal feudal maiden, is the preferred bride for Baoyu over Daiyu, a more unconventional, emotionally fragile and ultimately tragic figure. When the marriage is leaked to Daiyu, she falls ill and eventually dies on Baochai’s wedding day. The rich episodic details reveal the aristocratic extravagances of the time – even a family member’s funeral became an excuse for excessive expenditure to highlight wealth and power. The women are the backbone of the story, providing comprehensive observations of life, societal structure and culture, from descriptions of intricate social etiquette, expectations and conflicts between masters and servants, wives and concubines, to descendants and children, characters scheming against each other and eventually, the decay of the entire household. – Cao Xueqin, ‘Dream of the Red Mansion’, 18th century

clockwise from top left: The four emotive scenarios of the female protagonist, Lin Daiyu: love, longing, sorrow and loss present a resilient framework for social and environmental reforms of Chinese domestic architecture. The loss culminates with the marriage of Jia Baoyu and Xue Baochai, and the death of Daiyu.

Dream of the Green Mansion

While the economic realities have changed, the cultural expectations of patriarchal Chinese society for women remain ‘near­ feudal’...

...now, they are expected to hold down a job as well.




Equally, women are crucial contributors to the remarkable economic story, especially in the manufacturing sector. Peter Vanham states in the World Economic Forum: ‘During Mao’s Cultural Revolution, China’s female employment rate became one of the highest in the world, as women became “sexless comrades”, labouring shoulder-to-shoulder with men. It was hardly a glamorous promotion but it did, for the first time ever, put many women on the same level as men.’1 In ‘Leftover in China’ (2018), Roseann Lake, appended that women were not always economic contributors, and ‘until 1906, most Chinese women had their feet bound. Until 1950, they were sold in marriage to the highest bidder’.2 In contrast, ‘Dream of the Green Mansion’ is a 21st century tale of the empowerment of the rural migrant girls who toil in the capitalist factories in socialist China’s Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. The exploited ‘dagongmei’ represents over 44 per cent of the overall workforce and about 60 per cent of workers who migrate from rural areas to work in city factories across China.3 Instead of being the capitalist and reproductive tools for the socialist state, dutiful wives and mothers, the dagongmei are reclassified as ‘home-makers’ tasked to address a hypothetical future with the many risks associated with a growing population and demands on housing. With their knowledge and skills in industrial engineering and electronic manufacturing, they are able to reinvent the fictional scenarios of love, longing, jealousy, sorrow and loss into a resilient framework for social and environmental reforms of Chinese domestic architecture.

Dream of the Green Mansion


Baoyu’s access into the Grand Garden was due to his literary prowess. The tectonics reimagine a field of Chinese words forming spatial components in the inhabitable garden.

Shhh... quiet please. The lovers, Baoyu and Daiyu, shroud the building in puffs of true ‘spatial’ romance, creating unconditional symbiosis with nature and diverse forms of resilience.


Insight into and observations of life and social structures typical of Chinese aristocracy of the time are re-interpreted into a sustainable framework.


Dream of the Green Mansion


The nuanced understanding of the emotive protagonists in the 18th century literature becomes the driver in developing sustainability. But what is sustainability? Moving towards sustainability is a social challenge and can take many forms. The traditional Chinese procurement of domesticity and wealth as witnessed in Baoyu’s marriage of convenience to the model feudal wife Baochai is highly flawed. Just as ‘Dream of the Red Mansion’ voices the author Cao’s hopes and frustrations when dealing with reality and idealism,4 efforts to achieve domestic sustainability continue to be upended by climate change, population growth and overconsumption. In ‘The Poetics of Space’ (1992), Gaston Bachelard talks about the imaginary dimensions of domesticity, and that ‘the phenomenology of the imagination cannot be content with a reduction which would make the image a subordinate means of expression: it demands, on the contrary, that images be lived directly, that they be taken as sudden events in life. When the image is new, the world is new. …a world that becomes accessible to our daydreaming.’5 The dreamy construct of the Green Mansion is ambiguous in scale and constantly shifting; when an element is focused upon by the dreamer, that element jumps into lucid prominence. A huge mansion might appear as a small pavilion or a piece of cabinetry, and large architectural elements imagined from everyday objects such as fans, wardrobes, kites, flowers, or even calligraphy. Reminiscent of Chinese vernacular, the shape of roofs, layering motifs and the adaptable surfaces allude to a feeling of history – albeit new technologies from the consumerism culture of ‘Made in China’.

While waiting...

... wind harvesters oscillate, fog catchers stretch out and chimneys convert to rainwater collectors in anticipation.



Simultaneously, the Green Mansion explores




human emotions have on geometrical forms and the reciprocal influence the forms have, in turn, upon their human inhabitants – ‘the house becomes the real being of a pure humanity which defends itself without ever being responsible for an attack’.6 Each emotive tectonic represents a specific moment in the literature, cultivating sustainable configurations for






Furthermore, it draws technological and




modern domestic devices such as washing machines, refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners that have liberated women, and had a profound impact on the global economy. In the case of Daiyu’s ‘longing’ for Baoyu, the tectonic arrangements of waiting and collecting have components to pump and oscillate restlessly, anticipating the





and wind energy. Later, the tragic protagonist’s ‘sorrow’ configuration utilises the collected rain to ‘cry’ upon the garden.

The fidgety Leaf Catchers move back and forth to collect as many leaves as possible for the anaerobic digestors.

Dream of the Green Mansion


Tick-tock­ tick-tock is the sound of the clock. Deep in the night, with no one around, shadow is Daiyu’s only friend.

The tears of Daiyu...

Sorrow ensues... the inflatable units of the roof swell and flutter like Daiyu’s eyelashes, displaying uncontrolled emotions.

The sprinklers start to lower like falling tear drops. They ‘cry’ rain and nutrients upon the garden so that the vegetation can grow.

Daiyu must control her sorrow... otherwise the plants will drown.

Net-like tectonics for catching butterflies are dotted across the gardens in the hope of chasing away evil influences...

...here, they collect leaves to create green energy and are emblematic of the prosperity and sustainability of the mansion.





Dream of the Green Mansion

With a temperamental disposition and a recurring act of peaking, the ‘jealousy’ tectonic of Baochai continually




tectonics, making sure they are fulfilling their daily ‘sustainable’ responsibilities and are not up to mischief. Ambitious turbinelike automatons watch over the transformative constructs and technological devices, the spatial theatre of unrequited love and misunderstanding



dream forwards. Nevertheless, Baochai’s





loneliness and jealousy towards the true ‘love’ of Baoyu and Daiyu, which represents spatial empowerment



within the house. Pollutants are collected and recycled into clean clouds to shroud the house in puffs of romance – the technological components of the lovers relentlessly aspire towards unconditional



nature to showcase the presence Jealousy

of blind love as diverse forms of resilience.





Dream of the Green Mansion





The bed is a key setting for many of the scenes in the literature: marriage, birth and death. The tectonic ‘roof’ character travels across the garden in search of the tree ‘wood’ in order to make the Chinese character ‘bed’.

The moving sticks hide behind the declining and withering garden. When approached, they fan out and present an enduring and intriguing fake horizon of blossomed trees to conceal the declining aristocratic family.

Dream of the Green Mansion


And when (spoiler alert!) coming to terms with the death of Daiyu, the tectonics shift horizontally into a resting position, allowing the tectonic of Baoyu to grieve for his ‘loss’ by gathering




the bed to minimise the loss of energy. When faced with loss, the architecture activates and transforms itself into a device of regeneration, completing the life cycle of renewable energy. When infused with love, the architecture lifts out of the dark clouds of social and environmental irresponsibility.



emotive configurations convene to support and sustain the restored idealism




symbolisms of the Red Mansion have dissolved, like a distant myth, and we are left to viscerally inhabit the atmospheres and architectural narratives of resilience produced by the dagongmei’s dream of the Green Mansion. It is important to note that the domestic technological creations of the Green Mansion also owe much to the gigantic electronic industry and mindset of Shenzhen.

When faced with loss, the architecture collapses into a horizontal resting position.

The Peacock Cape is one of 12 symbols of sovereignty, and its hundred eyes collect solar energy. In the loss scenario, the cape transforms into a cooling, insulated ‘bed-cover’.



Shenzhen is the ideal place to ‘manufacture’ the dreams and the metaphors of sustainability to address the challenges China faces regarding food, water, waste and energy security within its domestic architecture. David Li, director of the Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab, explains, ‘people here experiment because this becomes the natural resource of Shenzhen. It is not just a place to produce, but also a place to find components, find inspiration and finding new ways of doing things. There is a component for everything, there is circuit board for everything and casing for everything.’7 It is the ‘can-do’ creative culture and the propitious experimentation with devices in places like Huaqiangbei in Shenzhen that gave birth to the selfie stick and hoverboard before anywhere in the world. Partly inspired by Aero (Lei Ling), a fictional Chinese architect and comic superhero in the Marvel Universe, the Green Mansion strategy floats in a dream-like ether, its foundations embedded somewhere in a lonely cloud on the horizon of a new Chinese urban idealism. Just as Aero, the antithesis of the oppressed Daiyu and Baochai, is the master of the sky with the ability to harness power from air to protect China, the sustainability metaphors of the Green Mansion are acupunctured into out-of-date Chinese housing typologies to offer new completeness and relevance within their own domestic context. Blind nostalgia for old forms alone is not going to save the tulou, the shikumen or the Beijing Siheyuan and the Hutongs, despite their being sacred slices of traditional utopian heritage. Sadly, historical domestic serenities are deemed inferior and have little social standing in modern day China, mirroring the powerless female characters who struggled for individualism and equality in the 18th century literature.

The romantic rivalry forms the basis of this cautionary tale.



‘Dream of the Green Mansion’ is an optimistic and progressive reimagining of the ‘screams and dreams’8 from a contemporary Chinese female perspective, resulting in the evolution of resilient architecture tailored for the determining factors of climate, resources and the idiosyncrasies of humanity. Currently, afforded the opportunities by Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms of the 1970s, there is a legion of female protagonists with pivotal roles shaping China’s new skylines, from architects Tang Yuen of Shanghai Institute of Architecture Design & Research, Field Architecture Office’s Wang Wei and energy conservation advocate Dong Mei of Biechu Kongjian Architects to supremo developers Yang Huiyan of the largest Chinese developer Country Garden, Wu Yajun of Longfor Properties, and Zhang Xin, co-founder of SOHO China and the design-savvy entrepreneur who championed the tech-innovative designs of Zaha Hadid in China.9 Even though deep-rooted constraints upon and expectations of women still persist, the country’s largest property listing website Ke.com found that ‘47.9 per cent of the buyers are female, and that 74.2 per cent of women polled said they bought a home without financial support from their partners, while 29 per cent were able to purchase solely by themselves’. Liu Ce, head of research at Kaisa Group, reaffirmed that ‘women are always a decisive force in our industry’.10 For single women in the fast-changing Chinese society, homeownership is perceived to be their reliable ‘love’ – a sense of resilience, belonging and assurance in cities.

Dream of the Green Mansion

A symbol of longevity, the turtles wander around the garden to increase the life expectancy of its inhabitants.


... but true love always prevails in the end.

Dream of the Green Mansion


NOTES 1 + 2. P Vanham, ‘Women in China Contribute More to GDP Than the US’, World Economic Forum, 12 April 2018 [https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/04/women­ in-china-contribute-more-to-gdp-than-in-the-us-viewing-them-as-leftover-is­ problematic], retrieved 12 November 2018 3. J Ho, ‘Between the Lines: Listening to female factory workers in China’, www.bsr.org, March 2013, p.3 4. WLY Yang & CP Adkins, ‘Critical Essays on Chinese Fiction’, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1980, pp.xiv–xv 5. G Bachelard, ‘The Poetics of Space’, Beacon Press, 1992, p.65 6. G Bachelard, ‘The Poetics of Space’, Beacon Press, 1992, p.68 7. B Popper, ‘Inside the World’s Craziest Gadget Market’, The Verge, 13 December 2016 [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezSd6_2_ts0], retrieved 11 November 2018 8. ‘Screams and dreams’ embodies the plight and aspirations of migrant female factory workers in N Pun, ‘Made in China: Women factory workers in a global workplace’, Duke University Press, 2005, p.16 9. A Williams, ‘New Chinese Architecture: Twenty women building the future’, Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2019 10. YP Zheng, ‘China’s Property Developers Change Tack as Single Women Emerge as New Buyers’, South China Morning Post, 22 March 2019 [https://www.scmp.com/ property/hong-kong-china/article/3002705/chinas-property-developers-change-tact­ single-women-emerge], retrieved 19 August 2019




Chapter Two



It might seem unfathomable that just a few decades ago China’s outlook on the world was based on Soviet Communism; now the Chinese are obsessed with consumerism – shopping and buying and bargaining are practically a national pastime. From the luxurious megamalls to the street vendors, every rung of Chinese society is invested in the industry of consumerism. In his seminal book ‘Ways of Seeing’ (1972), John Berger describes why money and spending is so central to the sense of individual freedom and power: ‘Money is life. Not in the sense that without money you starve. Not in the sense that capital gives one class power over the entire lives of another class. But in the sense that money is the token of, and key to, every human capacity. The power to spend money is the power to live.’1 One would be hard-pressed to argue the multi-storey, glowing advertising and signage in major Chinese cities are anything but a testament to an almost-religious act of being materialistic.



There are further aspirational aspects of shopping, whether on the high street, in megamalls or via the internet – to spend, to experience and to own. On 11th November 2018, Alibaba made e-commerce history with sales of US$30.8 billion as part of the company’s Singles’ Day celebration. The Chinese annual 24­ hour online shopping extravaganza saw sales nearly three times greater than Cyber Monday and Black Friday in the US.2 China has an undeniably strong monopoly on consumerism, in addition to a global reputation in manufacturing low-cost goods. Ranging from domestic essentials to components for the construction industry, China exploits the scale of production and low wages to produce almost anything cheaper. The industry has used mischievous ingenuity to replicate luxury products and feed them back to both the international and local markets, although products may not meet the same safety specifications or material qualities as their Western counterparts. ‘Ways of Seeing’ speaks about a tense relationship between art and reproductions, based on theories from Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936), highlighting how our perception of the ‘original’ artefact is affected by familiarity with images and reproductions of said artefact. ‘The bogus religiosity which now surrounds original works of art, and which is ultimately dependent upon their market value, has become a substitute for what paintings lost when the camera made them reproduceable.’3


Chapter Two

This idea is transferrable to a design that has been copied and made cheaper or widely available. We might question the value of a real designer chair produced in Switzerland, Germany or Italy, or a reproduction from China – is this product ethical or simply an old-fashioned copyrights issue? The absurdity of furniture by Charles and Ray Eames, for example, is that as designers they aspired to so-called democratic-design and mass production: ‘the best to the most for the least amount of money.’4 However, their manufacturers have always maintained high prices, affordable only to certain classes – that is until the Chinese copies began to emerge. Berger describes the value of the ‘original’ as ‘nostalgic’ in function and ‘the final empty claim for the continuing values of an oligarchic, undemocratic culture’;5 a statement which would no-doubt be refuted by many that hold intellectual property rights, perhaps conservatives, who say that the act of protecting designs and copyright incentivises innovation for everyone.

This chapter engages the fascinating culture of Chinese copy-cat behaviour, and scrutinises the stereotyped perception that the Chinese design-related industries including architecture and city planning are indiscriminately ripping-off the West, ignorant of the lessons of history where they build with a failure to learn or imagine. Piracy is pervasive in China and the Chinese allegedly ‘learns by



imitation’. Therefore, it should not be surprising to come across functioning replicas such as fake Apple stores with counterfeit iPods and iPhones or one of the entire Austrian village of Hallstatt. While huge investments are made in the highly competitive ubiquitous ‘Made in China’ economy, there are questions relating to identity and imagination or the lack of it, in a country with a consumerist market of 1.4 billion people and rising. In ‘Understanding the Chinese City’ (2014) Li Shiqiao explores how consumer culture has allowed Chinese people to associate commerce with ‘identity narratives’. The book argues ‘goods purchased with money become the visible proof of the meaning of labour; the illusion of possessing the meanings associated with the goods comes from the reality of owning them’. Activities such as emulating the higher classes or visiting theme parks can be denigrated by Western intellectuals and the cultured elite, but seemingly not by the Chinese parallels. ‘The moral status of “being yourself” and that of being someone else are not distinctly different in Chinese cities.’ Identities are more fluid here: an example would be young couples getting married in their traditional ethnic attire and also in Western styled tuxedo and white dress. People ‘engage in multiple reconstitutions of themselves, appearing in several cultural and intellectual identities. In the Chinese city, common with many other Asian cities, the youth today respond to different and often incongruous cultural demands


Chapter Two

simultaneously and equally. The ability to nimbly shift from one cultural setting to another, from one identity to another, is normal, accepted, and regarded as a source of aesthetic pleasure.’6

TRADITION AND EXTERNAL INFLUENCE ARE BLURRED For the Western observer, the phenomenon of Chinese copycat architecture can be cause for arrogance and a condescending outlook towards China – the Chinese, seemingly, have no imagination, no creative morals, and even with vast spending power have no ability to be discriminate in their design choices. Despite this cultural misfortune which began in the late 20th century, there are Chinese cities that have lived and breathed for centuries, and are palimpsests in timber, tiles, brick, stone, concrete and glass. Their richly layered history together with nuanced external and local influences have contributed much to our collective civilisation.

In the Wuyi region in Guangdong province, there is an extraordinary and historic appropriation of foreign cultural, urban and architectural elements. Following the end of the Qing dynasty, large numbers of the inhabitants emigrated. Many returned bringing new wealth, Western ideas and technologies that would introduce a distinct character to towns and villages, and therefore everyday life.7 Watchtowers in a Western–Chinese hybrid style, of which more



than 1400 still remain, were built to defend the new wealth of their owners from local bandits. The design prioritised military defence, but of the typically three to six stories above ground, there is plenty of space for Western-inspired architectural expression, albeit usually also decorated with bullet holes or other battle damage. At a highlevel balcony-like ‘outlier’, corridors provide an advantageous place from which to shoot at attackers. These outliers often draw from European colonnades and copy or adapt Romanesque, Byzantine or even Islamic architectural details and features. Often, the towers are chunky and squat, due to the strength requirements, level of engineering and construction expertise, and space requirements inside to protect all the retreating villagers. Shan Deqi writes in ‘Chinese Vernacular Dwellings’ (2011) that today, the defensive function of the towers has disappeared, but ‘the towers remain as witness to the past, creating a unique historical atmosphere’ and continues to describe the impact of these infrastructures and their architecture as ‘producing a sense of alien beauty’.8

Across southern China and notably in Tangkou Town, Kaiping, commercial streets comprise mixed-use arcade dwellings. Commercial and community uses at ground level include shops and mongers of various kinds, covered by colonnades and pillar lined corridors, and with residential balconies above. Benefits to


Chapter Two

the climatic design of the streetscape include shaded overhangs to shelter from the hot sun and heavy rainstorms. Shan reminisces about the arcade dwellings, whose history was founded by those returning from oversees, as ‘product of the combination of foreign architectural styles and the climate and economic activities... a symbiosis of China’s traditional culture and foreign culture’.9

The ideal in Chinese culture is that once a person leaves their hometown they should return in glory. One example from the 20th century would be innovative industrial knowledge, another would be the style and techniques of building and the consequential urban impacts. The Charisma Hall in Kaiping was built by an overseas Chinese as an ancestral temple and essentially follows traditional functions and layouts. However, much of the decorative expression of the temple is Greco-Roman; the result is an uplifting affect, a ‘product of exchange between East and West... more lively and natural, novel and touching’.10 The building innovates with fire prevention gables, and 18 of these divide the building’s layout whilst being expressed externally in a way similar to traditional gable walls and ‘horse-head walls’. The Charisma Hall is a testament to curiosity, but the benefits of copying or borrowing did not stop at the aesthetic as this is a genuinely sophisticated and considered piece of architecture. In that period, the architecture of Wuyi was



‘not restrained by regulations or trammels of conventional ideas; they made full use of whatever they thought useful. Their efforts reflected an open-minded and creative mentality.’11

One might draw a number of parallels between the Western influences on the architecture and urbanism of early to mid­ 20th century Wuyi and the colonial influences on cities such as Qingdao, Hong Kong and Shanghai. During the 16 years of German control of Qingdao, the small Chinese port city was transformed into a modern European colonial outpost, complete with a train station, post office, churches, schools and the German-built Tsingtao Brewery, which to this day is responsible for producing one of China’s most popular beers. From the German Governor’s Residence to the Bavarian-style commercial district of the Old Town, the German buildings in Qingdao ‘represent the history of the city and that together with the mountains, the forests and the sea as they accounted for the uniqueness of their city, of which the locals are very proud’, explained Klaus Mühlhahn in his book ‘The Cultural Legacy of German Colonial Rule’.12 The architecture, according to present-day residents of Qingdao, are not German but considered to be Chinese buildings in a German appearance – they have undertaken their own form of decolonisation by turning symbols of colonial power into decorative style.


Chapter Two

Meanwhile, the first true colonial skyscraper and first fully airconditioned building in Hong Kong was for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and upon completion in 1935, the mixed art deco and Stripped Classical style building stood as the tallest on the island.13 It has since been replaced by the prefab hightech vertical city by Norman Foster in 1985. The former of these two futuristic buildings successfully hybridised revolutionary British construction innovation with Chinese metaphysical concepts and symbols that were deemed both an art of enlightenment and a feudal superstition – ‘fengshui’.14 Not only is the building placed on the ‘dragon lines’ key to its fengshui narrative, the alignments of its escalator, open plaza, and lion statues, and the two cannonshaped protrusions on the roof to ward off unauspicious elements from the Bank of China have influenced the spatial configurations and aesthetics and power-symbol of the bank. Regardless of the intention of the open plaza to increase the building’s height or to offer space back to the city, the local planning regulations have ensured that the bank’s view and more importantly ‘energy’ corridor from the harbour is forever protected. As for the lions, Stephen and Stitt, it is a local belief that rubbing their paws brings good luck.15

With a similar mindset, the Shanghai World Financial Centre’s ‘dragon gate’ opening ensures the building is not obstructing the



paths of spirits and dragons between the water and the mountains, after its original intention of a circular ‘moon-gate’ came under criticism for bearing a resemblance to the rising sun of the Japanese flag. Designed by architects Kohn Pedersen Fox, the building was completed in 2008 and is currently dubbed the ‘bottle-opener’. The pseudo Chinese-ness is an extremely influential consideration in the construction industry in China – Western architects with Chinese commissions who want to appear savvy in this respect are even known to ‘pigeon-hole’ young staff with Chinese backgrounds into early conceptual work or into undertaking exercises of post­ rationalised report writing.

During the 1940s, it was Chinese architecture graduates returning to China from studying abroad who mixed Western design ideologies to suit the Chinese context of Shanghai. They developed the Chinese Deco style, incorporating upturned eaves and traditional Chinese motifs into their designs in the French Concession and along the Bund, the riverfront financial centre. Examples of Chinese Deco buildings include the Bank of China on the Bund by Lu Qianshou, a graduate of the Architectural Association in London, and the Chinese YWCA by Poy Gum Lee and Robert Fan, trained at Pratt Institute in New York and University of Pennsylvania respectively.16 Perhaps the parallel of ‘returning to


Chapter Two

the homeland in glory’ also relates strongly to the large numbers of Chinese students and professionals in other design disciplines seeking education and experience in the top Western universities, famous institutions and multinational corporations. The Chinese have made industrialisation their own, modernism their own, and the future will be their own too – no matter where they draw ideas from or procure their knowledge exchanges.

LOOKING TO RICH SOURCES The economic model of capitalism has provided the free world with resilience and relative stability; entrepreneurship, competition and trade promote self-interest and rewards for those who recognise and are able to persue them. At the same time, there is a long history of failures with implementing productive and prosperous economic policies under communist regimes and other political revolutions. In China, economic reforms began in 1978 after Deng Xiaoping and his reformist allies ousted the Maoist government. Not wanting to repeat the famine disasters of 1959–1962 that killed at least 45 million17 during the Great Leap Forward,18 Deng began by implementing de-collectivised agriculture19 – the ‘household-responsible system’ divided the People’s commune into private plots, allowed farmers to privately sell any produce above the government’s contracted quota, and keep the profits,



setting a precedent for urban industry and manufacturing. In 1979, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Shantou and Xiamen were declared ‘Special Economic Zones’ for foreign investments,20 followed by 14 ‘Coastal Development Areas’ which included Tianjin, Qingdao, Shanghai, Ningbo and Guangzhou. These cities have preferential trade policies and are primarily windows into the foreign-orientated economy for exporting ‘Made in China’ and importing foreign capital, advanced technology and expertise, and incubators for inland economic development.

It is important to consider Deng’s legacy of a ‘socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics’ and its impact on expectations and individual aspirations, as well as the profound consequences of a 21st century consumerist culture on redefining cities and the public realm in China. The exodus of tens of millions from the countryside to Deng’s anointed cities has caused the urban population to swell at an exponential rate. The startling building boom with its cranes lining urban skylines illustrates a society desperate for progress after decades of scarcity under Mao Zedong. With the super-speed expansion of cities, China has become the land of opportunities for international and local architects and planners. Upon Deng’s passing in 1997, the New York Times remembered the ‘architect of modern China’ as ‘the


Chapter Two

wily pragmatist who led China to economic growth few Chinese had dreamed of, making the country much less prone to unrest than it might have been if Mr. Deng had died a few years earlier’.21

‘Consumerism is hurting the (design) industry!’, declared Neri & Hu in an article in The Fast Company, an American business media publication. The Shanghai-based ‘poster children of modern Chinese design’ expressed their concerns, ‘Whether or not a piece of furniture or a product is “good” is not in question. It’s more about who designed it. What is the big label? It becomes the ultimate consumerism. Collecting names is like collecting bags – this is becoming a problem.’22 Much like Chanel, Gucci, Prada, or Dolce & Gabana, international superstar architects Norman Foster, Arata Isozaki, MVRDV, Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid are representing labels of high quality and are commissioned for high profile national and private architecture and urban planning. Shanghai boasts architectural masterpieces by Morphosis, a ‘dragon-on-the-move­ like’ ground-scraper ecology laboratory for Giant Interactive Group, and by Tadao Ando, the serene yet playful Poly Grand Theatre made from his signature in-situ concrete. The Dutch firm MVRDV has added the Tianjin Binhai Public Library to the new cultural district in Tianjin. In Beijing, Rem Koolhaas and OMA’s CMG Headquaters (formerly China Central Television ‘CCTV’ Building) stands tall in a



city that features two of the largest airports in the world: Beijing Daxing International Airport by Zaha Hadid and Beijing Capital International Airport by Norman Foster. Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House is another masterpiece in China’s growing collection.

And much like haute couture, the designs of international architects have been plagiarised across multiple commercial sites and built ahead of the original design – Chongqing Meiquan’s 22nd Century is a copy of Wangjing SOHO, a trio of curved offce and retail towers designed to look like giant pebbles by Zaha Hadid. In response to the accusation, the Chongqing developer even said ‘never meant to copy, only want to surpass’. This response is very telling of where the Chinese values of architectural design, consumerism and ethics lay today.23 Commentators including Koolhaas have laid the blame for pirate architecture on the warp-speed construction industry, which has been embraced and scaled-up by China, calling these architects ‘Photoshop designers’ of the quick cut-and-paste generation: ‘Photoshop allows us to make collages of photographs – this is the essence of architectural and urban production. Design today becomes as easy as Photoshop, even on the scale of a city.’24

Rem Koolhaas and AMO’s 2014 Venice Biennale publication ‘Elements’ (2014) has one section dedicated to the elevator.25 Even


Chapter Two

more unrelentless than the precedent of 20th century America, elevators have facilitated an almost unheard of boom of tall buildings in China, lending an advantage to a greater consumerism and innovative capitalism. One might argue that the success of multi-level department stores and markets filled with ‘knock-off’ fashion items and electronics is a testament to the vertical transport system. These days, almost two thirds of all the elevators installed in the world are in China. By comparison to 900,000 elevators in the US, China accounts for four million and counting due to the impact of an increasingly ageing population, single-person households and divorce rates. With China’s urbanisation, 60 per cent of the nation’s population live in cities, where many reside in towering apartments. China’s National Bureau of Statistics reported that one in three Chinese will be aged over 60 by the mid-21st century and singleperson living arrangements have increased. ‘The divorce rate is a driver of our business… more singles need separate lodging and lifts to get them there’, comments the Chief Executive of Schindler, one of the world’s biggest elevator manufacturers.26

In ‘How to Read Towns & Cities: A crash course in urban architecture’ (2016), architecture critic and historian Johnathan Glancey reminds us that ‘…the modern skyscraper emerged from the sidewalks of US cities in the last quarter of the 19th century.



The invention of reliable steel and the elevator at the same time as Chicago and New York boomed sent these cities skywards’ whilst, in his appraisal, emphasises that it was a ‘copycat spirit’ as much as economic factors that saw the rise of skyscrapers as a typology for business districts across the US and globally.27 Major Chinese cities like Shanghai, Chongqing and Guangzhou share similar basic space-related obstacles with Chicago and New York, including land value; and whilst their planning grids may vary, their architectural and business egos are writ-large in steel and glass, a portrait of the commerce-hungry civilisation which created them.

Onlookers might pity the Chinese – their unique creative history drastically re-written by the current culture of shameless appropriation against an aggressive capitalist backdrop. But there is more to copying than might be initially obvious. What might the copycat behaviour of buildings and mass manufactured products which proliferate the Chinese nation actually reveal in regards to the future of urbanism and the humanisation or dehumanisation of cities? For Glancey, the copying is both understandable in yearning and tragic in its reality, ‘for some Chinese people who have lived for decades in grim state-approved concrete housing blocks, a chance to live at home yet in France, England or Italy at the same time is a dream come true’. The reality is that often these dreams are sold at


Chapter Two

a high price, and they are ostensibly ‘too far from existing cities for comfort or convenience’; they are empty, at least for now.28

Stories about replicas of Jackson Hole, Wyoming outfitted with cowboys on the outskirts of Beijing, of Stratford-upon-Avon in tribute to Shakespeare in Fuzhou, and ‘Thames Town’, a one­ square-kilometre British-themed new town located 30 kilometres from Shanghai, have simultaneously beguiled and bewildered journalists and their international readers. Condé Nast Traveller described ‘China’s little slice of Britain is bloody deserted. The real estate bubble in China priced the homes well out of the reach of most Shanghai residents, and most were instead bought as investments or second homes by wealthy Chinese’,29 and the BBC added that whilst ‘many Westerners think of knock-off architecture as kitsch and bizarre, many in China find it truly lovely. Chinese people do value (their own) history, but, at a time of such rapid change, people find it more practical – and even comforting – to copy Western styles.’30 The South China Morning Post also reported that London’s iconic Tower Bridge in Suzhou ‘has proved a popular backdrop for wedding pictures. Other users of social media have said they felt ashamed of such a building.’31 The super-sized Frankenstein bridge boasts four towers rather than London’s paltry two, and a dual carriageway for fast and slow vehicle traffic.



Thames Town was designed by Atkins, a genuine UK architecture firm, under the direction of Tony Mackay, a genuine British architect. But that is where the authenticity ended. Although there is a statue of Winston Churchill and the buildings look English enough, it is difficult to regard the place as anything other than anachronistic fantasy – a place that ‘got dressed up, went out to play make-believe, and never came back’.32 Used almost exclusively for tourism and wedding photography, Thames Town may take many years to develop a complex economy or gather any real inhabitants. It is a ‘ghost city’; the activities on the street and even whole restaurants and shops are fake and filled with background actors hoping to leach some percentage of the splashed cash from the subjects of the photographic attention. Many of the properties were bought at a high price by investors who are facing huge risk if popularity even slightly wanes. Author Wade Shepard recalled his visit to Thames Town during his research for ‘Ghost Cities of China’ and noted that ‘of course, you can’t expect a newly built replica town to feel authentic, but this place was something else: it wasn’t alive… There was no history, no story, no soul.’33

In April 2020, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development and the National Development and Reform Commission of the People’s Republic of China set out a plan to clarify their new key


Chapter Two

policies regarding the management of architectural style. This included an effective ban on buildings over 500 metres, out-of-scale developments and blatant copies of foreign buildings . The plan aims to ‘increase the positive guidance of excellent architectural design, guide architects to establish the correct design concept, focus on building functions and energy-saving, water-saving, land-saving, material-saving and environmental protection requirements, to prevent one-sided pursuit of building appearance’,34 but seemingly also attempt to gain back some ‘face’ after much outcry following the runaway trend for copycat projects.

A bureaucratic part of this new plan would be the creation of a ‘Chief Architect’ role for each city. They ‘should guide and supervise the city and architectural style, and have veto power over the design schemes of important construction projects’; one can imagine that this would cause some level of control on free market capitalist development, and help with achieving the target of producing buildings and urban environments that are ‘appropriate, economic, green, and beautiful’. However, whilst the policy outwardly promotes the Chinese ‘self-confidence’ and is a retort to the ‘architectural chaos [of] greed, beauty and blame’,35 this role may also invite a further level of corruption into the procurement of architectural expression and experimentation with forms of urban life.



Picking up on the story, much of the Western media seems to have used this opportunity to once again poke fun at examples of China’s imitation projects, including its multiple Eiffel Tower replicas, whilst simultaneously reiterating China’s ‘backward’ autocracy. There are of course exceptions: Rowan Moore, the renowned British critic and author, points out that there may be a significant opportunity in this policy for home-grown talent. He notes the architecture of the 19th century ‘when the gothic revival was adopted in part as a statement of rising national pride. Mediterranean classicism and other alien styles, Chinese included, were out. Something sort-of indigenous (if French-influenced) was in’ and hopes that the type of thought that has driven this policy could lead to ‘architecture as exhilarating as gothic revival at its best’.36

Having looked at the examples of copied architecture and urbanism, and having taken the time to scratch the surface of the mentality of those consumers, do we still regard them with condescension? In ‘Understanding the Chinese City’, Li Shiqiao explains the distinction of motives between the thousands of theme parks built in China for entertainment and themed developments intended, at least on paper, for a new type of habitation for a new type of people. ‘The themed developments fulfil a demand for identity dependency on a grand scale. It is perhaps inevitable that identity


Chapter Two

dependencies in Chinese cities will begin to manifest themselves in more sophisticated and creative ways in the future. These amazing cities in China stand as evidence of the wide-ranging urban consequences of the normative status of labour.’37 In the aftermath of the replication of her Wangjing SOHO, Zaha Hadid was philosophical about the predicted a rise of a new class of pirate architects: ‘If future generations of these cloned buildings display innovative mutations, that could be quite exciting.’38

ACT LIKE THOSE THAT ALREADY HAVE IT Gradually, the Western architectural press are made aware of a new generation of Chinese architects – some with numerous inventive hutong schemes in Beijing. The regeneration projects aimed to shift from dwelling to commercial and mixed-programme spaces are designed with sensitivity to reimagine and reinvigorate courtyards and the urban grain, and are commercially successful without resorting to quasi-quaint tourist-targeting. Building typologies of this kind are well worth observing as they can reveal the aspirations of the city, the client or the individual architect, and can rarely deceive an inquisitive mind. While the People’s Architecture Office (PAO) has installed a series of plug-in facilities to existing hutongs similar to, albeit at lower budgets than, the media-savvy MAD, there are other widely published studios who have received awards



for projects that significantly alter and update the fabric of the hutongs: Vector Architects, Zhang Ke (ZAO/standardarchitecure) and Archstudio are such examples. The latter produced a surreal twisted brick floor playing on traditional materials with a seemingly delightful naïveté. The undulating brick surfaces flow through both internal and external spaces, emphasising the courtyard and the outdoors, whilst concealing auxiliary spaces such as bathrooms and the kitchen. Archstudio have also triumphed in the reimagination of timber hutong roof structures, whose melting geometries are evidenced across international design blogs in mesmerising architectural photography.

Typical of modernisation, the destruction of the Beijing Hutongs has been mourned and protested internally by the Chinese themselves, and by the West. For Rem Koolhaas, and in the realm of perhaps a more critical view of architecture and preservation, the hutongs have become a crucial and archetypal issue for China’s development, ‘it is undeniably true that the hutong is an unbelievably beautiful and seductive way of inhabiting the metropolis in a way that is still delicate, intimate and old-fashioned… through UNESCO and other political pressures, the “destruction” of Beijing has become a very political issue’.39 China is curious about Western urban development, and without a strong religious presence, money


Chapter Two

ascends to the place of God. It is far more likely that among the other key proponents of the imported, architecture is the merciless power of global commerce.

Nonetheless, Wang Shu of Amateur Architecture Studio embodies the past, present and future of Chinese architecture. Awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2012, he is the first Chinese citizen to be bestowed the honour. The choice of laureate recognises the juncture of Chinese architectural history marked by the 2008 Olympics, and the process of redefining local identities after excess and bravado. ‘In the post Olympics era, after the masters exited and people’s enthusiasm for huge structures dissipated, local architects entered a new learning phase of reflection on modernism to seek original creation.’40 Wang’s architecture has a ‘strong sense of cultural continuity and transcend the debate of whether architecture should be anchored in tradition or should look only toward the future’.41

It is pertinent, from an architectural point of view, to note another Chinese architect had won the Pritzker Prize 29 years before Wang Shu – IM Pei. The legendary global modernist was not generally recognised as Chinese, since he moved from Shanghai to the US in pursuit of his architectural training. Although Pei’s celebrated works are not necessarily evocative of Chinese-ness, his iconic



glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris is one of the most famous buildings and postcard images in the world (it even has its own Lego set!). The design of the Fragrant Hill Hotel in Xiangshan, near Beijing, saw Pei leave behind much of his Post-Modern design sensibility that he had been cultivating in America. Convincing the client to change site and distilling elements of traditional Chinese architecture and regional vernacular, the design borrowed geometry from traditional gates and windows, and re-interpreted landscaped gardens with a restored water-maze, special trees, courtyards, ponds and even rocks harvested from over a thousand miles away, all to Pei’s request and specification. To inspire his clients, Pei’s office made collages superimposing their own architectural drawings onto traditional landscape paintings, wherever possible exaggerating the presence of nature and Chinese history. Pei felt closely attached to the project and considered the client to be ‘the Chinese people’ – his people.42

Pei had intended his Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong to stand as a beacon for ‘the aspirations of the Chinese people’.43 However, it changed drastically, forever: ‘Pei’s design began as a tribute to his father and a gesture of reconciliation between contemporary and pre-Communist China. It ended under a cloud of political and personal disappointment.’44 Pei criticised the Tiananmen Square


Chapter Two

massacre in the media, a move which made him unpopular during the last few months of construction; it also did him few favours with clients and other establishment figures. China would prefer to confine the massacre to ‘once upon a time’ and democracy might end all the theories that continue to this day. At once, it would shift the interests of consumerism, and encourage creative individuals such as Wang Shu to gain grounds regarding freedom of expression.

Wang Shu does not outwardly represent rebellion; the work of his studio remains incomparably ‘authentic’. His desire is to create spaces where traditional life and culture are critiqued and reimagined with sensitivity in the modern condition. He has likened architecture to creating a Chinese garden: it requires the ability to be flexible, to improvise and to solve unexpected problems.45 ‘Wang Shu is no William Morris. Morris wanted to change the world, while Wang is alarmed at the speed the world is changing. Morris was into (socialist) utopian politics, Wang is interested in identity politics.’46 The Ningbo History Museum, completed by Wang’s practice in 2008, used the recycled remains of the site’s former traditional buildings to clad its walls, roof and landscaped surfaces, creating rich textural and tactile collages. The development is an explicit paradox – the historic place literally being demolished to make way for the museum among other commercial projects; the scarred materials



that the architects employ memorialise and monumentalise that which had been erased, but also reject the process of waste and reconsumption that we associate with Chinese cities, or indeed other flambuoyant ‘Pritzker Prize’ architecture.

In ‘Preservation is Overtaking Us’, Rem Koolhaas argues that the architectural thinking and associated manifesto writing in America and Europe effectively ended in the 1970s following the deceleration of urbanisation, ‘if we look carefully at what we’ve produced since then, it’s mostly reactionary tracts against the city and against architecture’. Chinese futurism therefore may not be able to reference so much from the exact state of the West, however encouraging it may have felt at first. The Chinese need to seek new potentials within the unknown: ‘China, at the moment of greatest need, cannot in any way benefit from any thinking of Western doctrine for the creation of the city. It means that almost anything that is architecturally important in China is entering both an absolute ideological void and a completely defenceless situation.’47


Marco Polo (the ‘real’ one, not the authors’ favourite ‘Calvino’

one) brought knowledge of the ‘Far-East’ back to Europe and took

knowledge of the West to Kublai Khan – he was an invaluable asset in


Chapter Two

communication and the benefits worked both ways. Polo is perhaps the individual most synonymous with adventures and cultural exchange, but has a lesser-known (at least in the West) counterpart, the Song dynasty geographer Chao Ju-Kua. The famous books Chao wrote following his role in trade and customs drew on extensive knowledge and stories from foreigners that he had encountered first hand. The most famous records were published as ‘諸蕃志’ (‘Zhu Fan Zhi’), in which the West is simultaneously ‘the barbarous nations’ and ‘the mythical and fabulous West’. It is so very important when studying China to realise that exchanges have been occurring for many centuries across far-flung borders. Prevalent stereotypes or misconceptions with fairly recent histories are preceded by other forms of technological and cultural influences that both sides of the relationship perhaps take for granted.

Moreover, China is not alone in its copycat behaviour. At the dawn of new eras in the West, there has been a great tradition of appropriated typologies. Post-Modern thinking has roots in novelty, empire and pillaged treasures. Whether it is capitalist or industrial approaches that have led to much of China’s questionable developments, how is a factory, five-star hotel or shopping mall to look if the typology never existed after all? The north of England was one of the powerhouses of the industrial revolution; however,



the architectural styles go beyond mere adherence to engineering. The now ‘Grade-I listed’ Temple Works building in Leeds is a perfect example of an Ancient Egyptian/Yorkshire factory building; the former mill’s eccentric owner created the fne façade in 1840 from local stone by copying the design of the north-side interior court façade of the Temple of Horus at Edfu, which had been completed over 4000 kilometres away, 2000 years earlier. Despite its facsimile treatment of the architectural elevation, the building made a number of innovations: it incorporated one of the frst examples of a hydraulic lift, which led to an extensive green roof, where he grazed sheep and collected rainwater, and that, at one point, covered the world’s largest room – the 0.8 hectare factory foor.48 Nearby, Tower Works featured three chimneys copied from celebrated historical Italian structures: a Tuscan spire from San Gimignano, the Torre dei Lamberti in Verona, and Giotto’s Campanile from Florence’s Piazza del Duomo. These towers are recreated in the red-brick of industrial-period Yorkshire, and have also been listed for historical signifcance; the suggestion that these structures are pastiche is perhaps pre-mature. As with Temple Works, the creators of these structures were adventurous, inventive and ambitious – they were proud to display their copied buildings, showing-off their education and worldliness, while they imagined themselves as renaissance men, heroes of the industrial revolution.


Chapter Two

Copying may be argued as a form of curiosity and a way of learning. This seems logical: if we recall learning a new skill, musical instrument or language, it is the repetition and copying that eventually leads to an understanding. Ever since humans have been trading with one another, they have also been sharing knowledge and culture. The notion of ‘The Orient’ is part ignorance, part fascination. Several centuries of colonial wars and trade between East and West have led to curiosities such as the Brighton Pavilion in southern England and the wonders of the World Expositions in Paris, or to culinary and cultural staples such as pasta in Italy (said to have origins in Chinese noodles) or tea-drinking in Britain.

But when power gets involved, curiosity can be twisted to resemble ‘vision’ and learning re-presented as ‘authoritative wisdom’. In the West, some of the most important buildings and city spaces are copies of, or references to, the Greco-Roman examples. Those ancient empires were prolific in influence, conquest and construction. At various times throughout history, the Classical style had come to mean modernity and prosperity. However, it is the stylistic elements rather than the civic qualities or infrastructural innovation that seem to have survived into recent practice. Classical styles once copied from history as an ‘enlightenment’ have been wielded clumsily by the perpetrators of sprawling suburbs, luxury



hotels, and mansions for the nouveau riche. The mighty proportions and heroic ‘historic’ connotations of Classical architecture led to its adoption by Europe’s great 20th century dictators. Adolf Hitler and his architect, Albert Speer, dreamt of recreating the quintessential cities of Piranesi’s Rome, architecture fit for a Thousand Year Reich. Bucharest became presided over by the ‘world’s largest government building’, the Palatul Parlamentului. And in Russia, where the baroque city of St. Petersburg, ‘a city built on bones’, had previously emerged from swamps via the drawing boards of Italian architects and the hands of thousands of conscripted workers under the direction of Peter the Great. Joseph Stalin was to essentially copy the Classical sense of ‘truth’ and monumentality for his visions of a new society.

In America, innovative cities such as New York have developed their own architectural history and urban conditions, growing from the commercial sector rather than from the ‘civic’ set pieces of space that one would find in the administrative capital Washington DC. Whilst Manhattan is not free from pediments, porticos and Corinthian columns, its non-Classical near-homogeneous city grid is distinct from Hippodamus of Miletus. Washington relies on its Classical axis, formal monuments and facsimile buildings such as Capitol Hill, the White House and the Lincoln Memorial.


Chapter Two

The town of Celebration, Florida is like a set from Ira Levin’s 1972 satirical novel ‘The Stepford Wives’, and was originally developed by the Walt Disney Company to include historical replicas and fantasies of weather and society. Like at Disney World, in Celebration it always (artificially) snows at Christmas regardless of temperature or weather.49 Within the artificial realities of Florida’s theme park tourism, visitors can see all they need to within close driving distance, rather than travelling widely. Just as China may be encouraging a safe and censored flavour of the outside by building copies of world-wide curiosities, America builds them to indulge a hedonistic, fully surreal and immersive commercial environment.

The most pervasive forces that lead to copied buildings and urban spaces are religion and power. The conflict faced by monarchies and clergies over whether to build in the Classical or Gothic style raged for centuries, and in a way still does. The Romans had admired Ancient Greek art and architecture, and rolled it out across Europe, Africa and East Asia under the marching feet of their technologically advanced armies. Once we reflect on the histories and understanding that the built environment is essentially caught in a struggle of different ideals and imaginations, then we can help negotiate futures where the dominant narratives of the city are sophisticated, relevant and appreciated as humane.



Aesthetics is one of many conceptually flexible areas where Chinese values have experimented with and assimilated those of the West. ‘Among the many mysteries of the East, the landscape painting presents itself as a prospect for new concepts featuring impressionist painting: an unconventional angle, the absence of mono-focal perspective, combination with the Renaissance style, the use of figures to escape from the edge of the canvas, the subordination of particular parts to the whole and the free use of colour spots... the revolution encouraged the spirits that came from a distant culture and embraced the ideas of foreign artists.’50 The artworks of Yao Lu and Yang Yongliang create a fantasy of beauty with ugliness. Both allude to the great tradition of ‘Shan Shui’, Chinese landscape paintings of mountains and water, but use digitally manipulated images of man-made materials to produce their constructed visions. For Yao Lu, the materials of the constructed landscape are piles of earth and rubble shrouded by the green dustproof cloth of the construction industry. The narrative of his images seems to pre-date Yang Yongliang’s visions as they show an empty landscape, with the dustproofing to suggest ‘during construction’ and a potential. ‘If a city does not have such green hills and piles covered by dustproof cloth, it may look unfamiliar, unnatural, unconfident, and unsafe, as it may indicate that the city lacks vigour, and is not favoured by capital and power.’51


Chapter Two

Yang’s imagery evokes the vast towers and density of his hometown of Shanghai where cranes, tower blocks and smog pile high to engulf the natural world.52 When looking at these spectacular images, there is a sense of plausibility mixed in with the utopia­ dystopia perceptions of China, whether constructing the largest of buildings, putting up cities in record time or conducting wild urban experiments. His process involves photographically surveying the city, and the use of collaged videos and still photography elements of real building sites and demolished districts. Yang’s explicit references to ancient Chinese landscape painting evoke the theme of change and the need for Chinese identity to adapt to meet extraordinary challenges. The appeal and beauty of traditional landscape painting has always been elevated by the meditative practice of making the work; in China, art has long held a contemplative and spiritual role. In reminding us of such a style, executing the painstaking work and practising monk-like dedication to the collages, Yao Lu and Yang Yongliang invite us to contemplate our rampant consumerism culture and its impact on future Chinese cities, and indeed the resilience of our environment on a much wider scale.

In that respect, and considering the 2020 ban, would China be better off without its half-dozen copies of the Eiffel Tower? Or is it



perfectly acceptable to have thousands of translated reproductions of Western-style streets, suburbs and buildings? While China has a handful of the Parisian knock-offs, there is nothing particularly Chinese about this remarkable phenomenon as there are more than 30 replicas or close derivatives of the iconic structure world-wide. The reality of how globalisation and localism coexist and relate to consumerism is a bit subtler than is most-often given credit, and could well lead to a future enormously rich in innovation – a future played out by a new generation in an imaginative urbanism.


Chapter Two

NOTES 1. J Berger, ‘Ways of Seeing’, Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1972, p.143 2. N McCarthy, ‘Singles’ Day Sets Another Sales Record’, Forbes, 12 November 2018 [https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2018/11/12/singles-day-sets-another­ sales-record-infographic/#51ef0c1f815a], retrieved 12 August 2019 3 + 5. J Berger, ‘Ways of Seeing’, Penguin Books Ltd, London, 1972, p.23 4. C Eames & R Eames, quoted on the Eames Office official website [https://www. eamesoffice.com/blog/what-do-i-think-about-fakes], retrieved 1 March 2018 6. SQ Li, ‘Understanding the Chinese City’, SAGE Publications, London, 2014, pp. 63–64 7 + 8. DQ Shan, ‘Chinese Vernacular Dwellings’, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011, p.90–93 9. DQ Shan, ‘Chinese Vernacular Dwellings’, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011, p.97 10 + 11. DQ Shan, ‘Chinese Vernacular Dwellings’, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011, p.99–105 12. Y Lu, ‘Colonial Qingdao Through Chinese Eyes’, in ‘The Cultural Legacy of German Colonial Rule’, K Mühlhahn (ed.), De Gruyter Oldenbourg, Berlin & Boston, 2017, p.137 13. M Davies, ‘P & T Group: 140 years of architecture in Asia’, The Images Publishing Group, Mulgrave, 2008, p.7 14. K Day, ‘Fengshui: A twenty-first century cultural band-aid?’, in ‘Unbounded: On the interior and interiority’, D Daou et al. (eds.), Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015, p.45 15. K Day, ‘Fengshui: A twenty-first century cultural band-aid?’, in ‘Unbounded: On the interior and interiority’, D Daou et al. (eds.), Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015, pp.57–59



16. E Denison & YR Guang, ‘Luke Him Sau: Architect: China’s missing modern’, John Wiley & Sons, 2014, p.86 17. F Dikötter, ‘Mao’s Great Famine: The story of China’s most devastating catastrophe, 1958–62’, Bloomsbury, 2011, p.333 18. The Great Leap Forward is Mao Zedong’s ambitious 1958 plan to modernise the Chinese economy, which ended with a famine that killed tens of millions of people. 19. MH Hunt, ‘The World Transformed: 1945 to the present’, Oxford University Press, New York, 2016, p.355 20. E Vogel, ‘Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China’, The Belknap Press of Harvard Press, 2011, p.398 21. S Faison,’Deng Xiaoping is Dead at 92; Architect of Modern China’, The New York Times, 20 February 1997 [https://www.nytimes.com/1997/02/20/world/deng-xiaoping-is­ dead-at-92-architect-of-modern-china.html?pagewanted=all], retrieved 14 December 2017 22. D Budds, ‘China’s Star Design Studio: Consumerism is hurting the industry’, The Fast Company, 25 May 2016 [https://www.fastcompany.com/3060145/chinas-star-design­ studio-consumerism-is-hurting-the-industry], retrieved 12 August 2019 23. A Mayer, ‘Why is Zaha Hadid Being Copied in China?’, www.chinaurbandevelopment. com, 25 March 2013 [https://www.chinaurbandevelopment.com/why-is-zaha-hadid­ being-copied-in-china], retrieved 12 August 2019 24. KH Platt, ‘Copycat Architects in China Take aim at the Stars’, Spiegel Online, 28 December 2012 [https://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/pirated-copy-of-design­ by-star-architect-hadid-being-built-in-china-a-874390.html], retrieved 12 August 2019 25. R Koolhaas, ‘Elements: Elevator’, Marsilio; Box edition, Venice, 2014, p.33 26. J Miller, ‘Elevator Makers See the Upside of Evolving China’, Reuters, 20 April 2016 [https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-elevators/elevator-makers-see-the-upside­ of-evolving-china-idUSKCN0XH29E], retrieved 12 August 2019


Chapter Two

27. J Glancey, ‘How to Read Towns & Cities: A crash course in urban architecture’, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, London, 2016, pp.204–205 28. J Glancey, ‘How to Read Towns & Cities: A crash course in urban architecture’, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, London, 2016, p.226 29. K Jennings, ‘The British Ghost Town in the Middle of China’, Condé Nast Traveller, 4 January 2016 [https://www.cntraveler.com/stories/2016-01-04/the-english-ghost-town­ in-the-middle-of-china], retrieved 5 January 2018 30. Ruth Morris, ‘Why China Loves to Build Copycat Towns’, BBC, 1 July 2013 [https:// www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23067082], retrieved 5 January 2018 31. A Yan, ‘Chinese City’s Copy of London’s Tower Bridge Sparks Public Debate’, South China Morning Post, 27 February 2017 32 + 33. W Shepard, ‘Ghost Cities of China: The story of cities without people in the world’s most populated country’, Zed Books, London, 2015, pp.104–105 34 + 35. MOHURD, ‘Notice of the National Development and Reform Commission of the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development on further strengthening the management of urban and architectural features’, 27 April 2020 [http://www.mohurd.gov. cn/jzjnykj/202004/t20200429_245239.html], retrieved 17 May 2020 36. Rowan Moore, ‘Banning Knockoff Buildings Might Bring a Renaissance in Chinese Architecture’, The Guardian, 17 May 2020 37. SQ Li, ‘Understanding the Chinese City’, SAGE Publications, London, 2014, p.66 38. KH Platt, ‘Copycat Architects in China Take Aim at the Stars’, Spiegel Online, 28 December 2012 [https://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/pirated-copy-of-design­ by-star-architect-hadid-being-built-in-china-a-874390.html#spRedirectedFrom=www], retrieved 12 August 2019 39. R Koolhaas, ‘Preservation is Overtaking Us’, Columbia University Press, New York, 2016, pp.12–13



40. H Hu, ‘Chinese Architecture Today’, Birkhäuser, Basel, 2016, p.7 41. Jury Citation, ‘The Pritzker Architecture Prize 2012’, The Pritzker Prize, 2012 [https:// www.pritzkerprize.com/laureates/2012], retrieved 12 August 2012 42. IM Pei, quoted in Carter Wiseman, ‘I. M. Pei: A Profile in American Architecture’, Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York, 1990, pp.185–207 43. IM Pei, quoted in Carter Wiseman, ‘I. M. Pei: A Profile in American Architecture’, Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York, 1990, p.288 44. C Wiseman, ‘I. M. Pei: A Profile in American Architecture’, Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York, 1990, p.294 45. R Pogrebin, ‘For First Time, Architect in China Wins Top Prize’, The New York Times, 27 February 2012 46. A Williams, ‘Pen Portraits: Wang Shu’, Architectural Review, 16 November 2015 [https://www.architectural-review.com/essays/reputations-pen-portraits-/wang­ shu-b1963-/8691107.article], retrieved 14 April 2018 47. R Koolhaas, ‘Preservation is Overtaking Us’, Columbia University Press, New York, 2016, pp.11–12 48. H Pidd, ‘Telegraph Owners Accused of ‘Washing Hands’ of Historic Leeds Building’, The Guardian, 27 November 2017 49. J Glancey, ‘How to Read Towns & Cities: A crash course in urban architecture’, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, London, 2016, p.227 50. A Capasso, ‘Xu Longsen: On top of two empires’, Museo della Civilta Romana, Rome, 2011, p.17 51. Z Gu, ‘Concealment and Restructuring: Yao Lu, New Mountain and Water’, 798 Photo Gallery, Beijing, 2008 52. YL Yang, ‘Yang Yongliang: Landscapes’, Thucuir Ltd, 2011, p.7






Journey to the North West



the most popular work of Chinese literature,

‘Journey to the West’ is based on the historical pilgrimage of the Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang who travelled to the Western Regions of Central Asia and India, in search of the Sacred Scriptures. In the literary reimagination, Tang Sanzang, a Buddhist monk, is accompanied by prince Yu Long, a dragon­ turned-white-horse, along with three other unruly disciples Zhu Bajie ‘Pigsy’, Sha Wujing ‘Friar Sand’ and Sun Wukong ‘Monkey’, who mutually agreed to help him on his perilous journey as atonements for their sins. Along the way to Vulture Peaks, their faith is threatened and their quest constantly terrorised by evil nymphs, wizards and demons eager to devour the monk’s flesh to gain immortality. Monkey is only allowed to travel because of Guanyin’s salvation, since he was sentenced to 500 years of solitude under the Five Elements Mountain for the unthinkable upheaval he caused in Heaven and for offending the Jade Emperor. Birthed from a boulder on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit, Monkey’s irrepressible antics and immortal abilities to shape-shift, ride on and leap between clouds, and wield a magic staff added to the legend, creating a humorous combination of fantasy, anti-bureaucratic satire and religious allegory towards enlightenment by the virtue and power of alliance. – Wu Cheng’En, ‘Journey to the West’, 16th century

clockwise from top left: The Monkey King atop of his magic staff at the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit; The Monk and his horse sent to retrieve the Holy Scriptures from Vulture Peak; Pigsy is driven by lust and gluttony; Friar Sand is stabbed a hundred times every seven days by a sword sent by the Jade Emperor.

Journey to the North West

The Ginsengfruit Tree of longevity and immortality.


clockwise from top left: At the BSA, the size-changing pencil Monkey King leaps around a heap of laptops with fruity logos and flowery hairbands which symbolises the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit; The Monk travels on his ‘water bottle with drawing pins for legs’ white horse towards a flock of origami birds standing in for Vulture Peak; Pigsy is an unrelenting vacuum cleaner; Friar Sand guards the Sand River carpet fibres.

Journey to the North West

The Heavenly Service Ceiling

The immortality of the ‘Ginsengfruit Tree’ is displayed by the abundance of plugs and power cables.




The imagination in each of the 100 chapters – from their fantasy scenarios and colourful animal spirits to the supernatural atmospheric landscapes of the Flaming Mountain, the Black River, Emerald Wave Lake, and the Immortal Peach Orchard, and the distortion of place, time and scale – is significant to its enduring appeal as an early form of magical realism.1 For many, the adventures of Monkey are not just read but are hearsay and bedtime narratives, creating individual imaginative landscapes. With the integration of surrealism and symbolism, ‘Journey to the North West’ takes an unorthodox portrayal of Chinese aboard – the modern-day pilgrims of architecture students at The Bartlett School of Architecture (BSA) with unquenchable thirst for the ‘material’-istic and the procurement of knowledge. According to China Daily, ‘In the 2016-17 academic year, UK universities welcomed 95,090 Chinese students, by far the biggest international student cohort. By comparison, the second-biggest cohort, from the United States, was 17,580.’2 Having a longstanding presence at the top of the architecture course international league tables, the BSA is a global magnet for those making the ‘treacherous’ journey to the West – the school is the ultimate pilgrimage site for those in search of the best education. Turning their consumerist mindset into imaginative resources, the Chinese students adopt the BSA’s temporary site, 140 Hampstead Road in London NW1, cramming it with infinite speculative spatial scenarios for the new building.

Journey to the North West

The majestic view of the Heavenly Service Ceiling from the Golden Gate entrance.


The Monkey King wields his magical pencil and immediately descends from the Heavenly Service Ceiling to the Well of Imagination to collect more witty ideas from ‘Starbucks’.



9 8



5 4 3

1. Golden Gate 2. Pigsy 3. Jade Emperor 4. Fiery Mountain 5. Hampstead Road 6. Jade Palace 7. Women’s Land 8. Vulture Peak 9. Guanyin



Journey to the North West


Of course, being familiar with the school for many years has allowed us, the authors, to be overwhelmed by pet-peeves, dreary realities and the general sinking-in of the mundane. With the upheaval that came with the school relocating, the temporary accommodation has a renewed, surreal interest. It is a cabinet of curiosities of Unknown to the Monkey King, the Pagoda harbours demons and evil challenges.

the everyday, and just as when tourists screech in excitement, accompanied by the keen click, click, click, there is an uncanny

The Pagodas of stacked chairs are reoccurring challenges in the BSA.

surprise when something is unexpectedly the same, or a confused fascination with things that are so different. This form of hacked, ripped, appropriated misinterpretation of design is simultaneously lost in translation and, bizarrely, found in misunderstanding the individual’s inner-world. Maybe it is the displacement that excites the imagination of the Chinese students.

The studio spaces at the BSA are akin to the military-like Women’s Country.

1. Stairwell - Monkey King’s Rod 2. CAD Suite - Manfruit Tree 3. Kitchen - Spider Demon Cave 4. Crit Space - River of Heavenly Touch 5. Studio Space - Women’s Land 6. Studio Bay - Monk and the Queen



Imagination is religion, currency and governance at the BSA. It plays the central role within this reincarnation of the institution by appropriating common everyday materials (many of which are made in China) as construction resources, found in abundance within the building. As a projection of magical realism,3 each spatial scenario in ‘Journey to the North West’ is drawn with ultimate accuracy so that the BSA, in effect, becomes more real than the found objects of its architectural representation, despite the fact that it does not yet (and will never) exist in reality. The interpretative nature of the common props reconnects the readers of the architecture back to their childhood – the card box: a spaceship, the duvet: the sea, and a tray of water for ‘catching’ the moon. Chairs, CCTVs, TV monitors, rubbish bins, electric cables, computer screens, anglepoise lamps, fire extinguisher, vacuum cleaner, fabrication robots, Xerox printer, polystyrene cups, food packaging, plastic bottles and even mice are just some of the everyday ‘waste’ found in the BSA building, abundant and available for creative recycling in the making of architecture.

Never-ending mischievous acts...

Journey to the North West


...who is hiding under the landscape of ‘Journey to the West’ books?

It has been chaotic at the BSA since Guanyin’s lightbulb broke. Someone please get a replacement asap...



Consumerism is damaging our environment. Architects



contributed problem



this have

designed only conventional tools for waste management, but the imaginative aspects are typically neglected. By way of assigning the everyday ‘material’-istic objects to the characters in the 16th century literature, Monkey,






adversaries come to life as architectural protagonists, and bring about speculations regarding






manifestation. The architecture of the BSA is a collage of improbable discourse between fantasy and the reality of sustainability and recycling, layered with mythology, distortion of scale and perception. The readers are presented




spatial scenarios, whether it is the Jade Emperor, the all-knowing governor of Heaven and Earth, serving as the network of CCTV that watches over the BSA, or an anglepoise lamp portraying Guanyin, the goddess of mercy and paragon of empowerment. The lamp instils intangible spatial guidelines of light onto the site, and as it rotates and adjusts, so do the volume and spatial configurations of the BSA – there are no physical walls to limit the students’ imagination.

Journey to the North West


A malfunction in the system is preventing the CCTV Jade Emperor from presiding over his domain and observing the mischiefs that are happening...

The anglepoise lamp, Guanyin, is always close at hand to offer empathy and intangible spatial guidance.

Friar Sand, the abrasive industrial carpet on the groud floor, welcomes students to the BSA.

Am I being watched? Where did the CCTV come from? Is this the Jade Emperor?



Always assigned the thankless tasks, the Monk, a forgiving broom,

Where is the noise coming from?

is constantly sweeping up the confetti of litter around the school. Pigsy, the greedy vacuum cleaner, and





industrial carpet, are, however, not always as friendly and welcoming to imprudent students. Monkey, best personified by the long object he frequently wields, materialises as an array of pencils, a common instrument found in most good architecture schools. Seeing that Monkey’s magic staff can reach the thirty-third Heaven,4 the pencil is responsible for providing vertical circulation between all levels of the new 33-metres-high building. The magical realism of the appropriated pencil metamorphising in scale is synonymous with Monkey’s ability to turn the pillar of Heaven into a magic staff. ‘The iron pillar was twenty feet long… so I gradually made it smaller and smaller, exactly like an embroidery needle, and could comfortably be worn behind the ear.’5

Friar Sand spits out the rubbish

Journey to the North West


... and Hoover Pigsy vacuums it up at an alarming rate! Pigsy must be hungry again.

The Black River of coffee creates a path to the Well of Imagination.

First floor plan reflected in the spilt coffee...



Journey to the North West The





Longevity Mountain produces only 30 fruits every 10,000 years.




fruit can extend a lifespan by 360




the fruit can extend life for another




Longevity Tree in the BSA is the life-source for charging computers, 3D printers, copymachines, lighting, microwave ovens and all things electric which the school’s community is so dependent on. The Tree’s immortal persona is enhanced by its long branching cables from the CAD suites and the extensive power sockets that ‘impart heavenly Let’s get a closer look at the lifesource of the BSA – the Longevity Tree is growing with the increase in student numbers along with the demands of charging computers, 3D printers, micro­ wave ovens and all things electric!

longevity’ ceiling,

into the

the Jade

Palace. The upper Heaven is a make-believe sky, littered with CCTVs, servicing ducts and acoustic panels pretending to be clouds. There is no such thing as an impossible spatial scenario at the BSA; all the students have to do is imagine.

The BSA is an unconventional rethinking of sustainability and a satirical commentary on architecture.



The White Bone Spirit robotic arms in the workshop are setting the Fiery Mountain back on fire.

Journey to the North West


Even Monkey’s adversaries have succumbed to being virtuous at the BSA. The White Bone Spirit, a shape-shifting skeleton demoness, in her true menacing form is depicted by the school’s latest acquisition, the robotic arms – these vigilant guardians of the Workshop and Health & Safety are located on the ground floor next to 41 ‘mouse-traps’, the studio spaces. Although the BSA has a gender-balanced student



military-like arrangement and soul of the studio spaces are representative of the prodigious and




all-female population in the mythical Women’s Country. And what about the mice? The BSA has a long tradition of ‘hosting’ London’s (and a few from Europe and Asia) population of spirited rodent ‘studio tutors’ who bear the gift of imagination. There is Guanyin the anglepoise lamp shines a light onto the creative spirit of the rodent studio tutors.

no right or wrong at the BSA, just the consequences of the community’s creative actions.

1. Golden Gate 2. Sand River 3. Fiery Mountain 4. Monkey Rod 5. White Bone Spirits 6. Manfruit Tree 7. Women’s Land 8. Monk 9. Queen 10. Heaven 11. Guanyin

1. Golden Gate - Entrance 2. Pigsy - Cleaning Area 3. Jade Palace - Servicing Ceiling 4. Jade Emperor - CCTV 5. Jade Palace - iMac 6. Women’s Well - Coffee Area 7. White Bone Spirit - Workshop 8. CAD Suite - Fiery Mountain 9. Stairwell - Monkey King’s Size-changing Staff

Guanyin the anglepoise lamp is busy choreographing the end­ of-term reviews...

...but the CCTV ‘Jade Emperor’ decides to break up the event as it is past 10pm.

The disruption has caused the ‘Monk’ broom to fall over.

The architecture of the BSA is enriched by different landscapes of teaching and learning which shaped and redefined the diverse relationships between the Monk and his horse, Pigsy, Friar Sand, and the Monkey King, and all their adversaries.

With a little imagination, Monkey King’s size-changing staff enables a multi­ dimensional spatial experience.

Alas, the CCTV Jade Emperor and the anglepoise lamp Guanyin are back in operation... and so is the flow of imagination.



Not all the allegories work perfectly, but the imagination bends and hacks this unusual reading of architecture and the unconventional rethinking of sustainability to recycle consumerism’s global wastes. Regardless of whether the discerning Chinese architecture students are fully signed-on members of Architectural Education Declares, the inter-school action to combat climate change, or inspired by their own architectural hero Wang Shu and his adamant recycling narrative at Ningbo History Museum, or the poetic Shan Shui landscapes collaged from manmade wastes by Yao Lu and Yang Yongliang, or their own personal guilt for having participated in China’s mega consumerist culture – they have applied magical imagination upon reality to symbolically reverse the 16th century tale and have ‘returned’ to the West its enlightenment, the scripture of environmental sustainability. Journey to the North West is, at once, a satirical commentary on architecture, a rebuttal to the condescending perceptions of China’s creativity, and an aide-mémoire of our environmental responsibilities if we wish to be resilient. Yang expressed, ‘the city is the place where I live, a space that evolves with me and which contain memories. A mirage or ghost-city is the environment towards which I reach out, but it only exists in my imagination… The ancients expressed their sentiments and appreciation of nature through landscape painting. As for me, I use my own landscape to criticize the reality as I perceive it.’7

Journey to the North West


Imagination has transformed the BSA into a collage of improbable fantasy and an innovative reality.

Guess who’s the real Jade Emperor...?

... but there is always danger of complacency lurking within the BSA. The bulldog clip Gold Fish which devours a boy and a girl each year from rural villages in the literature is ‘surfing the internet’ again, seeking out Coke and Diet Coke instead.

Journey to the North West


NOTES 1. J Trapp, ‘Is the Monkey King the World’s Most Popular Superhero?’, British Council, 3 February 2016 [https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/monkey-king-worlds­ most-popular-superhero], retrieved 2 August 2019 2. C Liu, ‘Chinese Students Flock to UK Universities’, China Daily, 3 September 2018 [https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201809/03/WS5b8d26c5a310add14f389551.html], retrieved 2 August 2019 3. P Biswas, ‘Exploration of Magic Realism: Harry Potter novels in perspective’, International Journal of English Language, Literature and Humanities, vol.II, issue VI, October 2014, ISSN 2321-7065 4 + 5. CE Wu, ‘Monkey’, A Waley (trans.), Penguin Classic, 1973, new impression edition, p.41 6. CE Wu, ‘The Journey to the West’, AC Yu (ed. + trans.), The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 2011, revised edition, vol.1, chapter 24, p.461 7. YL Yang, ‘Yang Yongliang: Landscapes’, Thucuir Ltd, 2011, p.7




Chapter Three



China does not hold national, democratic general elections and reprimands those who openly call for multiparty rule. It operates under the Communist Party of China (CPC), a single party system where members collectively decide on domestic and international policies. This complex organisation with one of the world’s largest governments is firmly in power, its top leader is popular, and no political alternative currently claims widespread support, albeit having suffered a plague of corruption, repression and heavy censorship of the press and internet. While the Chinese government has prioritised poverty reduction and economic growth, a desirable outcome that builds on the advantages of the current political system would be for China to continue its commitment to environmental sustainability and climate change issues. Pausing the growth in Chinese carbon dioxide emissions from coal would not just clean the air, but would also ‘be a very important gift from China to the whole world’.1



Back in 2014 when President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions over the next two decades, analysts and policy advisers did not anticipate China to be the country to adhere to the pledge – since the Republicans won the presidency in 2016, the United States has set aside its promise. Instead, China has committed to invest 2.5 trillion yuan in renewable energy generation. According to the country’s economic planner, the National Development and Reform Commission, about 700 billion yuan goes towards wind farms, 500 billion to hydropower, and solar power will receive 1 trillion yuan to boost its capacity by five times. That is an additional 1000 major solar power plants for the world’s top solar generator. Wind, hydro, solar and nuclear power would contribute to about half of new electricity.2 Regrettably, the demoralising reality of democracy is that an authoritarian regime with an understanding of the urgency of climate change is more likely to ramp up its war on pollution and pursue sustainable policies than an ineffectual elected politician.

Politics is rendered visible in our everyday environment, its architecture and in its urban form. Whether a society is bustling with free trade and exchange of ideas, industrious or authoritarian, politics can be evidenced in building typology, style and impact. If politics is interested in respecting or emphasising the power of


Chapter Three

the past then those urban forms and architectural styles would be preserved and proliferated; if politics is interested in revolution, newness and the power of the future then the city can be the vessel for innovation, or wiped clean. The way urban conditions have reacted, resisted and bent to political ambitions are key areas of understanding for designers. Historically, Chinese cities have been shaped by dynastic ideals to facilitate economy and politics. Public spaces can often tell great political and everyday tales, and may be the reason why urbanists and architects are so often preoccupied with the commonplace and the ordinary. Sociologist Saskia Sassen believes that ‘the public space is a place in which there is a momentary condition of equality’.3 Democratic aspirations can bring about a new and meaningful quality of spaces to cultivate active citizenships. The formal as well as ephemeral qualities of spaces can affect and amplify social change.

The focal points of this chapter are the spatial occupation of Chinese megacities and towns influenced by a growing democratic will and the imaginative re-use of public space. In ‘China in Ten Words’ (2011), Yu Hua observes ‘the Mao era was impoverished and restrictive… China today is a different story. So intense is the competition and so unbearable the pressure that, for many Chinese, survival is like war itself.’4 The urban condition and



its inhabitation have had huge effects on physical and mental wellbeing, where domestic routines, joy and grievances are part of a consequence of politics. The celebrated Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei sees the city as both a psychological and a physical challenge: ‘Cities are really mental conditions. Beijing is a nightmare. A constant nightmare.’5 In this context of extreme tension, what environmental lessons might China learn from its traditional ways of life, socio-economy and political culture; what can be re-interpreted into democratic spatial occupation?

The symbolic battleground for Chinese democracy is Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The 440,500-square-metre public plaza is where imperial heritage from feudal centuries of the Middle Kingdom faces the monuments and museums erected by the Communist regime, and presiding over all this is the iconic Tiananmen Gate with Mao’s portrait hanging over the entrance to the Forbidden City. During the lead-up to the 4th of June massacre in 1989, peaceful protests had been gathering in public spaces across several cities. In Tiananmen Square, students and demonstrators had gathered in their thousands, and had erected a temporary statue, ‘The Goddess of Democracy’. Standing outside the gates to the communist (formerly imperial) palace, the statue sought to contrast the architectural forms which represent power and authority, with


Chapter Three

humanity and its implied virtues. The ten-metre-tall statue, built from foam, papier-mâché and scrap metal, was inspired by but not a literal copy of ‘The Statue of Liberty’ in New York and the ‘Worker and Kolkhoz Woman’ by Russian sculptor Vera Mukhina.

The message of ‘The Goddess of Democracy’ was explicit, and was hastily destroyed along with those who defended its declaration that day – crushed by a tank. The erection and toppling of statues has been iconic of political campaigns, as they came and went. Liu Xiaobo’s book ‘June Fourth Elegies’ re-ignites an anger that he maintains through society’s ‘collective amnesia’ in his series of poems written every year since. Recalling the mood of the protest and the tragedy, he wrote in ‘Suffocating City Square’ (1992): ‘This city square, the largest in the world filled to the brink with crowds and cheers in a blink liquid mercury flash of fleeing. Now only fear and an empty expanse remain. Against the ash-white pallor of the martyrs, dawn light dances on steel helmets. Those whom God judges pass through certain windows, admire daybreak in a cup that overflows with a bruise-coloured liquid.’6

Liu Xiaobo’s time as an activist fighting for democracy ended in 2017, after a controversial incarceration and travel restriction meant that he could not seek medical attention for his life-threatening illness.



Liu, perhaps the country’s most renowned dissident, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, although was not permitted to travel to Norway to receive it. He has established with his writing, be it poetry or books, a great, but as-yet unrealised, legacy of political reforms for China. ‘We grieve the loss of a giant of human rights. Liu Xiaobo was a man of fierce intellect, principle, wit and above all humanity… The greatest tribute we can now pay him is to continue the struggle for human rights in China and recognize the powerful legacy he leaves behind. Thanks to Liu Xiaobo, millions of people in China and across the world have been inspired to stand up for freedom and justice in the face of oppression’, expressed Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International, in 2017.7

In the 5th century BC, the great strategist Sun Tzu wrote ‘The Art of War’. The seminal military treatise has since become a source of inspiration for political leaders, lawyers and business leaders. In the third chapter ‘Attack by Stratagem’, Sun Tzu warns that ‘the rule is, not to besiege walled cities if it can be possibly avoided’. He continues to reason that the effort required will leave soldiers drained of energy and take far too long, ‘the preparation of mantles, moveable shelter, and various implements of war, will take up three whole months; and the piling up of mounds over and against the walls will take three months more’.8


Chapter Three

China’s political heritage is a clash of its imperial, dynastic past and the imported socialist ideals of the Soviets that bubbled up through Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. Western democracy is based on the Roman Republic and its forebear the Greek ‘Athenian’ model, but has proved to fit well with industrialisation, competition and international capitalism. In the Greek mythology, the Achaeans changed tactics after a fruitless decade of siege upon the city of Troy. A giant wooden horse was built and offered to the Trojans as a ceremonial offering of surrender. Once the Achaean army was thought to have left, the Trojans triumphantly wheeled the horse into the walled city and celebrated the night with drinking and merriment. However, the wooden horse was built to be hollow and concealed inside were the best soldiers of the Achaeans. That night while the city slept, the soldiers emerged and massacred the Trojan population; the war was as good as won.

Democracy can come from other means, slipped past the gates, or brought in through other guises. Yu Hua notes the people’s shifting values, and implies a change of tactics was needed to provide a better world: ‘Political passions had erupted in Tiananmen… (and) expended themselves completely in one fell swoop, to be replaced by a passion for getting rich. When everyone unites in the urge to make money, the economic surge of the 1990s was the natural



outcome.’9 The economic strength that China now commands relies on capitalism and economic reform policies Deng Xiaoping implemented in the 1970s and 80s. Some perceived his assertion that socialism and the market economy are not wholly incompatible as the essential symbiosis of capitalism and democracy. Furthermore, Deng’s actions resonated with Sun Tzu, who highlights the importance of natural change: ‘Just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions. He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.’10

An example of a tactical political shift is the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which brought foreign visitors and masses of media attention. The CPC government perceived the event to be a sort of voluntary Trojan Horse, to bring in external influences to benefit China and to enlighten those on the outside. However, it may have had a reverse effect, as sensational stories, corruption and human rights issues flooded to the fore, analogous to messages in bottles cast into a surging tide. Ai Weiwei views the event as a fantastical illusion, ‘no matter how long our politicians order people to sing songs of praise, no matter how many fireworks they launch into the heavens, and no matter how many foreign leaders they embrace, they cannot arouse a genuine mood of joy and celebration among the people’.11


Chapter Three

In the chapter ‘Consumerism’, the varied experiences of Chinese international students at top Western universities are brought into question. The young are susceptible to political influences and potentially ‘dangerous’ attitudes, for they would permeate future generations of Chinese society. This could be as simple as subscriptions to social media networks, where the infrastructure of free speech and democracy can be anonymous or universally accessible. However, the students ought to recognise that the idealism of Western democracy comes with a large dose of caution – it was democracy that elected the controversial Republican Donald Trump to the White House in 2016, and in the same year, 51.9 per cent of the British public voted for Brexit, the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.12

Notwithstanding, the Chinese government has cottoned on to the idea that students travelling abroad to acquire the liberal Western education of Europe and North America are at risk of absorbing conflicting viewpoints or simply losing their way. As a precaution, they have instigated in foreign cities the ‘Confucius Institutes’, which claim to promote Chinese language and culture, support teaching, and facilitate cultural exchanges. With approximately 500 locations around the world, the Confucius Institutes have attracted suspicion and criticism from Western observers that alleged the intent of the



programme is to subvert academic freedom. In a 2017 article in the Financial Times, Jane Pong and Emily Feng investigated the idea behind the Confucius Institutes and their funding of overseas programmes, and the newly-formed ties to universities with ‘ready­ made platforms for the state’s agenda, promoting an overly rosy image of China while discouraging discussion of the “three Ts”: Tibet, Taiwan and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre’.13 Others, such as Rachelle Petersen, have voiced concerns that a ‘growing number of Confucius Institutes are importing Chinese censorship into U.S. campuses’ under offers of enormous financial ‘goodwill’. In Foreign Policy magazine, she associated the Confucius Institutes to Trojan Horses exporting ‘fear of speaking freely around the world. They permit a foreign government intimate influence over college classrooms. It’s time to kick them off campus.’14

In 2017, a scandal emerged at Cambridge University Press after a series of censorship requests were made by the Chinese government, and accepted. The publisher was accused of ‘selling its soul’ after blocking over 300 articles from its online title ‘China Quarterly’. The Guardian newspaper reported that Cambridge University Press ‘insisted it was committed to freedom of thought and expression and had been “troubled by the recent increase in requests of this nature” from China’ and quoted the editor of China


Chapter Three

Quarterly, Tim Pringle, to have said ‘this restriction of academic freedom is not an isolated move but an extension of policies that have narrowed the space for public engagement and discussion across Chinese society’.15 It is such cases which are much lamented by Chinese intellectuals who feel that they, and their peers, have limited and controlled access to knowledge and foreign research that presumably other countries are free to benefit from.16 A secondary effect of this type of scandal is that it unfairly diminishes the perception of China and the Chinese in the international melting-pots – a tragic and mutually detrimental reality.

DISSENT IN THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT Ai Weiwei need not look far for his inspiration. He reproduces, as marble sculptures, the CCTV cameras that watch his every move; he builds accurate dioramas of the prison cells he has been detained in without charge, and he makes photographs as government workers demolish his studio. He has many themes to his work, but the political situation has certainly come to the fore. With the world’s media tuning into the detainment of the international figure, the move backfired – several major international institutions including art galleries printed massive slogans on their facades reading ‘Free Ai Weiwei’, and demonstrations took place in public spaces and streets in America and Europe. China eventually announced that



the artist was being held for tax evasion, but the candid artworks he later made as well as his description of the events that unfolded, suggest that Ai was an important political prisoner.

In the Chinese press and online, Ai has been heavily censored. In fact, he has been edited out of popular histories of art in some instances. It is hard to understand why the government would risk its international reputation to silence an artist. Is this a desperate act to suppress freedom of speech and expression which the authority fears might drum up dissent amongst the Chinese general public? Despite the bloody massacre of non-violent protestors in Tiananmen Square, it seems the heavy-handedness of the regime has changed little in 30 years. Whilst not accepting the Western model of democracy, as with Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist economic reforms, China is hard-pressed not to take advantage of the vital and desirable infrastructure of the internet. The ‘Great Fire Wall’ of information censorship ‘protects’ from unwarranted external meddling, although the Chinese public, notably Ai, use proxy servers and other codes as metaphorical Trojan Horses, Tunnels or Ladders to cross over to restricted content.

Ai famously contributed to the design of the ‘Bird’s Nest’ Olympic stadium by Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron, only to later


Chapter Three

disown and denounce the whole Olympic project. ‘We first participated in the design process hoping that the Olympics could stimulate reform in China… But what happened in the Olympics made us realise that it wasn’t only different from we first imagined, but that it was even a set-back, because China became like a police state.’17 Nevertheless, Ai is hopeful that one day public spaces will become facilitators of a civil society, but admits that society would need to look radically different from the one he observes. In 2003, he made a covert attempt to produce a democratic forum, the Ai Qing Memorial Gardens in Jinhua. The hope is to invite liberal ideas, open discussions and speculations at least in abstract built architectural forms. Across a riverside landscape dedicated to his late father, the once-exiled poet Ai Qing, he curated a series of pavilions from international and Chinese artists and architects. Each of the 17 pavilions is conceived as a room or place with an individual poetic and pragmatic function, metaphorically establishing a dialogue about diversity and freedom of expression.

Many have commented that foreign architects may perhaps be exploiting Chinese capitalism to create metaphorical Trojan Horses while liberally making ‘weird’ architectural experiments in the name of ‘landmarks’ or ‘iconic’ buildings. In 2014, President Xi called for a ban on ‘weird architecture’ at a literary symposium in



Beijing. He offered up an ideological solution that art should serve the people and ‘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’.18 In China, the story was covered by the Chinese state newspaper ‘The People’s Daily’, whose own headquarters building was unflatteringly photographed during its construction phase and was regularly compared on social media to the aesthetic of a giant penis. The tower’s Chinese architect Zhou Qi was mortified by the criticisms and eagerly defended the design as it began to rise above Beijing’s Central Business District. It was a most unfortunate loss of face for the newspaper, which has a wide global readership and amongst internet-savvy Chinese. Weird architecture is a ‘moving target’; for instance, the ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium and to a lesser extent the ‘Water-Cube’ aquatics centre are unusual buildings that perhaps would not be commissioned in the West even though they are designed largely by foreign architects.

Nonetheless, there have been significant changes in the Chinese built environment since the heady early 2000s. Through the lenses of his CCTV Headquarters and the Guardian Art Center in Beijing, the German architect Ole Scheeren’s interpretation of the Chinese president’s stance is one of encouragement: ‘There’s much more caution about creating truly outlandish proposals, and also more


Chapter Three

caution to creating a total “generic-ness”. Interestingly enough, Xi’s position was not only focusing on one. He didn’t only say let’s not make such weird buildings anymore, but also how everything has somewhat become the same across China’s very big territory. The consciousness, generally, has shifted. And that was, maybe, the really important and intelligent aspect of the whole campaign.’19

Trojan Horse designs are not only limited to architecture, urbanism, art, comics and literature but can also be found in food – the mooncake, a pastry filled with thick lotus seed paste consumed in vast quantities during the Mid-Autumn Festival in China. Ming revolutionaries are believed to have used mooncakes to spread their covert messages to orchestrate an uprising against the Mongols at the end of the Yuan dynasty in the 14th century. Fast forward to 2012, and the community art group Woofer Ten disseminated ‘revolutionary mooncakes’ at its Shanghai Street Artspace in Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong. Of the 360 mooncakes, each pastry with its own political message was expected to raise up to HK$300 to help pay the legal fees of eight political activists convicted of unlawful assembly and clashes with the police at North Point after a vigil commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre. The mooncakes featured the face of Mao Zedong and his quote ‘to rebel is justified’, paired with the slogan ‘life is hopeless’. Others had



1911 revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen and his famous quote ‘the revolution has not yet succeeded’, followed by a rhyming slogan ‘rent is up every month’.20 Again in 2019, during the many months of riots in opposition to an extradition bill, mooncakes were deployed to spread revolutionary messages in Hong Kong. The decades-old family owned Wah Yee Tang bakery stamped its mooncakes with not entirely family-friendly slogans of the protest movement.

THE VISIONARY DEMOCRATIC CITY In 2007, to launch the exhibition and book ‘Future City: Experiment and utopia in architecture’, Marie-Ange Brayer wrote with some certainty of the future, ‘Needless to say, the days of banners, flags and manifestos are now over; there is no longer any emancipatory task for architecture; there is no universal theory, no ideology to revere, no novelty to promote... the end of grand narratives.’21 However, this has turned out not to have remained the case, and if those in the West are to believe the majority of the day’s press then they are living in an unprecedented ‘age of uncertainty’. With the sloganeering of social media, the struggle for identity in the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, and the politicisation regarding the role of the architect, it seems that we have regressed behind the discourse and discipline of making cities.


Chapter Three

If Europe and the United States are somewhat distracted with ‘filling in the gaps and cracks in their foundations’, that is not to say that other regions are simultaneously procrastinating. China is leaping forward with capitalism and internationalism, into denser urbanism, and into the development of next-generation energy infrastructures. Chinese urbanism can be unapologetic, unsentimental and ruthlessly practicality-orientated. In 2018 alone, a total of 88 skyscrapers measuring 200 metres (656 feet) or above were completed in China. According to a CNN report, ‘The figure sets a new benchmark for annual skyscraper construction in a single country or at any other time in history, and is almost seven times higher than the 13 completions recorded in the US, which ranked a distant second, according to data released by the Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH). Of those, 14 were built in the southern city of Shenzhen, which topped the city rankings for the third consecutive year ahead of Dubai, Beijing, New York and the northern Chinese city of Shenyang.’22

The fast-paced and large-scale advance of Chinese urbanism is ripping through unsuspecting landscapes; these moments of risk and incredulity can be seen side by side – it’s a brave new world. In ‘Ghost Cities of China’ (2015), Wade Shepard reiterates a common belief: ‘China’s recent urbanisation push can be seen as an all or



nothing gamble on developing an insulted economy that’s based on domestic production and consumption… To this end, the country has physically, economically and socially restructured itself. Thousands of villages have been swept off the face of the earth; hundreds of new cities and myriad new towns have taken their place, well in advance of the populations and businesses that are intended to fill them.’23 Historical preservation of the built environment is not new in China, but for most purposes, it is an idea that is defeated by shiny newness. During the Cultural Revolution, it was Premier Zhou Enlai who allegedly decreed that the Forbidden City was off-limits in the Red Army’s destruction of all things ‘old’ – Chairman Mao has a disdain for history. In recent times, when decisions are prompted, China once more chooses the urban experiment over conservation. Ideology about progress and prosperity builds infrastructure and a mood for development or change: whilst capitalism provides initiative, experimentation finds its rewards in risk.

At the same time, the breakneck speed of development of Chinese cities relative to their Western counterparts has proved a source of never-before-seen problems. Pollution, huge carbon emissions, social tension and density are to become the new design brief for architects and urban planners, and the new norm to which the population must adapt. And adapt they will. Winy Maas of Dutch


Chapter Three

architecture firm MVRDV has worked extensively in China, and has noticed an emerging maturity to policy, design thinking and the way that people are adapting to new and more sustainable ideologies of urban space-making. ‘These cities with their action-orientated policies are exemplary in how to tackle the big problems facing cities today’, Maas reassured. He foresees that with ‘the learning curve associated with density, Chinese cities [will be] “leapfrogging” the likes of London and New York in terms of urban quality in the coming decades’.24 Nothing in China, it seems, has remained the same since the economic reforms of the late 20th century.

Despite all the issues that come with progress, innovation in the built environment can still exist in Chinese architecture, and can offer the occasional surprise. According to Lu Andong, a professor at Nanjing University’s School of Architecture and author of ‘China Homegrown: Chinese Experimental Architecture Reborn’ (2018), ‘There are examples of small-scale projects expressing national character through vernacular architecture – the use of local materials, like bamboo, and region-specific construction methods or designs. Chinese culture in general has become more confident, because they are already at the world stage, so they no longer look to those leading (western) architects. They are quite confident in what they are doing.’25 Ole Scheeren views the attempts by Chinese



architects to reclaim their own territory as a natural and very healthy process: ‘China was simply going through a process of transformation. After one or two decades of enormous enthusiasm and rapid growth, change and modernisation, there was – for the most part – very little time left to reflect and think.’ But the more urgent questions facing architecture in China are ‘how do you relate to the past without being sentimental about it? And how do you build a future and a present without forgetting what was there? I see no value in mimicking things from before.’26

For Lu, however, skyscrapers and ill-considered landmark buildings are not the only barometers of Chinese architectural advancement. There are other positions – one is an emerging appetite for restoration projects in a country where historic buildings were regularly razed and where business districts, highways and shopping malls always reigned large. The avant-garde Chinese practice Open Architecture’s arts centre Tank Shanghai is a thoughtful renovation of industrial oil tanks, representing a greater appreciation for heritage. ‘You’re starting to see more and more reuse and renovation projects in many parts of China, particularly in big cities where they used to have a pretty strong (set) of industrial spaces’, explained co-founder Li Hu. He is optimistic as the Xi years have heralded stricter safety regulations and a more democratic


Chapter Three

approval process: ‘In the past, one top official could approve things on his own, but now it has to go through lots of different departments and everyone gives their opinions.’27

‘Hutong Bubble 32’ by MAD Architects is part of their triptych of scenarios for a future ‘Beijing 2050’ which includes a public park and floating office islands. Fuelled by urban residue and transformation to support the community’s needs, the ‘32’ built prototype’s ‘shiny exterior renders it an alien creature, and yet at the same time, it morphs into the surrounding wood, brick, and greenery. The past and the future can thus coexist in a finite, yet dream-like world.’28 The proliferation of the series of tiny mercurylike sanitation bubbles demonstrates the steadfast pursuit of original vision. Meanwhile, ‘Beijing 2050’ reimagines the city as a sort of democratic, although presumably capitalist, utopia. Its founder Ma Yansong bemoans: ‘Beijing is a storage rack, the government only wants to put some expensive things on it. But the rack itself is a dull and purely functional thing, not different from those in a shopping mall. The old districts in Beijing are vivid. If Beijing loses the old areas, then it will have no personality.’29

Ma is much lauded by the international press, and his conceptual basis for the practice’s sculptural, futuristic designs draws from



Chinese narratives and traditions. In the book ‘Shanshui City’, the ancient practice of Chinese ink landscape painting is used as an analogue or metaphor for new building typologies that attempt to foster a better relationship between people and nature. However, it is in the global culture and industry of architecture that their interest lies – for this reason MAD’s work is subversive. ‘MAD Dinner’, the practice’s first book, seems to draw from Rem Koolhaas and OMA’s research and interview-based publications, and features Ai Weiwei and Hans Ulrich Obrist amongst its many critical contributors. Perhaps, this relationship does not really appear so different from the reader of an American self-help book – an informed stimulus.

When it is suggested that architecture can be subversive, politically or culturally, the discussion is about communication. Once a brand becomes influential, it assumes a competitive role as a trendsetter. Brand-loyalty and a certain amount of integrity are key factors of survival – but since architects have a tendency for utopian dreaming, the question is what could we do with that influence now that we have got it? Perhaps the most thoughtful, sensitive, and equally provocative proposal in Ma’s ‘Beijing 2050’ is to plant a forest in Tiananmen Square. Here he says ‘We wish in the future more attention will be paid to the people living in the city and Beijing can become a cultural city where history and the future are of the


Chapter Three

same significance. Our ancestors may think we do not respect them (if) we are only duplicating the past... this is a good opportunity for our young generation.’30

Despite China’s huge building boom, Ai Weiwei fervently believes the country’s architectural profession is stagnant. The government’s lack of support for critical thinking in architecture has rendered most of China’s buildings, infrastructure and city plans of the last two decades inferior and inappropriate copies of what the West has offered in the past 100 years. ‘There’s no space for discussion. This is not a democratic society, there is no clear discussion on any level – any discussion related to aesthetics means it is about philosophy and about the legitimacy of the power – open discussion about architecture is seen as a “very dangerous” threat to the country’s leadership.’31 As such, it is a lost opportunity as cities can offer the perfect laboratories in which to promote democratic values. In ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ (1961), Jane Jacobs wrote, ‘Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.’32 Cities succeed when there is the purest manifestation of democratic ideals. However, if basic democratic human rights are not met by China’s most daring cities, then how long will this urban intensity and bravery last? Cities fail for the same reasons democracies fail.



Cities can achieve real change in environmental sustainability only when there is sustained democracy. Citizens’ direct participation in climate actions is good for democracy and good for the environment. While many benevolent city officials, planners and architects recognise that up to four-fifths of the planet’s carbon emissions and pollutants are urban,33 many supporters of the CPC maintain that China chooses to limit its political openness to avoid the economic and social uncertainty that democratic environmental discourse might bring. In ‘Chinese Whispers: Why everything you’ve heard about China is wrong’ (2014), Ben Chu argues against a commonly held belief that ‘the Chinese don’t want freedom’. Democracy is one of the key ingredients for the ideological foundations of the modern Chinese state; the term ‘People’s Republic’ is highly suggestive, but Chu likens the government’s assertions and support for democracy to ‘Orwellian Doublethink’, citing the one-party authoritarian system and its ‘monopoly on political power’.34 But it is in this context that the struggle for democracy is such an important key to a future that so many Chinese dream of.

CULTIVATING DEMOCRACY In ‘A Place for All People’ (2017), Richard Rogers asserts that ‘everyone should be able to see a tree from their window, and to stroll to a park to walk, play and enjoy the changing seasons. A city


Chapter Three

that cannot provide these rights is simply not civilised.’35 China’s urbanisation has drastically repressed nature’s landscapes, places that can provide better understanding towards the challenges of climate change, and the benefits of urban biodiversity, from soil, water and air quality to the preservation of flora and fauna species. Every person has a right to meaningful access to nature, because that connection is part of our humanity. ‘The natural world’s benefits to our cognition and health will be irrelevant if we continue to destroy the nature around us, but that destruction is assured without a human reconnection to nature’, stressed Richard Louv, author and champion of family, nature and community bonding.36

Our ecological systems are severely threatened by climate change. With irresponsible irrigation, monoculture agriculture, and heavy use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers, the mortality rate of bee colonies has increased at an alarming rate. This is catastrophic to global agriculture and food supply, as one in three mouthfuls of food we eat relies more or less on honey bee pollination. Dave Goulson, a professor of biological science, explains the consequences of the disappearance of bees: ‘…our diets would be depressingly poor. We would be forced to survive on wind-pollinated crops; wheat, barley and corn, and little else. Imagine shops without raspberries, apples, strawberries, peas, beans, courgettes, melons, tomatoes,



blueberries, pumpkins and much more.’ The most dramatic example comes from the apple and pear orchards in southwest China, where farmers have no choice but to carry pots of pollen and paintbrushes with which they individually hand-pollinate every flower on their trees. They even employ the help of their children to climb up to the highest blossoms.37 This is clearly just feasible for high-value crops, but there are not enough human resources to pollinate all the world’s crops by hand.

Dave Foreman of the Rewilding Institute believes that for humans to survive, we need a re-equilibrated ecosystem where we commit to a democratic co-existence with nature. Although we often go to considerable lengths to protect nature, the danger usually is us. The odds of us all living together, let alone soon, are slight but not unimaginable.38 The lack of democracy impacts and morphs into our predicament regarding environmental sustainability. Richard Sennett, at his 1998 Raoul Wallenberg Lecture, advocated a visual dimension in decentralised democracy: ‘...the nature of democracy people hope for has changed. National and even global visions of democracy are the old kind of urban democracy writ large, a unifying political force. But against those visions has been set another: decentralized democracy. Instead, power is portrayed as becoming more democratic, in the sense of inviting participation,


Chapter Three

as it becomes more fragmented and partial in form… Decentralized democracy is an attempt to make a political virtue.’39

Studio 8 Architects is fully aware of its ecological responsibilities. The resilient landscape of their Guangming Smartcity40 in China demonstrates that shared individual experiences and local resources can offer an improved and viable model by converting democratic values into design policies. The Smartcity is a public green with opportunities to connect with nature to create energy of many forms, one of which is the production of human fuel, food. The panacea to a deleterious food industry is to replace damaging large-scale centralised monoculture with larger numbers of smaller mutually supporting diverse permacultures. Decentralised food cultivation and community cohesion have much in common. The fear of hunger remains ingrained in the Chinese mentality. Many of China’s inhabitants still remember the ‘Three Years of Natural Disasters’, the world’s largest famine causing an estimated 30 million ‘excess’ deaths between 1958 and 1961. China’s cities were not left unaffected, leading to the government issuing food coupons and a subsequent insistence on food self-sufficiency.

The agricultural heritage of the Smartcity maintains a diverse ecosystem and a synergistic relationship with the city through



its food and solar power production, and presents innovative administration strategies, including a public–private partnership that involves renting green space to individuals and the existing farming community to construct and maintain. The Smartcity strategies are inclusive, engaging all age groups, cultures and ethnicities. Every two years, a lottery is drawn to select 1000 new gardeners for plots, with ten winners from the previous year’s competition given the option to extend their occupancy, mirroring the land reform of the 1980s during which rural plots were leased to individual households for 15-year periods; excess produce was sold in the open market once they had fulfilled an agreed quota. Decentralised democracy cultivates a strong sense of self-reliance and resilience, as well as public cooperative responsibilities from neighbours and citizens.

Another demonstration of democratisation in the Smartcity is the virtual gardens – a deliberate contrast with their real-world and natural counterparts. As part of the new dynamic, resilient landscape, the inhabitants are encouraged to select floral arrangements online which are abstracted and displayed on largescale digital screens. Once voting is complete, the public can ‘virtually water’ their flowers to watch them grow. After two weeks, the images are reset and voting recommences.


Chapter Three

The Smartcity programme endeavours to support governments’ priority to strengthen national food security by respecting land rights of the farming communities. Currently, all land in China is stateowned with plots granted to farmers on long leases, which have smoothed the way for land expropriation. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that between 40 million and 50 million Chinese farmers, from a total of 250 million, have been divested of their livelihoods to make way for industrialisation and urbanisation – it is anticipated that three million people will lose their land every year.41 Regrettably, land grabs have been a common cause of violent clashes in the Chinese countryside in recent years, and have already created a ‘floating’ population the size of Spain or even Mexico, with no access to land despite being officially classed as ‘rural’ under the country’s ‘hukou’ or household registration system. In 2015, the Financial Times reported chilling concerns: ‘Chinese history books teach that armies of landless people contributed to the chaos of the early 20th century, when local warlords battled for control of the country. Opponents of land reform within the ruling Communist Party argue that privatizing land would allow those armies to form again today, if rural families are left without fields to fall back on.’42 Legislation to preserve farmland is growing increasingly critical as China supports one fifth of the world’s population with only 10 per cent of the world’s cultivated land.43



Just as China has been unwavering in its support for policies on limiting the effects of climate change and protecting the environment, the country still needs to take significant steps to coordinate sustainable development for the vast population. Crucial to the growth of the Smartcity is a devolution of power to local representatives at the front line who are better placed to allocate resources and evaluate need than profligate high-level quangos. Positively, more land has reverted to farming than has been appropriated for construction in the past few years, and the relocation of rural dwellers into urban environments has freed up land for cultivation.

At the same time, the rural migration has displaced important social bonds in the form of native-place networks; villagers retain a strong allegiance to their place of origin that is reflected in their attitudes to upbringing, life rituals and employment. Social capital and resilience are formed at a human scale between individuals, and local structures need to be in place to enfranchise the disenfranchised and affect the disaffected. Food is but one common ground between disparate communities. Food in Chinese culture is the glue that binds families and communities, and the restoration of the primal link between urban-dwellers and their sustenance would constitute an important foundation to the current zeitgeist of Chinese democracy.


Chapter Three

NOTES 1. E Wong, ‘China’s Climate Change Plan Raises Questions’, The New York Times, 12 November 2014 2. Reuters, ‘China to Invest £292bn in Renewable Power by 2020’, The Guardian: Energy Industry, 5 January 2017 3. S Sassen, ‘Justice and Equality’, Barcelona Debate 2015 – Wield the Word, Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona: Public Space, February 2015 [http://www. publicspace.org/en/post/public-space-is-a-place-in-which-there-is-a-momentary­ condition-of-equality], retrieved 15 August 2015 4. H Yu, ‘China in Ten Words’, AH Barr (trans.), Anchor Books, New York, 2011, p.25 5. W Ai, ‘Weiwei-isms’, L Warsh (ed.), Princeton University Press, Princeton & Oxford, 2013, p.51 6. X Liu, ‘June Fourth Elegies’, J Yang (trans.), Jonathan Cape (Cape Poetry), 2012, p.25 7. S Shetty, ‘Liu Xiaobo: A giant of human rights who leaves a lasting legacy for China and the world’, Amnesty International, 13 July 2017 [https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/ news/2017/07/liu-xiaobo-a-giant-of-human-rights-lasting-legacy-for-china-and-the­ world], retrieved 11 February 2018 8. S Tzu, ‘The Art of War’ (2nd edition), L Giles (trans.), Pax Librorum, 2009, p.9 9. H Yu, ‘China in Ten Words’, AH Barr (trans.), Anchor Books, New York, 2011, p.6 10. S Tzu, ‘The Art of War’ (2nd edition), L Giles (trans.), Pax Librorum, 2009, p.24 11. W Ai, ‘Weiwei-isms’, L Warsh (ed.), Princeton University Press, Princeton & Oxford, 2013, p.17 12. ‘Brexit: EU referendum results’, FT Online, 24 June 2016 [https://ig.ft.com/sites/ elections/2016/uk/eu-referendum], retrieved 20 October 2018



13. J Pong & E Feng, ‘Confucius Institutes: Cultural asset or campus threat?’, FT Online, 26 October 2017 [https://ig.ft.com/confucius-institutes], retrieved 5 October 2018 14. R Petersen, ‘American Universities Are Welcoming China’s Trojan Horse’, Foreign Policy, 9 May 2017 [https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/05/09/american-universities-are­ welcoming-chinas-trojan-horse-confucius-institutes], retrieved 5 October 2018 15 + 16. T Philips, ‘Cambridge University Press Accused of “selling its soul” Over Chinese Censorship’, The Guardian, Education: China, 19 August 2017 17. Ai Weiwei, ‘Ai Weiwei Speaks: with Hans Ulrich Obrist’, Penguin Books, London, 2011, p.33 18. A Abkowitz & M Si, ‘Xi Jinping Isn’t a Fan of Weird Architecture in China’, Wall Street Journal, 17 October 2014 [https://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2014/10/17/xi-jinping­ isnt-a-fan-of-weird-architecture-in-china], retrieved 5 October 2018 19. O Holland, ‘Post-weird: How Chinese architecture evolved in the Xi Jinping era’, CNN: Architecture, 29 September 2019 [https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/chinese­ architecture-xi-intl-hnk/index.html], retrieved 28 October 2019 20. V Chow, ‘Mooncakes Carry A Revolutionary Message’, South China Morning Post, 29 September 2012 21. MA Brayer, ‘Future City: Experiment and Utopia in Architecture’, J Alison, MA Brayer, F Migayrou & N Spiller (eds.), Thames & Hudson, London, 2007, p.14 22. O Holland, ‘China Built More Skyscrapers in 2018 Than Ever Before’, CNN: Architecture, 13 December 2018 [https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/skyscraper-china­ ctbuh-2018/index.html], retrieved 28 April 2019 23. W Shepard, ‘Ghost Cities of China: The story of cities without people in the world’s most populated country’, Zed Books, London, 2015, pp.197–198


Chapter Three

24. W Maas, ‘Asian Cities Overtaking “Impossible” London and “Terrible” New York in Urban Design’, M Fairs (ed.), Dezeen, 17 July 2017 [https://www.dezeen.com/2017/07/17/ asian-cities-overtaking-london-new-york-urban-design-winy-maas-mvrdv], retrieved 16 February 2018 25, 26 + 27. O Holland, ‘Post-weird: How Chinese architecture evolved in the Xi Jinping era’, CNN: Architecture, 29 September 2019 [https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/ chinese-architecture-xi-intl-hnk/index.html], retrieved 28 October 2019 28. Ma Yansong, ‘Ma Yansong: From (Global) Modernity to (Local) Tradition’, Actar / Fundación ICO, 2013, p.180 29. Ma Yansong, ‘Ma Yansong: From (Global) Modernity to (Local) Tradition’, Actar / Fundación ICO, 2013, p.129 30. Ma Yansong, ‘MAD Dinner’, Actar, Barcelona, 2007, pp.330–333 31. J Mairs, ‘Chinese Government Sees Architectural Discussion As Dangerous’, Dezeen, 8 August 2016 [https://www.dezeen.com/2016/08/08/ai-weiwei-china-architectural­ discussion-dangerous-threat-china-power], retrieved 5 October 2018 32. J Jacobs, ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’, The Modern Library, New York, 1993, p.312 33. B Barber, ‘Democracy and Climate Change: How cities can do what states can’t’, Center for Human & Nature, 9 January 2013 [https://www.humansandnature.org/ democracy-benjamin-barber], retrieved 20 July 2018 34. B Chu, ‘Chinese Whispers: Why everything you’ve heard about china is wrong’, Phoenix, London, 2014, p.87 35. R Rogers, ‘A Place for All People’, Canongate Books, Edinburgh, 2017, p.320 36. R Louv, ‘Ten Reasons Why We Need More Contact With Nature’, The Guardian: Environment, 13 February 2014



37. D Goulson, ‘Decline of Bees Forces China’s Apple Farmers to Pollinate by Hand’, www.chinadialogue.net, 2 October 2012 [https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/ single/en/5193-Decline-of-bees-forces-China-s-apple-farmers-to-pollinate-by-hand], retrieved 20 June 2018 38. A Weisman, ‘The World Without Us’, Virgin Books Ltd, London, 2007, p.271 39. R Sennett, ‘Richard Sennett: The Spaces of Democracy’, 1998 Raoul Wallenberg Lecture, AW LeCuyer (ed.), The University of Michigan College of Architecture + Urban Planning, 1998, pp.40–41 40. CJ Lim & Ed Liu, ‘Smartcities, Resilient Landscapes + Eco-warriors’, Routledge, 2019, pp.178–185 41 + 42. L Hornby, ‘China Migration: Dying for land’, Financial Times, 6 August 2015 43. T McMillan, ‘How China Plans to Feed 1.4 Billion Growing Appetites’, National Geographic, February 2018 [https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/02/ feeding-china-growing-appetite-food-industry-agriculture], retrieved 8 November 2019





The Margin of Water


Alternatively known as ‘Outlaws of the Marsh’, ‘The Water Margin’ recounts how a group of 108 outlaws formed a rebellion against the Song government, before they were granted amnesty by Emperor HuiZong and led campaigns to overturn foreign forces. Throughout the chivalrous adventures of struggle and righteousness, the emperor was depicted as wise but allowed himself to be repeatedly blinded by his corrupt court. The outlaws, banded together in a marsh fortress on Mount Liang in the present-day province of Shandong, represented all classes of Chinese society: from military personnel and civil officials who grew tired of serving the despotic government to those with special skills and talents, including hunters, strongmen, peasants, fishermen and vagabonds. The only three women in the gallant fraternity were hard-nosed shrews and murderous innkeepers. Although the outlaws emerged victorious, at least two-thirds of them perished in battles, and Song Jiang, the leader, was eventually poisoned by four corrupt ministers. According to legend, even after his death, Song Jiang continued to protect the common people – if they prayed for wind, they got wind, and if they observed the customs and kept the country safe, any prayer would be answered. – Shi Nai-an, ‘The Water Margin’, 14th century

clockwise from top left: Hua Rong (legendary archer); Wu Yong (strategist ‘Knowledgeable Star’); Wu Song (gallantry ‘Pilgrim’); Lu Zhinshen (bold ‘Flowery Monk’). facing page clockwise from top left: Gongsun Sheng (magical ‘Dragon in the Clouds’); Song Jiang (leader of the 108 Stars of Destiny); Li Kui (reckless ‘Black Whirlwind’); Shi Jin (thoughtful ‘Nine-tattoo Dragon’)

The Margin of Water




There is a popular saying in China that translates as, ‘The young should not read The Water Margin while the old should not read Romance of the Three Kingdoms.’ Of the former, the themes of defiance against the established social system, violence, and an emphasis on machismo are considered to have negative influences especially on young men. Despite periodic attempts to ban the literature, it was profusely embraced in the 1930s by the Communist reformers as the inspirational anti-feudal narrative,1 and was later deployed in 1975 by the radical left of the Gang of Four in the final Maoist campaign.2 The characters and political plot, even in contemporary consciousness, have retained their relevance in political movements. In the 21st century, China is either misunderstood by her own people or not at ease with Western democracy. That mistrust is extended to China’s reclamation of sovereignty of Hong Kong – there is widespread anger in the former British colony regarding the lack of political transparency. Of the 2014 and the 2019 protests, students, taxi drivers, mothers and a retired pastor have displayed determination not unlike the Song outlaws. ‘...with the repression of the Beijing regime, youngsters must fight on the front line to ask for democracy’,3 vented Joshua Wong, the student pro-democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize 2017 nominee.

The Margin of Water




Plan: Gathering of super-functionaries to facilitate tolerance and diplomacy between Hong Kong and China.


A city ‘under-cover’...


The Margin of Water


It is worth noting the exceptional creativity of these protests, whether it be the astonishing visual effect of the streets packed with people under an impenetrable canopy of open umbrellas, the aesthetically striking yellow colour, or the disruptive fields of brick-built ‘mini-stonehenges’. The latter, is an ephemeral infrastructure of disruption.



of three stacked bricks with two standing vertically and a third to bridge over the top, they are evocative of small temple shrines. In the Guardian, social media posts reveal the practical and symbolic strength of this tactic: ‘The bricks are great for turning the streets into battlegrounds and so easy to pick up. Good for slowing down the riot police when they come charging too…Perhaps one day we will be able to call those our Arcs of Triumph.’4 Imagination, effective communication and social media have played a key role in these recent years; here Hong Kong will have set a lasting precedent.

Where is Hong Kong?

All I can see is a cotton field.

Shhh.... Listen, sounds like screams!

The cotton buds are popping! What is happening underneath?

The cotton fields are arranged in one single, continuous, equally spaced grid to assure freedom for other urban interventions and water traffic to interject and coexist – a truly utopian democratic framework.



The fictional ‘The Margin of Water’ reimagines the current HKSAR Government Complex by the renowned Hong Kong architect Rocco Yim, and simultaneously questions the role of democracy and governance. Might this be Song Jiang’s answer to the prayers of the good people of Hong Kong as well as the conciliatory approach from Beijing? The allegory occupies 108 hectares of Victoria Harbour and strategically prevents future reclamation of the water. Winston Chu of the Society for Protection of the Harbour lamented, ‘when will government officials learn that proper town planning is about people?’.5 The same rings true about the resilience of cities and the cultivation of peace and democracy. Instead of Yim’s ‘door always open’ concept, there are no doors in the new interpretation. The network of 108 hectares of ‘Cotton Field’, 108 folded paper ‘Chinese Junks’, 108 ‘Walking Periscopes’ and 108 ‘Wooden Oxen’ collectively form mythical tectonics to advocate peace and sustainability. The symbolism of 108 draws reference from the number of reformed Song outlaws. The mascot of non­ violence and democratic optimism is the white cotton field – the architectural manifestation of the comic-strip ‘Uncle Xi’s Cartoon’ (2014) that promotes a ‘kinder, softer and closer to the people’ image of President Xi Jinping.6 The warm and cuddly layer soars above the harbour to protect democratic activities on the flotilla of folded paper Chinese Junks from the weather, strengthening the ‘one country, two systems’ promise. The high degree of autonomy allows Hong Kong to maintain its own administration, capitalist way of life and even its independent legal systems and police force. The cotton fields are arranged in a framework that represents the democratic utopian ideals of Superstudio’s ‘Superexistence’.7

The Margin of Water


Look... Victoria Harbour hidden under the soft cotton layer.

Under the Cotton Field...





The Margin of Water


The Walking Periscopes are her temples to bring together the many fractious groups with no specific leadership and of diverse political agendas. In the speculative fortitude of Archigram,8 the periscopes roam endlessly and act as the people’s watchtowers, occasionally penetrating the cotton skies to point in the direction of Beijing to respectfully acknowledge the authority. At the same time, the periscopes are the city’s ‘bureau of discontentment’ – the screaming shafts into which the public enters to bellow and shriek to their heart’s content. The sounds are amplified and channelled towards the mainland, and are simultaneously shocking and delightful, giving a new definition to ‘freedom of speech’ for the activists and supporters of the pro-democracy movement. The therapeutic acts might not directly bring forth unreserved democracy to the islanders but might help cultivate tolerance and diplomacy. While Hong Kong wrestles under Beijing’s one country, two systems constitutional framework, the city has a long-standing dependency on the mainland for basic necessities like food, energy and water. The Wooden Oxen seed banks are the metaphor of food security. The structures disseminate seeds to the activists who in turn propagate them and share agricultural knowledge with the rest of the urban populace - hence creating sustainable local food in addition to straightening Hong Kong’s socio-political network, echoing the origins of the mooncake. The folded paper Chinese Junks are delegated to improve water quality and boost oxygen levels by spraying the entire ‘margin of water’ with hydrogen peroxide – fish species will once again thrive in Victoria Harbour, manifesting the auspicious Chinese word-play expression of 年年 有魚 (‘may every year end with surplus’).

The Walking Periscopes are the city’s ‘bureau of discontentment’.

It’s our party, and we’ll scream if we want to...

With the Wooden Oxens, Hong Kong would no longer be dependent on the mainland for 94 per cent of fresh pork and 94 per cent of eggs.9

That’s not the sea! ...but silver paper junks to improve water quality and boost oxygen levels in Victoria Harbour.

The silver paper junks are connected to form land on water.

The dark skies are rumbling very loudly...

Thunder, lightning and rain are resources for cultivating national resilience.

The Margin of Water


Beijing has exercised respect and patience throughout the months of unrest. Nonetheless, Hong Kong must not allow the cold hard realities of resource dependency to be translated into political concessions. In 1982, Percy Cradock, then the British ambassador to China and who was involved in the Sino-British negotiations over Hong Kong’s sovereignty, warned Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that the British had little bargaining power because the colony so heavily relied on the mainland for fresh water. The British eventually made significant concessions and gave up all of their rights of the island to China.10 Today, with the aid of smart technologies, Hong Kong can make the most of its abundance of thunder, lightning and rain to prevail in self-reliance. The absorbent cotton field can easily collect, filter and turn rain into potable water for human consumption. In a display of techno-utopianism the Walking Periscopes are utilised to harvest the energy of lightning – a single bolt of lightning containing five billion joules of energy is enough to power a household for a month. Achieving sustainability in basic human necessities is the first step to ensure resilience. Through a fictional lens, the heated street protests and violence are activities of the past. The 14th century literature offers speculative critical thinking of espionage, chivalry and intelligence as strategies for sustainability to challenge traditional urban and architectural typologies of authority and peace. The ancient Chinese values of humanity are resources to cultivate a collective spatial manual of diplomacy and democracy to navigate the fragile margin of water – the political anxieties between the people of Hong Kong and the Chinese government.

The mythical allegories have commonality with DC Comics’ team of Chinese super-functionaries (the Chinese ethos prefers a humbler word instead of heroes) ‘The Great Ten’, which are based on Chinese mythology.

New forms of architectural typologies of authority and peace.

The Margin of Water


NOTES 1. PS Buck, ‘All Men Are Brothers (Shui Hu Chuan)’, PS Buck (trans.), vol1&2, The John Day Company, New York, 1933, p.ix 2. N Shi & G Luo, ‘Shuihu Zhuan, Volume 1’, People’s Cultural Studies Publishing House, Beijing, 1975, p.1 3. F Solomon & AH Chen, ‘Facing Jail, Democracy Activist Joshua Wong Says “Hong Kong is Under Threat”’, Time, 17 August 2017 [https://time.com/4902751/hong-kong­ joshua-wong-interview-sentencing-democracy], retrieved 3 August 2019 4. V Yu, ‘“Mini Stonehenges”: Hong Kong protesters take on police, one brick at a time’, The Guardian, 15 November 2019 5. W Chu, ‘When Will the Government Put People before Money when it Comes to Victoria Harbour?’, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 17 May 2018 6. JA Lent & Y Xu, ‘Comics Art in China’, University Press of Mississippi, 2017, p.148 7. Superstudio, ‘Superexistence’, in P Land & W Menking, ‘Superstudio: Life without objects’, Skira Editore, Milano, 2003, pp.175–212 8. R Herron, ‘Walking City’, in ‘Archigram’, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, p.48 9 + 10. V Law, ‘Hong Kong’s Inconvenient Truth’, Foreign Policy, 21 August 2014 [https:// foreignpolicy.com/2014/08/21/hong-kongs-inconvenient-truth], retrieved 3 August 2018




Chapter Four



The Chinese landscape has been adapting for centuries. The radical and ancient terraced mountainside rice paddies, fishponds and village clusters took on forms that shaped community and domesticity according to local climate and security needs. The Chinese mulberry dyke fishpond system, first introduced during the dying days of the Ming dynasty in the northern part of the Pearl River Delta, is a striking model of a closed sustainable ecosystem – which is recognised by the folk saying ‘the more luxuriant the mulberry trees, the stronger the silkworms and the fatter the fish; the richer the pond, the more fertile the dyke and the more numerous the cocoons’.1 However, Deng Xiaoping’s ‘Open Door’ industrialisation and urbanisation have since implacably usurped the Chinese orthodoxy of a circular economy, and are now threatening the production of food that made the city’s very existence initially possible.



In place of the elegant farming forms, there is the phenomena of gigantic infrastructures and mechanised cities advocating China’s new ideologies. In the introduction to Nadav Kander’s stunning photographic book ‘Yangtze – The Long River’ (2010), Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, wrote of the astonishing rate of change in the Chinese urban and rural landscapes: ‘China is one of the few countries in the world that have rapidly increased their forest cover and it has made significant reductions in air and water pollution – these paradoxically beautiful photographs speak to a larger truth. They remind us of the fragility of our world and of the damage we have done – damage that is not constrained by national boundaries.’2 The photographs of Chongqing capture groups of people interacting with megastructures, bridges and flyovers, whose haunting forms are still under construction and heavily veiled by dust and smog. The images often serve to remind us of the daunting challenges China faces.

These days, a tourist standing on the Great Wall of China looking back towards Beijing may well be aesthetically satisfied by the wispy mists that shroud the hills and pour down the valley. However, there is a moment of mixed feelings, of regret, that comes with the realisation of the true nature of the foggy air. Industrial coal-fuel smog is the reason that the painterly expectations are


Chapter Four

being so well met, highlighting national attitudes to pollution, the natural environment and human wellbeing. Despite being singled out as a massive environmental concern, China can now boast over 2000 nature reserves, covering around 15 per cent of the country – this is above the world’s average of around 11–12 per cent. The BBC’s 2008 ‘Wild China’ series portrayed a sense of ‘purpose, pride and optimism… a rapidly growing environmental consciousness among Chinese young people, expressed as growing support for budding grass-roots conservation organisations’.3 The trend is also reflected in the Chinese media, with regional governments often keen to boast their sustainable and eco-friendly credentials. It is of global importance that China along with other industrial economies can adapt to face climate change.

Inevitability, Chinese adaptability affects the West and the direction of the world as a whole towards an unprecedented future. Many political and economic commentators are eager to accuse China of reverse colonisation – ‘Made In China’ and ‘The Belt and Road Initiative’ are effectively multibillion-dollar campaigns for global dominance. The latter is the revival of the Silk Road route that we read about in the travelogues of Marco Polo, where China has instigated major infrastructure projects across more than 60 countries and seeks to establish the strongest possible trade



routes across land and sea. Duisburg, for example, has seen such an unparalleled scale of Chinese investment and trade that it is dubbed ‘Xi Jingping’s Gateway to Europe’. The ‘China City’ in Germany boasts the world’s largest inland port, with 80 per cent of trains from China now making it their first European stop.

Writing in the Guardian’s serial ‘Cities of the New Silk Road’, Philip Oltermann raised concerns over the implications of being Europe’s central logistics hub: ‘The trains’ return journeys, however, remain Duisburg’s achilles heel. For every two full containers arriving in Europe from China, only one heads back the other way. The West’s appetite for gadgets made in China shows no sign of abating.’4 Through Kolkata and Rotterdam to Moscow and Mombasa, the Belt and Road Initiative is tightening China’s grip on global economies. Colonisation need not always be executed with the bravado of the Belt and Road Initiative; there are other programmes where China’s enterprising class is silently and unassumingly installing itself. The Trojan Horses are not only limited to economic monopolies, but also include airspace rights, disputed islands, educational ‘support’ such as Confucius Institutes, and financial sectors. There is undoubtedly more, and perhaps we should be more concerned that it is not seen. Although President Barack Obama warned that ‘we do not benefit from a relationship with China or any other country in which we put


Chapter Four

our values and our ideals aside’,5 we must look without prejudice into a greater Chinese narrative to uncover essential clues about a collective prospect. Almost all the countries of the world have indirect political relationships or even dependency with China’s industrial super-power. But ‘a super-power in manufacturing and investment’ is surely far too narrow-minded an identity for an entire nation. In the field of architecture and urban planning, prejudice and ignorance can be very troublesome indeed.

REFORMING URBAN HOUSING The welfare-orientated public housing system has been adapted to a market-orientated housing industry to reform China’s urban housing. Under the old public housing system, the state-owned housing units were a core social obligation from the central government and state-owned enterprises’ ‘work units’. As rents and investments were nominal, widespread residential crowding was common within inadequate urban living provisions. In the 1980s, the Economical and Comfortable Housing (ECH), the Housing Provident Fund (HPF) and the Cheap Rental Housing (CRH) were instrumental in reforming housing affordability for homeowners and renters by strengthening both supply and demand. Sitting tenants can either pay the higher rental adjustments which would eventually reach market rates, or participate in the privatisation of



existing public housing units and purchase their homes at heavily discounted prices. Discounts were regulated in accordance to their seniority, years of service and job rank in their work units.6

The government homeownership programme only allowed monetary subsidies instead of work units building or buying housing units for their employees. Under the ECH programme, massive numbers of ‘commodity housing’ were created by private developers to facilitate the development of a subsidised housing market to improve the living conditions of the middle- and lowincome families. Subsidised housing of partial ownership faced restrictions regarding resale, while high-income households who paid market value for their homes received full property rights, including the right to resell on the open market. It marked the turning point of China’s housing reform. According to the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development of China, public housing stock grew to an unprecedented level and living conditions significantly improved – the average living space per capita rose from 6.7 square metres in 1978 to 28 square metres in 2008.7 The average living space per head is 12 square metres in accordance with the national Xiao Kang ‘modest wealth’ standard.8 From 2000 to 2004, China’s annual investment in real estate averaged about 746 billion yuan and accounted for 7 per cent of the nation’s GDP.9


Chapter Four

Today, China has an urban private-market housing transaction system and a higher rate of homeownership than many developed countries, but has a whole set of different socio-economic problems. In 2018, Bloomberg reported, ‘Housing speculation has bedevilled China’s leaders for years, as some cities and provinces tightened buying restrictions. Rampant price gains also mean millions of people are shut out from the market, exacerbating inequality.’10 Despite President Xi’s mantra that ‘homes should be for living in, not for speculation’, research has shown that a fifth of China’s homes are empty, and that adds up to more than 50 million and 22 per cent of China’s urban housing stock. In the process, the nation used more cement in the three years from 2011 to 2013 than the United States used in the entire 20th century.

Empty ghost cities can be found across China, including the Yujiapu financial district in Tianjin, the Chenggong district in Kunming, in Yunnan and Yingkou in Liaoning Province, the Meixi Lake development near Changsha, and the Kangbashi district on the edge of the Gobi Desert. The latter development, Ordos, transformed a 372-square-kilometre district of sand into gleaming commercial and residential complexes, themed plazas, malls, government buildings and colossal, futuristic architecture, and was dubbed the Chinese Dubai by local media.11 Only three of its six skyscrapers



are partially occupied; the remaining are empty with gates locked and dust piled high, not too dissimilar to the desert scene from Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Blade Runner 2049’ (2017). Photographer Kai Caemmerer captured the surreal and uncanny qualities of ‘a complex moment in Chinese urbanization’ and describes how ‘the soulless cities are not expected to be complete or vibrant until 15 to 25 years after they begin construction. They are built for the distant future. When you’re in a city, you can locate yourself within the timeline of that city by identifying different eras of architecture or by interpreting the relative age of the structures and landscape around you. When visiting a city that has been built in just the past five or six years, these indicators of age are not yet visible.’12

Amidst the leadership’s warning against the rich leaving multiple apartments unoccupied, many megacities like Shanghai and Beijing appear unable to accommodate new migrants. Shanghai plans to limit the population to 25 million to control rural-to-urban migration to ensure public security, and to more effectively control its booming property market. With many migrant workers not registered with the local police and without a hukou, Shanghai’s populace in 2016 is probably around 30 million in reality.13 Without the hukou, a form of temporary resident permit, it makes it very difficult for a person classified as rural at birth to access welfare


Chapter Four

benefits or subsidised housing (CRH) or to own property (ECH) in the cities where they live as adults. The urban housing reforms in the 1980s significantly improved the living conditions and wellbeing of hundreds of millions and, by the same token, have unintentionally created housing inequality for millions of urban migrants – they live in make-shift structures on construction sites, in boxy rooms in crumbling shacks in dusty suburban villages, and in tiny dark dorms in subdivided bomb shelters and basements.14 A recent report by the China National Radio found around 400 people living underneath an expensive apartment block with only one emergency exit in a wealthy neighbourhood of Beijing. They are part of an estimated one million people known as ‘shuzu’ – or ‘rat tribe’ – who live in subterranean warrens subdivided into cramped single-worker dormitories, complete with kitchens and even a smoking room.15

Even without social justice, it is expected hundreds of millions will continue to flock into cities, in the hope of profiting from the government’s attempts to restructure its economy away from a reliance on exports and investment in urbanisation to drive domestic spending and economic growth. Disenfranchised urban migrants in the millions can be an immensely destabilising force. Yougin Huang and Si-ming Li wrote in ‘Housing Inequality in Chinese



Cities’ (2014), ‘It is imperative that the government has to gradually lift the institutionalized housing discrimination and incorporate migrants into its low-income housing system. After benefiting from cheap migrant labour for decades, it is time for the government to shoulder some housing responsibility’16 and it should actively involve the private sector to expand affordable housing provisions.

TOWARDS A MODERN RURAL VERNACULAR In China, there are different housing policies for the urban and the rural, with little or no active rural housing market. Villagers build their own homes on collectively owned land. Each household receives only one free plot for residential construction, which is allocated in accordance to household size and local land supply, and is subject to approval from local governments.17 Rural housing is traditionally one- and two-storey dwellings, often surrounded by fields, and built from locally sourced materials. However, in recent times as part of a rebuilding programme after numerous natural disasters, villages have seen a new generation of modern rural houses that have adapted to budget constraints and to changes in materials and building methods. ‘…perhaps the biggest change is the reliance on outside contractors. Because most able-bodied villagers have left to work in cities, the hiring of outside labour and materials has replaced collective self-construction. Instead of house building


Chapter Four

as an activity that would bond villagers together, it has become an expression of individuality. The physical transformation of the village is simply a symptom of a larger shift from economic selfreliance into a system of dependency, threatening the very concept of a rural livelihood’,18 explained John Lin and Joshua Bolchover of Rural Urban Framework. Their modern village houses of Jintai in Sichuan Province incorporated reed bed waste-water treatment and rainwater collection, and have stepped roof sections to create a productive landscape that elegantly blends in with the mountains beyond. Rearing pigs and chickens, and drying food on the roofs to family-owned workshops and retail on the ground are some of the nuances of programming the sustainable homes and community.

In 2017, the World Architecture Festival awarded the World Building of the Year to a post-earthquake modern village house in Yunnan Province which adapted the traditional rammed-earth building technology. Professor Edward Ng of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a team of seismic experts at the University of Cambridge, recycled the plentiful local red clay from collapsed houses with a ‘repeatedly rammed and compressed’ technique and a specific mixture consistency that can withstand magnitude nine earthquakes. The two-storey house with a structurally stable pyramid shaped roof remains cool in the summer and warm in the



winter due to the high thermal mass sensitivity of the rammedearth walls. Even with the environmental and safety benefits, the house was erected for 40 per cent less than what it would have cost if bricks and concrete had been used: ‘the county chief thought it was ridiculous that we were still using clay to build houses. To them, they thought building with concrete or bricks was the symbol of modernity and progress’19 recalled Ng. The long-term sustainability of the project is in how it encourages villagers to take part in the rebuilding process, and in how the methods are simple enough to learn so they can be passed on – the initial labourers become site foremen to oversee the next generation of trainees. The adaptability of the humble clay village house is the catalyst for the government’s countryside regeneration movement, to discourage local youth from moving to neighbouring cities, and to promote local intangible (and tangible) cultural and vernacular architectural heritage.20 As earthquakes are not limited only to China, Ng believes that the profound research could be adapted to other locations affected by seismic problems, as well as impoverished communities.

Traditionally, the natural environment and its resources have direct influences on the physical forms, spatial organisations, aesthetics and life of Chinese villages. Eric Miller, an anthropologist who was in a moderately prosperous agriculture village in Shandong


Chapter Four

Province for a year to research old age, describes a rural life which adapts around the seasons: ‘…everyone lives in courtyard houses packed close together in the centre of the village. The houses are bigger than urban apartments, with several rooms and a courtyard. In most, the kitchens are still outside, there is a water pipe in the courtyard, and no toilet, shower or central heat. People have televisions, washing machines, and motorcycles. A few have cars. The air was clear, the water was good, and they only eat what they grow themselves.’ Miller is quick to point out that locals work at their own pace but life is not always idyllic: ‘Older people would go to the fields to tend to the crops, younger people would head off to the city to work, and children would go to school. In the evenings, people of all ages would tend to gather on the streets under the lights to chat, play cards, pool, or other games. Living in the village can feel a little confining but it is also home.’21

While the village symbolises the origin of humanity in Chinese cultural understanding, the rural land management system was developed to ‘provide housing security to all rural residents in an egalitarian way and to protect limited arable land in China’.22 However, vast tracts of rural China have given way to misguided planning ambitions of local authorities for building new infrastructures or townships of mass housing and modern factories.



It has been reported that millions of villagers have been divested of their land and livelihoods in agriculture, and have to adapt to modern ‘aspirational’ high-rise developments, living off small limited financial compensations. Constructions, for example the Three Gorges dam which forced the relocation of 1.5 million rural inhabitants, have proved to be highly controversial.23 Regardless, between 2016 and 2020, the central government’s plan is to mass relocate 9.81 million people from marginalised rural villages to new government-subsidised homes in 22 provinces across the whole country: 750,000 people from Guizhou to 3600 new locations, 677,000 people from Yunan to 2800 new locations, and more than one million people set to move into new urban housing estates in Gansu, Sichuan and Guangxi. The anti-poverty relocation plan is part of President Xi Jinping’s goal of eradicating extreme poverty.24

LIVING TOGETHER ‘The Peach Blossom Spring’ depicts a Wuling fisherman’s chance discovery of an ethereal utopia where the community’s ancestors escaped civil unrest and as a result of their own labour, they led an ideal existence of freedom, happiness and equality alongside nature, unaware of the outside world for centuries. In this metaphoric tale and as one of the most respected poets during the six Han dynasties, Tao Yuanming wrote of his own and society’s


Chapter Four

dissatisfaction and pursuit of a better life which has since become a Chinese symbol of the ideal world, analogous to Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ (1516). Later in ‘Peach Blossom Source Circumstantial’ (1936), the renowned historian Chen Yinke highlighted Tao’s aspirations to adapt in pursuit of communal wellbeing in the ‘wubao’ during the late Western Jin.25

The wubao, one of the earliest forms of Chinese community selfdefence architecture, was established by dispersed big families and clans seeking safety. From the outside, a large wubao resembled ‘castle towns with high walls, deep moats, and high turrets at the corners of walls and in the centre. The smaller ones were more on the scale of the courtyard-style (siheyuan) residences. Some had adjoining farmland, pens for domesticated animals, and ponds. Most wubao were entered via a gate at the centre of the south wall, and directly into the courtyard of main halls as well as subsidiary buildings, such as kitchens, lavatories, and pigsties.’26 The House of the Huangcheng Chancellor in southern Shanxi is a Ming dynasty example – the ten hectare community of interconnecting siheyuan courtyards is ringed by high crenelated walls and watched over by defensive towers. Another is the Tang family stronghold of Kat Hing Wai in Hong Kong, which has a five-metre-high, 18-inch-thick blue brick wall, four cannon towers and an encircling moat.



With China’s urbanisation, many traditional architecture and rural townscapes that have survived for centuries are now under threat. The ‘lucky’ villages along tourist routes which boast particularly striking architectural attractions have adapted their economies to the will of outsiders and had their traditional lives thinned to a mere photo-ready façade. In 2008, UNESCO bestowed 46 ‘tulou’ buildings in Fujian province with ‘World Heritage Site’ status, saving their legacy for future generations, as well as boosting the local economy. Their value was recognised in part due to their ‘exceptional testimony to a long-standing cultural tradition of defensive buildings for communal living that reflect sophisticated building traditions and ideas of harmony and collaboration’. One can only marvel at the impressive ‘carpentry and engineering skills used to create high-rise buildings that have survived up to 800 years of earthquakes, sieges and typhoons’.27 However, Huang Hanmin, author of the seminal book ‘Fujian Tulou’ (2003), bemoans the fate of the remaining 2766 self-sustaining micro-communities.28 Now with the threat of irrelevance, the younger clan members no longer feel obligated to contribute financially towards the repairs of structures predominantly associated with their ancestors.

The Fujian Tulou is a tale of human adaptability designed for resilience. Since the 11th century, the tulou were built by the Hakka


Chapter Four

ethnic minority who originated from the northern provinces of Shanxi, Henan and Hubei, and later migrated south to escape famine and persecution by Jurchens and later Mongols. The migrants became known as ‘kejia’, meaning ‘guest people’ – a derogatory term used by unwelcoming natives who were often openly hostile to the new arrivals, who were marginalised to the mountainous regions and risked attacks by bandits and wild animals. Tulou buildings are often found gathered purposefully in clusters and positioned with feng shui principles. Under the solidarity of a continuous and shared baked-clay tiled roof, each medieval building essentially doubles as a self-contained village, numbering hundreds of inhabitants with the same surname, and usually takes the form of a circular, square or oval outer wall with multi-storey inhabitation on timber galleries overlooking a majestic light-filled central courtyard. The architecture, built as a model of communal equality, is divided vertically into identical bays according to its structural arrangement – each of which is allocated to a single family like a slice of a big architectural cake; a larger family would occupy two or three slices. To show respect to and solidarity of ancestry and clan respectively, every household is orientated towards the central ancestral hall. The inside is a microcosm of humanity with hanging laundry, wafts of cooking smells and a cacophony of sounds from chattering, spirited children and clucking chickens.



The spatially complex miniaturisation of traditional life is contained within inclined load-bearing walls whose thickness decreases with height: from as much as two metres at the bottom to around a metre at the top. The massive lower section, which houses the shared facilities such as kitchens, water wells, bathrooms, laundry rooms, and space for livestock, is built from cobblestones held together with a lime–sand–clay mixture to a height of about two stories, depending upon the severity of the regional flood.29 For the upper-stories private family living and bedrooms, the walls are made with rammed earth, soupy glutinous rice and brown sugar, and reinforced with horizontal bamboo strips for lateral binding. Tiny windows are permissible only on the upper floors and double as gun holes for defence. Besides the occasional earthquake and all-year-round torrential rain, the fortress-liked defence structure had to withstand digging, cannon shots and flaming arrows from warlords and bandits. In the event of an attack, the continuous corridor with gun holes along the inside on the highest level facilitates the movement of armed men and ammunition, while the evenness of the exterior ensures there are no blind spots.

The audacity of the ancient design lives in its protective qualities, as well as its green and sustainability credentials. The tulou and its courtyard encourage a reliable chimney effect, resulting in good


Chapter Four

circulation of air and natural ventilation. Smoke and dry air from the kitchen facilitate the preservation of meats and vegetables kept in the grain stores on the first floor, away from flies, worms and damp. Oil particles in smoke from everyday cooking provide the internal timber frames with an added layer of protection.30 The thick earthen walls are simultaneously energy collectors and heat insulators, forming a sustainable micro-climate of cool summers and warm winters inside. Moisture is absorbed naturally by the walls when the environment is wet, and is released when it is dry.31 According to Canadian architect Jorg Ostrowski on the History Channel, ‘the famous four-ringed Chengqi Lou, built in the early 18th century, would far exceed LEED certification, a prominent building-industry rating system for sustainable construction’.32

Huang Hanmin, who has researched extensively into traditional Chinese architecture, argued, ‘there has been significant adaptation of the tulou from square to circle, and there are eight benefits of the circular that further support the idea of family and equality’. First, the rooms located in the corners of the square have the worst light and ventilation, and there is no such problem in the circular form. Second, the circle creates equality of all its rooms, hence room distribution to individuals in families is a fairly simple impartial task. Third, the courtyard in the circular is bigger (1.273 times bigger)



than in the square of the same scale. Fourth, the construction of the circular helps to reduce the use of timber and other materials because the inner walls are shorter than the outer walls. Fifth, when all the materials are of the same size, families can easily apply a modular fabrication system. Sixth, the circular roof form is easier to construct than the roof of the square. Seventh, from the perspective of Fengshui, corners are recognised as a negative feature in a building. The circle symbolises the inhabitants’ wish for solidarity, harmony and contentment in the clan and the families. Finally, the circular form is proved to have a better anti-seismic aptitude. The success of the adaptation is evidenced in the 688 tulou in Nanjing county – there are 458 square and 230 circular, and 50 per cent of the square ones were built in 18th and 19th centuries and 78 per cent of circular tulou were built in the 20th century.33

The once-commanding tulou buildings are rapidly ageing along with their inhabitants, and have fallen into irreversible disrepair. While a small number of tulou have been adapted into commercial hotels, perhaps more can be done by the central Chinese government to redefine wealth through cultural identity and place. Many aspects of their design and staging of social wellbeing could be transferable into the future: the mixed-use activities, the well-considered density, the humane scale of the courtyards, or it could be the local


Chapter Four

sourcing of non-polluting building materials. Perhaps, in an age that favours excitement of new technologies, economic progress and exuberant consumerism, the most important lesson we can collectively learn from the tulou is one of human equality and family solidarity, harmony and contentment, even if the reality of rural living and the occupation of the historic buildings comes to an end.

THE POTENCY OF YOUTH ‘China is transfixing – and transforming – the world. And its youth are at the centre. They have always been the group who are the driving force of modern China’ writes journalist Jemimah Steinfeld in her 2015 book ‘Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and youth in modern China’.34 The new privileged generation is shaping the hedonistic cities along with societal expectations, individualist liberation and ‘Pussy Riot’ attitudes of ‘Sino-Punks’. ‘At night, the country’s cities hum to the noise of fancy bars and clubs, underground raves and private parties. People cite New York as the city that never sleeps, but in the 21st century, such a label should really be awarded to Shanghai first, and Beijing second.’35

The Chinese youth are understandably tired of Confucian values and are not inclined to obey the formal line from Beijing that ‘it is still impossible to understand modern China without understanding



Confucius’. Steinfeld argues that ‘strict moral codes which were created by Confucius and adapted by the Communists are dissolving around China’36 rendering the nation’s youth’s filial obligations out­ of-sight and out-of-mind. In ‘Chinese Whispers: Why Everything You’ve heard About China is Wrong’ (2014), Ben Chu writes of the ‘ambiguous status’ that traditional values hold in modern China. For example, the older generation may no longer expect to move in with their children. Instead, retirement homes are the increasingly common option. ‘Only 45 per cent of urban dwellers expect to live with their children when they reach retirement, and only a fifth expect any financial support from their offspring.’37

Equally eager to ‘chuqu’ (to ‘go out’) to seek urban excitement and rewards are the vast army of migrant youth workers numbering in the hundreds of millions who power China’s factories and service industries. Whilst the regimes in factories are extremely tough, they may still be preferable to the conditions of the countryside. The factory and the city draw people from across China whose dream is to leave the village, escape the factory accommodation and eventually move into an urban dwelling. And away from the prying eyes of gossipy home-village neighbours, young migrants are free to hang out with whoever they want, flirt casually and form relationships that their parents and families would otherwise


Chapter Four

disapprove of – the same freedom unavailable to middle-class youth with possessive and controlling parents. Despite earning a few dollars a day, the pursuit is away from collectivism of an unfathomably large scale and towards the pursuit of individualism and emerging circles of the like-minded.

In the book ‘Factory Girls: Voices from the heart of modern China’ (2010), Leslie T. Chang, a writer from The Wall Street Journal, explores the stories of the ‘dagongmei’, young female migrant workers, and their working conditions in Chinese factories. There is a familiar pattern – millions were promised a glamorous version of their future life, only to discover the reality of sleeping in large company-owned dormitories, working long shifts, and having a very meagre variety of meals on rotation. Each factory is its own city-campus, but with strict rules and financial penalties for minor offences such as taking too many bathroom breaks, chatting, or arriving at a workstation a few minutes late. The girls work overtime shifts to boost their earnings, and in their rare time off, they plan their career development by comparing stories of conditions in other factories over a network of text messages. Many underage girls have been known to hold fake identity documents and have often been advised that to get a start in work would be better in the long run than going to school first. There might be potential



progression in the factories, perhaps enough to liberate the individual. However, competition is extremely demanding and lucky breaks are quite scarce for those with limited formal education.

Chairman Mao famously proclaimed that women ‘hold up half the sky’. There is an urgency to address the ‘screams and dreams’38 of the dagongmei – to lower the high workforce turnover rates, and increase job satisfaction and workplace stability. The ‘2017 Woman, Work and Happiness: Impact of women in the workplace in a digital age report’ shows that China’s female labour force contribute 41 per cent of GDP, more than any other country.39 Crucial to the region’s economic future and global competitiveness, Chinese state- and private-owned manufacturers will need to adapt fast by creating opportunities for education, training and development, based on listening to and responding to workers’ common challenges, needs and aspirations. In the New York Times, Han Dongfang, director of the NGO China Labor Bulletin, writes, ‘Young workers have greater expectations and higher aspirations than their parents’ generation. Simply getting by is no longer good enough, and they are increasingly demanding a lot more than the subsistence wages that have been the norm for so long. Fundamentally, they want to be treated with dignity and respect.’40 In 2012, the NGO estimated around 30,000 strikes and worker protests each year.


Chapter Four

The city and its civic life are being redefined by the migrant workers who, in so many cases, outnumber the region’s natives. The potency of this class of youth culture has profound impacts on the adaptability of urbanism and on the operating hours of the city. Repetitive factory blocks, stark and dense housing towers, and related consumerism buildings are some of the architectural typologies that follow mass migration. In a city seemingly built for industrial mechanisation rather than human inhabitation, the attempts to channel the population’s consumerism into giant out­ of-town shopping malls often fail. Of Dongguan, an industrial city in Guangdong Province famous for manufacturing electronics, Chang says, ‘On weekends, teenagers take over Dongguan, giving its parks and squares the feel of an open-air high school. Girls roam in cliques… On Monday mornings, the parks and the squares of Dongguan are eerily empty. The long avenues of factories show only blank faces to the world, the packs of girls and boys swallowed up inside. At night, the factories lining the highways are lit. As long as there is light, people are still working and like stately ocean liners on the sea. From a distance, they are beautiful.’41

CHINA ADAPTS WHILST EVERYONE JUST SEES WHAT THEY WANT In ‘Orientalism’ (1978), Edward Said argues how perceptions of the East have been ‘framed’ by the media, art and literature of the



West. Unfamiliar cultures are alien, and their practices often seem either exotic or totally backwards – we are often guilty of looking without seeing, then for explaining without understanding, and acting without empathising.

Chinese civilisation developed fairly independently from Europe, and for the most part possessed superior science and technology. For the Chinese emperors who had based their societies on the principles of Confucius, eternal religion was of little importance. And the endeavours of Chinese art and culture were never concentrated into the chiselling of stone cathedrals and marble statues. Chinese temples and palaces were built with finely detailed interlocking timbers, and were more accepting of the passage of time, seasons and the tangibility of the craft. During the Cultural Revolution and following China’s support of North Korea in the Korean War of 1950–1953, Chinese identity was at once brought to the attention of the American and European public, corrupted by propaganda and stereotype. The racist and derogatory stereotypes of the ‘Yellow Peril’ originated in the late 19th century when the work ethic and lower wages of Chinese immigrants inadvertently provoked a backlash against them by local white populations in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In many of the early Western pop culture and media portrayals, Fu Manchu is a sinister fictional


Chapter Four

villain with mysterious supernatural powers, a typical ‘China-man’ is either a rural paddy field worker or a degenerate opium addict, and Chinatown would be teeming with immigrants engaging in illegal gambling and prostitution – these are typical examples of insidious political intellectualism which disregards intellectual objectivity. The shameless practice of self-absorption leaves us with the desire to consume the novelty of the notional other, but without genuine curiosity or compassion. Political correctness has consciously improved since ‘The Yellow Terror in all His Glory’ (1899), which depicts the savage Chinese immigrant of the Qing dynasty, who stands astride a fallen white woman representing Western European colonialism. In the film adaptation of ‘ShangChi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ (2021), Marvel Comics has downplayed the yellow peril implications with a Chinese superhero and omitted references to the original Fu Manchu character.

Today, China has continued to routinely reject ‘ideological prejudice’42 and accusations of being a totalitarian-but-capitalist contradiction state; it has pointed to its model of governance that productively lifted millions out of poverty. Not to say that China does not suffer from political and economic corruption, but there is certainly a strong desire held by Western powers and their associated media outlets (‘ambassadors’ for the West) for it to be



perceived as exceptionally unethical. The US, often seen as the main strategic adversary, leads with anti-communist propaganda and criticism of China’s human rights record. In 2019, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, singled out Beijing for its mass detention of Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang region. China claims the ‘vocational training centres’ are aimed at de-radicalisation to combat terrorism, separatism and extremism. Shohrat Zakir, the governor of the region and its most senior Uighur official, comments, ‘…there will be fewer and fewer students in the centres. If one day our society doesn’t need them, the education and training centres will disappear’.43

In addition to the Belt and Road Initiative, China has ardently been building its domestic infrastructure and cities, and has demonstrated that the country could build the best and largest infrastructure in the world from the Great Wall of China to Beijing Daxing International Airport, completed in 2019. The 1,000,000-square-metre terminal building, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects and French planners ADP, is the largest single structure in the world, built from more than 220,000 tons of steel, with a price tag nearing 14 billion US dollars,44 and has a breathtaking flight capacity that surpasses London’s six airports.45 The huge pressure of urbanism is simultaneously pressing hard on regional


Chapter Four

planning bureaus, keen to compete economically and culturally, but often failing because of poor strategies, lack of sustainability or corruption. However, much of what we think about China’s intense building boom is a framed view from the West. Western media hype would have us believe that the Chinese government has been ruthlessly building in immoral denial of a downturned economy.

In ‘Ghost Cities of China’ (2015), Wade Shepard argues that initial perceptions of new developments are prematurely condescending, with journalists keen to criticise before the concrete and asphalt have set, before trees and greenery have taken hold, and before the life of the place has had a chance to even start maturing. He argues that the first aim of the government is to be pragmatic and forward-thinking, the strangeness of the Chinese condition being brought about by the immense pressure of the 1.4 billion population. However, for all of China’s genuine adaptability, there is the oxymoron of the words ‘eco’ and ‘city’, and those who would corrupt the agenda, by making a marketing gimmick out of eco-cities. Shepard stressed that ‘almost 300 ecocities are either being built or are in the planning stage across China. These green building initiatives are called experiments, but their pace of proliferation around the country has been so rapid that by the time adequate results are available hundreds will already be built and



functioning.’46 This raises the question of whether there would have been time for any assessment of data, perhaps no opportunity to learn or ensure quality of the new, supposedly ‘green’ urbanism. Shepard is interested in the idealism of a new city, identity and feeling of citizenship, but expresses concerns over ‘ecocities which seem to be a form of cover that enables China’s urbanization drive to continue into the future, a way of mitigating criticism that the movement is laying waste to the country’s environment’.47

China’s future will be won or lost on its ability to adapt. Chinese architects have brought on their own grassroots renaissance in the decade following the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Liberal young architects, including long-overlooked female architects, are forging successful careers with innovative projects that align Chinese ambition with the earth’s environmental capacity. There is a good argument that fundamentally China is now far more resilient and future-looking than the West. The new Chinese economic revolution forms transitory relationships between foreign investments and new templates for sustainable urbanism and architecture that will unequivocally change the world, forcing our built environment and its architecture to adapt. ‘Once Upon a China’ presents the polemic that there is a sustainable revolution which provides for humanity and protects the environment, born out of Chinese narratives.


Chapter Four

NOTES 1. G Zhong, ‘The Mulberry Dike-Fish Pond Complex: A Chinese ecosystem of land-water interaction on the Pearl River Delta’, Human Ecology, vol.10, no.2, Springer, June 1982, pp.191–202 2. KA Annan, Introduction to Nadav Kander, ‘Yangtze – The Long River’, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern, 2010, p.X 3. G Badger, H Boot, G Chan et al., ‘Wild China: Natural Wonders of the World’s Most Enigmatic Land’, BBC Books, Random House, 2008, p.14 4. P Oltermann, ‘Germany’s “China City”: How Duisburg became Xi Jinping’s gateway to Europe’, The Guardian: Cities, 1 August 2018 5. Office of the Press Secretary, ‘Remarks by President Obama at the University of Queensland’, The White House, 15 November 2014 [https://obamawhitehouse.archives. gov/the-press-office/2014/11/15/remarks-president-obama-university-queensland], retrieved 21 August 2019 6. YQ Huang & SM Li, ‘Housing Inequality, Residential Differentiation, and Social Stratification’, in ‘Housing Inequality in Chinese Cities’, Routledge, 2014, pp.4–5 7. L Deng et al., ‘The Emerging Housing Policy Framework in China’, Journal of Planning Literature, vol.26, no.2, 1 May 2011, pp.168–183 [http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/do wnload?doi=], retrieved 19 August 2019 8. H Yutaka, L Dorje et al., ‘Beijing Hutong Conservation Plan’, Tibet Heritage Fund International Berlin, 2004, p.12 9. JP Ye et al., ‘A Study on the Chinese Housing Policy During Social Transition: Practice and development’, Housing Finance International, issue 20, 2006, pp.50–58 10. P Panckhurst et al., ‘A Fifth of China’s Homes Are Empty. That’s 50 Million Apartments’, Bloomberg: Economics, 8 November 2018 [https://www.bloomberg.com/ news/articles/2018-11-08/a-fifth-of-china-s-homes-are-empty-that-s-50-million­ apartments], retrieved 19 August 2019



11. J Cai, ‘How China’s Rush to Urbanise Has Created a Slew of Ghost Towns’, South China Morning Post: Politics, 7 March 2017 12. S Jacobs, ’12 Eerie Photos of Enormous Chinese Cities Completely Empty of People’, The Independent, 4 October 2017 13. D Ren, ‘Shanghai Caps Population at 25 Million to Rein in Booming Housing Market Amid Limited Land Supply’, South China Morning Post: Politics, 24 January 2016 14. W Wu, ‘Migrant Housing in Urban China: Choices and constraints’, Urban Affairs Review, issue 38, 2002, pp.90–119 15. BBC News: China, ‘Subterranean Home for 400 found in Beijing Basement’, BBC, 20 June 2017 [https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-40325773], retrieved 25 August 2019 16. YQ Huang & SM Li, ‘Housing Inequality, Residential Differentiation, and Social Stratification’, in ‘Housing Inequality in Chinese Cities’, Routledge, 2014, pp.10–11 17. L Deng et al., ‘The Emerging Housing Policy Framework in China’, Journal of Planning Literature, vol.26, no.2, 1 May 2011, pp.168–183 [http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/ viewdoc/download?doi=], retrieved 19 August 2019 18. J Bolchover & J Lin, ‘Rural Urban Framework: Transforming the Chinese countryside’, Birkhäuser, Basel, 2013, p.160 19. N Ng, ‘An Earthquake-proof House Made of Clay?’, South China Morning Post, 14 August 2017 20. A Williams, ‘Back to Earth: Anti-seismic prototype in Guangming by Edward Ng, Li Wan, Xinan Chi’, Architectural Review, July/August 2017, pp. XXX 21. E Miller, ‘What Is It Like to Live in Rural China?’, Quora, 7 October 2017 [https://www. quora.com/What-is-it-like-to-live-in-rural-China], retrieved 20 August 2019 22. H Wang et al., ‘Rural Residential Properties in China: Land use patterns, efficiency and prospects for reform’, Habitat International, vol.36, 2012, p.202


Chapter Four

23. J Watts, ‘China Water Resettlement: Honest folk have lost out’, The Guardian, 9 September 2011 24. T Philips, ‘China to Move Millions of People from Homes in Anti-poverty Drive’, The Guardian, 7 January 2018 25. YK Chen, ‘Peach Blossom Source Circumstantial’, Tsinghua Journal, National Tsinghua University Press, vol.11, no.1, 1936, p.79 26. XN Fu et al., ‘Chinese Architecture’, NS Steinhardt (ed.), Yale University and New World Press, 2002, p.37 27. G Badger, H Boot, G Chan et al., ‘Wild China: Natural Wonders of the World’s Most Enigmatic Land’, BBC Books, Random House, 2008, p.194 28. T O’Neil, ‘China’s Remote Fortresses Lose Residents, Gain Tourists’, National Geographic, 2 January 2015 [https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/special­ features/2015/01/150102-hakka-china-tulou-fujian-world-heritage], retrieved 30 Aug 2019 29. HM Huang, ‘Fujian Tulou: The treasure of Chinese traditional folk house’, SDX Joint Publishing Company, 2003. p.172 30. HM Huang, ‘Fujian Tulou: The treasure of Chinese traditional folk house’, SDX Joint Publishing Company, 2003. p.185 31. SP Wang & J Huang, ‘The Research on the Factors of the Fujian Hakka Tulou’s Form’, Applied Mechanics and Materials, Trans Tech Publications, Switzerland, 2013, vol.409–410, pp.366–371 32. T O’Neil, ‘China’s Remote Fortresses Lose Residents, Gain Tourists’, National Geographic, 2 January 2015 [https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/special­ features/2015/01/150102-hakka-china-tulou-fujian-world-heritage], retrieved 30 Aug 2019 33. HM Huang, ‘Fujian Tulou: The treasure of Chinese traditional folk house’, SDX Joint Publishing Company, 2003. pp.217–232 34. J Steinfeld,‘Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and youth in modern China’, I.B. Tauris, London, 2015, p.5



35. J Steinfeld,‘Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and youth in modern China’, I.B. Tauris, London, 2015, p.119 36. J Steinfeld,‘Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and youth in modern China’, I.B. Tauris, London, 2015, p.119 37. B Chu, ‘Chinese Whispers: Why everything you’ve heard about China is wrong’, Phoenix, London, 2014, pp.42–44 38. N Pun, ‘Made in China: Women factory workers in a global workplace’, Duke University Press, 2005, p.16 39. V Tan, J Wong et al., ‘2017 Woman, Work and Happiness: Impact of women in the workplace in a digital age report’, Lean in China & Deloitte China, 2018, p.7 40. DF Han, ‘China’s Workers Unite’, The New York Times: Opinion, 8 November 2012 41. LT Chang, ‘Factory Girls: Voices from the heart of modern China’, Picador, London, 2010, p.21 42. Reuters, ‘China Hits Back at US “Prejudice” in Human Rights Tit-for-tat Row’, The Guardian, 14 March 2019 43. Guardian Staff & Agencies, ‘China is “In a League of Its Own” on Human Rights Violations, Pompeo Says’, The Guardian, 13 March 2019 44. A Taylor, ‘Photos: The world’s largest airport terminal building’, The Atlantic, 22 January 2019 [https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2019/01/photos-the-worlds-largest­ airport-terminal-building/580954], retrieved 28 January 2019 45. S McDonell, ‘What Does The World’s Largest Single-building Airport Terminal Look Like?’, BBC, 15 April 2019 [https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-asia-47914210/what­ does-the-world-s-largest-single-building-airport-terminal-look-like], retrieved 28 June 2019 46. W Shepard, ‘Ghost Cities of China: The story of cities without people in the world’s most populated country’, Zed Books, London, 2015, pp.132–133 47. W Shepard, ‘Ghost Cities of China: The story of cities without people in the world’s most populated country’, Zed Books, London, 2015, p.133





Romance of All Kingdoms



historical and part legend, ‘Romance of the Three

Kingdoms’ dramatises the military battles, intrigues, ruthless power games and lives of feudal warlords and nobles who battled over dominance for almost a century. The turbulent years of war started at the end of the Han dynasty and resulted in the tripartite division of China into the three kingdoms of Wei, Shu and Wu. Amongst the memorable aspects of the epic saga are its depictions of sophisticated ancient Chinese war tactics and the struggles of heroes and villains based not on politics but on morals. Liu Bei, Zhuge Liang and Cao Cao are a few of the central characters within the extremely complex story and numerous subplots. Liu Bei is widely regarded as the ideal, benevolent ruler with a Confucian set of moral values. Synonymous with wisdom, Zhuge Liang planned many prominent battles and famously exploited nature, landscape and the weather to compensate for having limited resources and military power. He invented the Kongming paper lantern for military signalling, the ‘Empty Fort’ strategy, and the ‘Borrowing Arrows with Straw Boats’ strategy. Throughout the story, Zhuge Liang is portrayed as the much beloved hero and legendary military strategist, while Cao Cao fills the role of the merciless villain and master manipulator, with evil mythical powers ascribed to him. – Luo Guanzhong, ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’, 14th century

Cao Cao strived to fight back during the end of the Battle of Redcliff. He knew that his soldiers would not succeed fighting on water because they were raised landlocked northern people. Cao Cao ordered chains and wooden decks to connect all his battleships and eventually built a new land on the sea. Facing page: Zhuge Liang saw his enemy falling into holes covered by the snow and played the song of death.

Romance of All Kingdoms




Cao Cao is now considered by modern historians to be an outstanding military strategist and pragmatic ruler who adapted a famineplagued region to become a prosperous empire during one of the bloodiest periods in Chinese history. He schooled children and promoted his people according to their abilities regardless of the social status pre-determined at birth. As a result of his ‘Tun Tian System’ (farming by soldiers), ‘Zu Tiao’ (tax reduction for farmers) and imposing of punishing taxes on landlords, he established an agricultural economy that increased productivity, improved citizens’ wellbeing and fulfilled the demands of the army’s food supplies. In the Confucian feudalistic society, his modern policies were, however, highly unpopular and considered unconventional reforms. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his 1841 essay ‘Self Reliance’, maintained that ‘to be great is to be misunderstood’ – just as many critics are suspicious of President Xi Jinping’s 2013 ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, perceived as China’s attempt to dominate world politics by growing into history’s most extensive global commercial empire.

Romance of All Kingdoms


Where Roy Andrew Miller, the prominent author, argues that the 14th century literature’s chief theme is ‘the nature of human ambition for power’,1 our project ‘Romance of All Kingdoms’ proposes to be a tale of humanity, with the Chinese government portrayed as a force to enhance global environmental resilience and foster a brighter future for all nations – the raison d’etre of the reincarnated fabled EastWest Silk Road is to address and adapt to climate change. Here, the environmental tactics take their cue from Cao Cao’s progressive defence strategies of cultivation and education. The ‘mythical’ infrastructures of land, sea and air: ‘Drone Gardeners’, ‘FaithBoxes & Wall-turned-Courtyard’, ‘Sea Dragons’ and ‘Heavenly Goddesses’ postulate and diverge from the norm of architectural problemsolving. Instead, they draw from alleged scientific exposition and sometimes-impossible ideas to underlie the use of poetic narratives, and stimulate profound global actions (not words). From this vantage point, all can endeavour to reverse the devasting environmental impacts of the present and the near future.



China launches into the environmental battle by deploying one million Drone Gardeners to vulnerable developing regions. Christian Aid’s 2019 ‘Hunger Strike: The climate and food vulnerability index’ reported a clear link between rising global temperatures and increasing food security issues, and that the people most exposed to these impacts are those from developing regions who are also the ones least responsible for rising global CO2 concentrations.2 The drones, programmed with artificial intelligence, educate and support farmers through the promotion of a resilient water-procuring system and earlyharvest crops that are adaptable to climate change, as well as better land management, agriculture diversification practices, and youth entrepreneurship – Cao Cao believed resilience can only be achieved by educating the people, principally the younger generation. Made in China from nanoscale polymers, the drones are powered by solar batteries and can harvest, even in an arid atmosphere, up to ten gallons of water per hour for crop irrigation. For the drones responsible for potable water, ‘the polymer surface can filter any microbes or bacteria present in the water vapor’.3 Just as the Drone Gardeners industriously help plough, sow and harvest, these airborne devices also have the advantage of being able to reach even the most isolated, drought-struck areas.

Romance of All Kingdoms

The airborne Drone Gardeners


Abseil training provides the Drone Gardeners with the skills and knowledge.

While the Drone Gardeners industriously help plough, sow and harvest, these airborne devices also have the advantage of being able to reach even the most isolated, drought-struck areas.

Inspired by the Peach Garden in the literature, the courtyards...

...are bursting with environmental, nutritional and humanity values.



‘…climate change is not only a global health crisis, it is a moral crisis’, emphasised Dr Samuel Myers, principal research scientist at Harvard University.4 Reductions of emissions are needed in all countries but with major responsibility placed firmly with ‘food­ importing’ rich nations and big businesses, since food production is responsible for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions.5 The FaithBoxes, like the Salvation Army, have an outreach programme and seek donations in the form of ‘faith’, ‘hope’ and ‘love’ from the general public. The collected virtues are used to ‘fertilise’ urban agriculture in the Wall-turned-Courtyard, which adapts to, and cultivates, every single available surface, nook and cranny across all offending cities. Bursting with nutritional values, these green structures help to reduce ‘heat island’ effects, and act as an environmental insulator to prevent heat loss in winter months. They also contribute to an increase in local food resources, and reduce the carbon footprints in food and deforestation. A metaphor of the oath taken by Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei in the Peach Garden6 in the 14th century literature, the adaptable food gardens in ‘Romance of All Kingdoms’ are small steps towards redeeming our environmental sins.

Romance of All Kingdoms


The army of FaithBoxes collect virtues.

Cultivating in crannies...

...on every single available surface...

...and nook.

The Wall-turned-Courtyards are small steps towards redeeming our environmental sins.

To cultivate healthy crops all year round, the FaithBoxes ‘water’ the gardens with virtues.

On rainy days...

...something haphazard descends upon us.



Much loved by coastal communities, the chivalrous Sea Dragons ride the waves of the Seven Seas to ensure a significant reduction of plastics and humanity’s contribution to ocean contamination. Scientists have confirmed there are five offshore plastic accumulation zones in the world’s oceans; the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest – located halfway between Hawaii and California, it has an estimated surface area of 1.6 million square kilometres, equivalent to twice the footprint of Texas or three times the size of France.7 Greenhouse gas emissions from plastic that has been exposed to sunlight will reach the equivalent of nearly 300 coal plants in 2030 and over 600 in 20508 – polyethylene, which is used to make plastic bags, is the worst offender.9 These plastic accumulation zones will therefore make it impossible for the world to meet the Paris Climate Accord’s goal of preventing global warming from exceeding 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit





Nations scientists have already predicted that warming beyond that point would result in catastrophic climate change.10 As such, the Sea Dragon is conceived as a selfperpetuating infrastructure; its adaptability, aesthetic, colour and size vary depending on the long list of manmade debris it cleans up in the oceans. A haphazard jigsaw puzzle of driftwood, scrap metals, construction materials, vehicle tyres, buoys, rope, nets, balloons, polystyrene and of course plastic bottles and plastic bags feature heavily in the bricolage fleet – a stark reminder of our irresponsible culture of consumerism.

Romance of All Kingdoms


The Sea Dragon riding the waves!

The Sea Dragon adapts...

...as it cleans the ocean of our irresponsible culture of consumerism.






often associated with dragons and




mythology. The deity Ba is believed to use her drought power to defeat the wind and rain gods. On the 8th of August 2008, Beijing fired a total of 1104 ‘salt-and­ mineral-filled’ rain dispersal rockets from 21 sites in the city between the hours of 04.00 to 23.39. These successfully intercepted a group of rain clouds from moving towards the ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium, to ensure a smooth opening ceremony of the 29th Olympic Games.11 Despite uncertainty of the after effects, weather modifications are often used to protect vulnerable areas from large-scale shifts in temperature and precipitation brought about by climate change – in fact there are times where manipulation of climate could yield significant benefits for humanity.

The Heavenly Goddesses paint the skies white to reflect sunlight back into space.

Romance of All Kingdoms


The process involved in creating the near apocalyptic environmental magical trick.



Romance of All Kingdoms


According to the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Steven Chu, the reduction of carbon emissions by painting buildings white would be synonymous to a near apocalyptic magical trick of withdrawing the world’s entire usage of automobiles for over a decade.12 Likewise, in ‘Romance of All Kingdoms’, the Heavenly Goddesses paint the skies white to reflect sunlight back into space. The skies are gracefully adapted each day in vertical motions with military precision; the mythical surface gradually evaporates throughout the day. Remotely controlled, this skein of ephemeral painters has the additional built-in operations of augmented cooling, pollution absorption and access to early weather warning forecasts. By engaging with the local climate, the Heavenly Goddesses can alter their trajectories while inscribing the air-scapes of hope. Whatever the concerns and motives of the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ are, policymakers ought to recognise that these Chinese investments represent a vital contribution to those nations with low environmental resilience securities. An even more monumental issue is the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s ‘Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C – with a looming increase of temperature that would inflict us with the worst impacts of climate change, we are tasked to halve greenhouse gas emissions globally by 2030. As humanity is facing such unprecedented climatic uncertainty, ‘Romance of All Kingdoms’ might be a timely set of strategies to adapt our environments – Cao Cao, a devoted follower of Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’, would consider defeating the enemy without bloodshed to be the highest form of achievement.

Breakfast of the environmental champions before sunrise each day.

...and off they go again to cultivate environmental happy-ever-after.

Romance of All Kingdoms


NOTES 1. RA Miller, ‘Introduction’ to ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’, CH Brewitt-Taylor (trans.), Charles E. Tuttle co., Vermont, 1959, pp.v-xii 2. J Ware & K Kramer, ‘Hunger Strike: The climate and food vulnerability index’, Christian Aid, August 2019 [https://www.christianaid.org.uk/sites/default/files/2019-07/ Hunger-strike-climate-and-food-vulnerability-index.pdf], retrieved 7 August 2019 3. Professor SCJ Wong prototyped the nanoscale polymer water harvester at University of Akron, ‘Portable Freshwater Harvester Could Draw Up to 10 Gallons Per Hour From the Air’, Business Insider, 21 August 2018 [https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/ pressroom/newsreleases/2018/august/portable-freshwater-harvester-could-draw-up­ to-10-gallons-per-hour-from-the-air.html], retrieved 7 August 2019 4. Quoted in M McGrath, ‘Climate Change: Hungry nations add the least to global CO2’, BBC: Science & Environment, 6 August 2019 [https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science­ environment-49181594], retrieved 7 August 2019 5. J Poore & T Nemecek, ‘Reducing Food’s Environmental Impacts Through Producer and Consumer’, Science, vol.360, issue 6392, 1 June 2018, pp.987–992 6. Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei took an oath of fraternity in the Peach Garden to protect the Han Empire. ‘The Oath of the Peach Garden’ is an event in ‘The Romance of the Three Kingdoms’. 7. L Lebreton et al., ‘Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is Rapidly Accumulating Plastic’, Scientific Reports 8, no. 4666, 22 March 2018 [https://www. nature.com/articles/s41598-018-22939-w], retrieved 22 May 2019 8. C Smith, ‘Plastics Aren’t Just Polluting — They’re Making Climate Change Worse’, HuffPost US, 17 May 2019 [https://www.huffpost.com/entry/plastic-climate-change_n_5 cdd8f4be4b09648227ca194], retrieved 22 May 2019 9. S Williams, ‘Plastics Emit Greenhouse Gases as They Degrade’, The Scientist, 2 August 2018 [https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/plastics-emit-greenhouse­ gases-as-they-degrade-64600], retrieved 22 May 2019 10. C Smith, ‘Plastics Aren’t Just Polluting — They’re Making Climate Change Worse’, HuffPost US, 17 May 2019 [https://www.huffpost.com/entry/plastic-climate-change_n_5 cdd8f4be4b09648227ca194], retrieved 22 May 2019 11. XinHua, ‘Beijing Disperses Rain to Dry Olympic Night’, China Daily, 9 August 2008 [http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/olympics/2008-08/09/content_6919493.htm], retrieved 7 August 2019 12. S Connor, ‘Obama’s Climate Guru: Paint Your Roof White!’, The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 23 October 2011


Project + Reproduction Credits

ONCE UPON A CHINA research team: CJ Lim and Steve McCloy

Chapter One: DREAM OF THE GREEN MANSION 2018; research design team: CJ Lim / Studio 8 Architects with Eric Wong and Peter Hougaard supported by: The Architecture Research Fund (The Bartlett UCL) Chapter Two: JOURNEY TO THE NORTH WEST 2019; research design team: CJ Lim / Studio 8 Architects with Michael Quach and Vilius Vizgaudis supported by: The Architecture Research Fund (The Bartlett UCL) Chapter Three: THE MARGIN OF WATER 2020; research design team: CJ Lim / Studio 8 Architects with Sam Ki supported by: The Architecture Research Fund (The Bartlett UCL) Chapter Four: ROMANCE OF ALL KINGDOMS 2019; research design team: CJ Lim / Studio 8 Architects with James Smith and Kar Man Leung supported by: The Architecture Research Fund (The Bartlett UCL)

Special thanks to Edmund Tan, Alanna Donaldson + Dean Drake All images © CJ Lim / Studio 8 Architects