The Ping An Finance Center in Shenzhen is currently the fourth tallest building in the world. credit: Anthony Wallace / AFP / Getty Images
But according to Chinese architecture experts, some less noticeable suggestions – such as an appeal for heritage protection, a credit system for designers and the appointment of senior architects – may indicate a more subtle development in the way Chinese cities are planned.
“The document is not only about height,” Li Shiqiao, professor of Asian architecture at the University of Virginia, said in a telephone interview. “It is about Chinese culture, urban context, city spirit and the emergence of modernity.”
“This has been a lot in the academic debate, but somehow not in a government document yet.”
Cut to size
Half of the 10 completed buildings over 500 meters high are found in mainland China.
Among them are the second skyscraper on the planet, the twisted 632-meter (2073-foot) Shanghai Twisted Tower, and the Shenzhen Malaysia Ping An Center, 599 meters (1,965 feet) from base to tip.
A ship-shaped skyscraper transforms the Beijing skyline
Fay Chen, professor of architecture at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom, described the limit of 500 meters as “completely arbitrary”, adding that the 499 meters tall skyscrapers “are still very high buildings.” But she said the new document underscored the growing intolerance of buildings “out of range or out of context”.
Chen also noted official concern about the “reckless” use of tall buildings, as expensive and unprofitable towers are used by real estate companies to discern their developments – or by local governments to place their cities on the map.
“(The guidelines) respond to the identity crisis that we’ve all noticed since the 1980s, when cities started borrowing standards and building types from international contexts,” she said in a telephone interview. “Since the 1990s, cities have been promoted as competitive in the market by building landmarks and large public buildings.”
As such, the new constraints are related to economics like design. Above a certain height, the cost of building skyscrapers increases dramatically with each additional floor. China Airlines is now fading with unfinished towers as economic growth slows and developers face pressure on credit.
Workers above the Wuhan Greenland Center, which is not completed eight years after construction began. credit: STR / AFP / Getty Images
“If you take Pudong as a model of Chinese urban expansion from 2000 to today, you’re looking at Xiongan – which is not dominated by real estate speculation or famous buildings – as a new model … that’s an amazing change they are witnessing.”
However, he assures me that the 500-meter restriction is, from an academic point of view, “probably the least important part” of the new government guidelines.
Elsewhere, the post contains a set of other measures, including a ban on “plagiarism, counterfeiting and imitation behavior.” The Eiffel Tower in China and the London-inspired Thames outside Shanghai are two of the most extreme – and ironic – examples of how imitation architecture flourished in the first decade of the 21st century.
A replica of the Eiffel Tower in Tianducheng, a luxury real estate development in Hangzhou, Zhejiang. credit: Johannes Isle / AFP / Getty Images
Once again, this formal transformation may simply reflect China’s changing design culture. But Chen said that an explicit ban on plagiarism could still prove beneficial in a country of “the degree of quality is very diverse”.
“There is already recognition in the architecture (transcription) industry not welcome,” she said. “But China is huge, and some cities are working better than others.
“In the East Coast cities, or more developed regions, architects have better design skills, so they produce better buildings. But in the inner cities, you still see buildings that copy other people’s styles or architectural languages, and that doesn’t lead to very good design.”
But one of the suggestions of the new government proposes something completely new in China: the top architects of each city.
Moscow and Barcelona are among the cities that have already appointed an individual to approve or object to new proposals. Li welcomed the idea as a way to ensure that the designs fit into the overall urban context.
He added: “The hesitation is whether ensuring unification means that the city becomes predictable and not interesting, or whether you actually maintain a degree of creativity.” “But we have a great new generation (of Chinese designers) great at preserving the urban fabric and creating a very exciting architecture. The key is to establish a system that guarantees this process.”
Chongqing skyline, in southwest China. credit: Zhao Wang / AFP / Getty Images
How or even if more exploratory government proposals are paying off. Chen, whose research focuses on urban governance in China, said the new guidelines provide a broad framework for cities, but precise details must be resolved at the local level.
She described the circular as a series of red lines that should not be crossed (“don’t do” more than “dos”), also suggested that work is still required to express positively what constitutes a good design.
“There are policies and documents that talk about you should not be Do … which is good, but they never say what you are Should And she did, “she explained.” Architects and urban designers may benefit from quite specific guidelines on what a good design is.
“But this has to be related to the local context, so I don’t expect the national government to provide guidelines like this. What works in one context may not work in another.”