From egg-shaped concert halls to skyscrapers reminiscent of big pairs of pants, China’s top cities are famously full of curious monuments to architectural ambition. But as land prices in the main metropolises have shot into the stratosphere, developers have been scrambling to buy up plots in the country’s second and third-tier cities, spawning a new generation of delirious plans in the provinces. President Xi Jinping may have issued a directive last year outlawing “oversized, xenocentric, weird” buildings, but many of these schemes were already well under way; his diktat has proved to be no obstacle to mayoral hubris yet.
From Harbin “City of Music” to Dezhou “Solar Valley”, provincial capitals are branding themselves as themed enclaves of culture and industry to attract inward investment, and commissioning scores of bold buildings to match. Even where there is no demand, city bureaucrats are relentlessly selling off land for development, hawking plots as the primary form of income – accounting for 80% of municipal revenues in some cases. In the last two months alone, 50 Chinese cities received a total of 453bn yuan (£54bn) from land auctions , a 73% increase on last year, and it’s the provincial capitals that are leading the way.
At the same time, Xi’s national culture drive has seen countless museums, concert halls and opera houses spring up across the country, often used as sweeteners for land deals, conceived as the jewels at the centre of glistening mixed-used visions (that sometimes never arrive). “Culture,” said Xi, “is the prerequisite of the great renaissance of the Chinese people,” but it has also proved to be a powerful lubricant for ever more real estate speculation – even if the production of content to fill these great halls can’t quite keep up with the insatiable building boom.
Forming an 800 metre-long cliff-face along the coast of the southern port city of Beihai, the Fake Hills housing block is the work of Ma Yansong, China’s homegrown conjuror of sinuous, globular forms – whose practice is appropriately named MAD. Having studied at Yale and worked with Zaha Hadid in London, where he nourished his penchant for blobs, Ma has spent the last decade dreaming up improbable mountain-shaped megastructures across the country.
As it rises and falls, the undulating roofline of Fake Hills forms terraces for badminton and tennis courts, as well as a garden and swimming pool. Sadly the overall effect is less scenic mountain range than a lumpen collision of colossal cruise-liners.
A crystalline spire rising 468 metres above the 18 million-strong metropolis of Chengdu, the Greenland Tower will be the tallest building in southwestern China, standing as a sharply chiselled monument to the country’s (and by some counts the world’s) largest property developer, Greenland Holdings. It is designed by Chicago-based Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill, architects of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, who say the faceted shaft is a reference to the “unique ice mountain topography” of the region. It harks back to the crystalline dreams of early 20th-century German architect Bruno Taut, who imagined a dazzling glass “city crown” to celebrate socialism and agriculture; whether Sichuan’s farmers will be welcomed into the penthouse sky garden remains to be seen.
Once known as a centre of braised chicken production, the city of Dezhou in the north-eastern province of Shandong now brands itself as “Solar Valley”, a renewable energy centre intended to rival California’s Silicon Valley. At its heart is the Sun-Moon mansion, a vast fan-shaped office building powered by an arc of solar panels on its roof. It is the brainchild of Huang Ming, aka China’s “sun king”, an oil industry engineer turned solar energy tycoon who heads the Himin Solar Energy Group, the world’s biggest producer of solar water heaters – as well as purveyor of sun-warmed toilet seats and solar-powered Tibetan prayer wheels.
Nicknamed the St Petersburg of the east, the far northern city of Harbin has long had a thriving cultural scene as a gateway to Russia and beyond. In the 1920s, fashions from Paris and Moscow arrived here before they reached Shanghai, and it was home to the country’s first symphony orchestra, made up of mostly Russian musicians.
Declared “city of music” in 2010, Harbin has recently pumped millions into a gleaming new concert hall by Arata Isozaki, a gargantuan neo-classical conservatory and an 80,000 sq metre whipped meringue of an opera house by MAD. Shaped like a pair of snowy dunes, up which visitors can climb on snaking paths, the building contains a sinuous timber-lined auditorium designed as an eroded block of wood.
Due to open this summer in the sprawling port city of Tianjin, this space-age library by Dutch architects MVRDV is imagined as a gaping cave of books, carved out from within an oblong glass block. The shelves form a terraced landscape of seating, wrapping around a giant mirrored sphere auditorium that nestles in the middle of the space like a pearl in an oyster.
Along with a new theatre, congress centre and a science and technology museum by Bernard Tschumi, the building forms part of a new cultural quarter for the city, itself being swallowed into the planned Beijing-Tianjin mega-region – population 130 million, that’s more than Japan.
Nowhere in China is the disparity between economic reality and architectural ambition more stark than in Guiyang, capital of rural Guizhou, the poorest province in the country, which has the fifth most skyscraper plans of any Chinese city. The twin 335-metre towers of the Huaguoyuan development, by Arup, are now almost complete, standing as the centrepiece of a new mixed-use office, retail and entertainment complex, while SOM is busy conjuring the even higher Cultural Plaza Tower, a 521-metre glass spear that will soar above a new riverfront world of shopping malls and theatres. It has the glitz and gloss of any other Chinese city’s new central business district, but as Knight Frank’s David Ji points out: “It will be hard for a city like Guiyang to find quality tenants to fill the space.”
Yubei agricultural park, Chongqing
Architectural funster Will Alsop may finally have found his calling in the supercharged furnace of China’s second-tier cities’ booming leisure economy, crafting a number of fantastical dreamworlds from his new satellite studio in Chongqing – where he is busy building a new cultural quarter around his own office, with a restaurant, bar and distillery. He is also plotting an enormous agricultural leisure park in Yubei, 20 miles north of the city, designed to cater to the new middle classes’ nascent appreciation of the countryside, a place hitherto associated with peasants and poverty. The rolling landscape will be dotted with cocoon-like treehouses, a flower-shaped hotel and a big lake covered by an LED-screen canopy, so visitors can enjoy projected blue skies despite the smog.
Erupting across six city blocks like a limestone mountain range, the Zendai Himalayas Centre will be Ma’s most literal interpretation yet of his philosophy of fusing architecture and nature. Taking inspiration from the traditional style of “shanshui” landscape brush painting (literally meaning “mountain-water”), the 560,000 sq metre complex is designed to look as if it has been eroded by millennia of wind and water, not thrown up overnight by an army of migrant labourers. Once again, Ma appears to be forgetting that elegant feathery brushstrokes don’t often translate well into lumps of glass and steel. It is one of many such green-fingered schemes in Nanjing, including Stefano Boeri’s “vertical forest” towers and the Sifang art park, where Steven Holl, SANAA, David Adjaye and others have built pavilions in a rolling landscape – as another decoy for a luxury real estate project.
Telecoms giant Huawei has courted lawsuits for copying from rivals in the past, but its love of imitating clearly extends to architecture too. The company’s new campus, under construction on a 300-acre site in Dongguan, is based on 12 European towns. There are the dreaming spires of Oxford, the quaint redbrick houses of Bruges, the palazzos of Verona and the chateaux of Burgundy, all connected by a meandering Swiss railway. It might look like a theme park, but the employees will have little time for leisure: Huawei’s founder likens his staff to a pack of hungry wolves and offers them a “dedicated employee agreement” to voluntarily forgo paid holiday and overtime.
Guardian Cities is dedicating a week to the huge but often unreported cities on the front line of China’s unprecedented urbanisation. Explore our coverage here and follow us on Facebook. Share stories via WeChat (GuardianCities) and by using #OtherChina on Twitter and Instagram
- Embraer hopes smaller cities can drive its China expansion
- Germany's 'China City': how Duisburg became Xi Jinping's gateway to Europe
- China's Belt and Road Initiative will pose serious threat to South-East Asian wildlife, conservationists warn
- Man's Worst Enemy: Wild Dogs Terrorize in India
- What would an entirely flood-proof city look like?
- Story of cities #30: how this Amsterdam inventor gave bike-sharing to the world
- Apple Maps vs. Google Maps: Which one is best for you?
- Animated Map Visualizes NYC’s Raging Workaholism
- How China’s “sharp power” is muting criticism abroad
- Indian-controlled Kashmir stripped of statehood, drawing condemnation from China and Pakistan
- Feature: Sydney kickstarts Lunar New Year events with photo show depicting contemporary China
- From Lincoln Logs to luggage, U.S.-China trade deal still leaves huge cloud over American business
- Mysterious light is spotted 'moving at a high speed' above multiple Chinese cities, sparking media speculation Beijing is secretly testing 'a hypersonic nuclear missile that can reach the US'
- LeBron James goes wild he makes his courtside debut at son Bronny's high school basketball game in a 'surreal' night where the 15-year-old won MVP against the NBA legend's alma mater
- Arsenal’s humiliating capitulation to China just the latest example in a trend of corporate cowardice
- Vietnam Gets a US Confidence Boost in China Sea Dispute
- The censor is watching: China's mega photo fair – in pictures
- Duterte: Can’t stop China in disputed seas, won’t risk clash
- China's second aircraft carrier 'Shandong' enters service as Beijing boosts military firepower amid escalating tensions with self-ruled Taiwan and the US
- Clashes erupt as Sri Lankans protest China port deal
Put us on the map, please: China's smaller cities go wild for starchitecture have 1736 words, post on www.theguardian.com at March 18, 2017. This is cached page on TechNews. If you want remove this page, please contact us.