Ping An Financial Center in Shenzhen is currently the fourth tallest building in the world. Credit: ANTHONY WALLACE / AFP / Getty Images
However, according to Chinese architectural experts, some of the less conspicuous proposals, such as appeal for heritage conservation, a credit system for designers, and the appointment of chief architects, may indicate a finer evolution in the way Chinese cities are planned.
“The document isn’t really just about height,” said Li Shiqiao, a professor of Asian architecture at the University of Virginia, in a phone call. “This is about Chinese culture, urban context, the spirit of the city and the appearance of modernity.”
“This has been a lot of academic debate, but somehow it has not been in a government document so far.”
Cut to size
Half of the completed 10 buildings measuring over 500 meters worldwide are located in mainland China.
These include the planet’s second tallest skyscraper, the 632-meter-high twist Shanghai Tower, and the Shenzhen Ping An Financial Center, which is 599 meters (1,965 feet) from bottom to end.
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Fei Chen, a senior professor of architecture at the University of Liverpool, England, described the 500-meter limit as “quite arbitrary” and added that the 499-meter skyscrapers are “still very, very tall buildings.” The new document, however, confirmed the increased intolerance for “out-of-scale or out-of-context” buildings.
Chen also pointed to official concern about the “reckless” use of tall buildings, so expensive and unprofitable towers were used by real estate companies to brand their development – or to map their cities by local governments.
“(Guidelines) respond to the identity crisis we all noticed since the 1980s when cities began borrowing standards and building types from international contexts.” “And since the 1990s, cities have been introduced competitively in the market through the construction of landmarks and large public buildings.”
Therefore, new constraints are about economy as much as design. Above a certain height, the cost of building a skyscraper with each additional floor increases exponentially. China’s skyline is filled with unfinished towers as economic growth slows and developers suffer from credit.
Workers on the Wuhan Greenland Center, which was unfinished eight years after the start of construction. Credit: STR / AFP / Getty Images
“If you accept Pudong as the paradigm of Chinese urbanization from 2000 to the present, then you will look at Xiongan, where real estate speculation or iconic buildings are not dominant – then this is a rather surprising change … you witness.”
A new framework
Still, Li argues that the 500 meter altitude limitation is an “probably least interesting” part of the academically new government guides.
Elsewhere, the circular includes a number of other measures, including the ban on “plagiarism, imitation, and imitative behavior.” China’s own Eiffel Tower and the Thames Town, inspired by London outside Shanghai, are the most extreme – and mockery – examples of how imitation architecture developed in the 2000s.
A copy of the Eiffel Tower in Tianducheng, a luxury real estate development in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. Credit: JOHANNES EISELE / AFP / Getty Images
This official change may again reflect the changing design culture in China. However, a clear ban on plagiarism may still be useful in a country where “the quality is very different”.
“There is already a declaration that (copying) is not welcome in the architectural industry,” he said. “But China is huge and some cities are better than others.
“In eastern coastal cities or more developed areas, architects have better design skills, so they produce better buildings. But in interior cities, you still see buildings that copy others’ styles or architectural languages and do not work very well.”
But one of the government’s new proposals suggest something completely new in China: chief architects for every city.
Moscow and Barcelona are among the cities that have already appointed a person to approve or veto new offers. Li welcomed the idea as a way to ensure that the designs fit the overall urban context.
“The hesitation is whether ensuring uniformity means making a city predictable and indifferent, or whether you are maintaining some degree of creativity.” “But there are great new generation (Chinese designers) to protect both urban texture and create very interesting architecture. The key is to set up a system that guarantees this process.”
Chongqing, skyline of southwest China. Credit: Wang Zhao / AFP / Getty Images
It remains to be seen how the government’s more discovery proposals are realized – even if you don’t. Focusing on urban governance in China, Chen said that although new guidelines provide a broad framework for cities, more subtle details need to be resolved at the local level.
He suggested that it was still necessary to positively express what constitutes good design, describing the circular as a series of red lines that should not be crossed (“no more” than “dos”).
“There are policies and documents talking about you should not be do it … it’s a good thing, but they never said what they said should Architects and urban designers can benefit from highly specific guidance on what good design is.
“But this has to be related to the local context, so I wouldn’t expect the national government to produce such guidance. It might not work in another context that works in one context.”