City slick

Updated: 2012-11-09 10:01

By Andrew Moody and Yang Yang (China Daily)

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He adds there is a tendency for Chinese planners to incorporate features or buildings in schemes just because they have seen them elsewhere and like them.

"They think: 'Oh I would like one of them.' You would never get that in London and Paris. It is not how they operate there."

Some of the criticism of urban planning in China is that cities no longer have any individualism.

Metropolitan areas sometimes far apart and with their own unique histories stretching back millennia now often look as though they have come off the same urban planner's drawing board, which is probably because they have.

James Palmer, a Beijing-based author who writes about environmental issues, says one of the problems is that the officials in charge of cities have a large input into planning and when they get promoted elsewhere they take their similar design ideas with them.

"You have a system where local officials are being moved around. These are people who have no long-term investment in, say, Baoding or Chengdu. They are looking to advance their careers and bring the same ideas to each place," he says.

"People on the UK might say that Cheltenham and Worcester are similar because they each have a Marks & Spencer or a WH Smith. Here it is different though. These towns still have their historic features. In China these often have been completely wiped out."

Ben Hughes, visiting professor in the industrial design department at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, says he despairs about the lack of individuality many Chinese cities have today.

"When you travel around China, you see swathes of identical development which to the Western eye is really incredibly depressing and monotonous," he says.

"Architects essentially believe that buildings and infrastructure engender meaning, belonging and identity. When you have got everywhere looking the same you lose that, even through residents' lives have been improved by having hot running water, kitchens and all mod cons."

Donald at the Future Cities Project takes issue with those who obsess that China's current development lacks local context and says it has energy because it is not orientated around simply preserving the past.

He thinks the proliferation of many preservation societies in Western countries is having a sclerotic effect on the planning system and also progress.

"We are not very confident about the future or even the present in Western society. So we tend to grab on to the present like a comfort blanket," he says.

"We have lost the ability to imagine a material and better future and China has that. There are mistakes and some horrific buildings but eventually these development mistakes will be sorted out."

One of the major questions is whether China with all its recent construction and development is creating something materially new or is just borrowing from existing ideas.

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Many of China's new high-rise cities look futuristic but the skyscraper is almost a century-old concept.

The mass transit systems that serve to make the urban environments function are also not unique to China.

At the same time, however, Chinese architects are increasingly getting international recognition. Wang Shu was the first from China to win the prestigious Pritzker Prize -- seen by many as architecture's equivalent of a Nobel prize -- earlier this year.

His projects include three college campuses in his native Zhejiang province and the Ningbo History Museum.

Piu Miao, professor of architecture at the University of Hawaii who also runs his own architecture practice, Piu Miao Architecture, based in Shanghai and Honolulu, says much of Chinese architecture remains derivative.

"The biggest camp (of Chinese architects) try to imitate Western architecture and a smaller camp traditional Chinese architecture," he says.

"The problem with most Chinese architects is that they follow what the client want to do as much as possible and collect their fees. They don't have much time to experiment with new ideas."

Daniel Koo, project architect with David Chipperfield Architects in Shanghai, who has just come to China after spending most of his career in the UK, agrees Chinese architects are not necessarily reinventing the wheel but they are now very capable.

"They are still borrowing a lot of models and ideas from the West. They are not creating something new," he says.

"Many Chinese firms often feel they have to work with Western firms to get the approval of the government (for their schemes). I think that is unfair since many of them are very capable because they have two or three decades of experience of managing on their own."

Those designing China's new urban landscape have faced challenges that urban planners in the West have never faced.

Palmer, the Beijing-based author and journalist, says the great industrial revolution cities such as Manchester evolved over time in the 19th century.

"Manchester grew out of villages like Didsbury and Withington over the course of decades rather than years, so these places were not swamped straight away," he says.

"China's modernism began basically from the 1980s onward and was preceded by 30 years of architectural annihilation, which destroyed a stock of buildings which might otherwise been able to survive. This makes the challenge all that much greater."

Whether the East or the West is ahead at masterplanning is a debate that is not always easy to decide since the very concept itself is difficult to define.

Many architectural and engineering firms around the world have masterplanning departments but they don't always cover the same areas.

"There are no courses as such on masterplanning," says Williams at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou.

"You can't get trained as a masterplanner. It is a made-up word. You have to have a certain presence of mind and ambitious viewpoint to indulge in it. That is what I find interesting."

Whatever the definition, Williams believes it displays considerable arrogance on the part of Western firms to come to China and lecture them about it.

"For British architects, who don't do masterplanning because no one has built a city in the UK for 40 years, to come to China and tell people how to masterplan would be funny, if it wasn't so serious," he says.

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(China Daily 11/09/2012 page1)

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