The epicentre of the biggest building boom in human history almost seems romantic in the evenings, when the people of suburban Beijing turn out to stroll by the millions along their brightly lit, car-choked grand boulevards, and when the daytime chaos of relentless, pounding construction appears to let up.
Indeed, at night the chaos becomes decorative, visible as showers of sparks cascading from the cutting torches of ironworkers busy on the darkened scaffoldings that loom 30 storeys above every suburban sidewalk.
But as the midnight light show attests, construction never stops or even pauses in China's cities. Here, urban renewal is a Richter-scale event, utterly destroying the past and heaving up proud, sometimes bizarre skylines as the most visible evidence of the country's equally seismic upward eruption in economic activity and living standards.
It has already swept away the quintessential imagery of dowdy socialist China, with its crumbling courtyard housing and bleak Soviet-style walkup apartment blocks, its walled work units and tinkling-bell bicycle traffic jams. Now, it is turning the country into the world's most boisterous architectural funhouse.
Not since its birth in the Bauhaus almost a century ago has the modern revolution raged as hot as it does in China today.
Shanghai's insatiable hunger for the new and shiny will soon add the world's tallest building, designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates of New York, to the city's showy skyline. In Beijing, the heirs to Mao have chosen avant-garde architecture to announce their country's renaissance, issuing a series of extravagant commissions for monuments that challenge the definition of buildable, especially the eye-popping megastructure designed by Dutch star architect Rem Koolhaas to house China's state broadcaster.
The word that foreign and local architects rely on most frequently to describe the working environment in China today is “paradise.”
“China has become a living laboratory for some of the world's finest architects,” says Beijing-based architect Adam Robarts, who argues that Shanghai, in particular, is the site of “the very finest buildings that are being built in the world right now.”
China is “a big party for everybody,” according to Karen Cvornyek, who heads the thriving Shanghai branch of Toronto-based Bregman + Hamann Architects (B+H). “There is just so much work.”
A paradise of sorts, adds Chinese-Canadian architect Alfred Peng, an early entrant into the building frenzy and a prominent critic of Beijing's unrepentant embrace of the international avant-garde — “a paradise for pioneers and for pirates.”
B+H was one of the first foreign design firms to mine China's riches, and its practice epitomizes the country's frantic activity. With giant state-owned architectural institutes churning out its working drawings like widgets, the 80-person Shanghai office designs two million square metres of new building annually — twice as much as the total amount contained by all the high-rise buildings constructed every year in Canada's largest and busiest market, Greater Toronto.
The firm is regularly asked to create detailed design proposals for projects twice as large as Montreal's Place Ville Marie in as little as three weeks, according to Cvornyek. Plans for new towns designed to accommodate tens of thousands of people emerge just as quickly.
“You either do it fast, or you don't get the job,” Cvornyek says, raising her voice to be heard above the pounding jackhammers and shrieking saws of the central Shanghai construction project to which the firm recently relocated. “Because that is the pace this country is moving at now.”
Foreign architects especially are thriving in a country where breaking with the past has become a driving cultural force, led by a government that has turned to foreigners to design all its ambitious grands projets.
“Ten years ago, foreign architects were banging on the doors,” says Robarts, who has lived in Beijing with his Canadian-born wife for almost 20 years. “Now, if you're a developer in China and you don't hire a foreign architect, people don't take you seriously.”
Nothing speaks more directly to the ardent internationalism of the new Chinese entrepreneurs and their clientele than the city of chaste and gleaming white towers, called Jianwai SOHO, that recently replaced the dingy shops of the Beijing No. 1 Machinery Factory in what is now the city's central business district. Designed by Japanese architect Riken Yamamoto, the 20-tower high-rise ensemble is a bravura exercise in ultrahigh-density urbanism, built by the city's largest commercial developer.