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Instant Modernity

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But he's not complaining overmuch. “Every day, there are new buildings going up,” Chen says. “You feel the density now — and it's not feeling good.”

Enormous complexes crowd narrow streets built for rickshaws and trams. What was once farmland across the Huangpu River in Pudong is now a sterile but imposing showcase of some of the world's most extravagant new office towers, soon to be topped by Kohn Pedersen Fox's 95-storey Shanghai World Financial Centre.

In a recent speculative frenzy, Chen says, developers phoned daily to demand instant designs for properties as large as one kilometre square. The new sobriety is a welcome change. “People are planning, they are talking about quality, they are respecting neighbourhoods,” Chen says. “They never did anything like that before. It's a very good sign.”

But there are still very few signs of anything distinctively Chinese amid the ongoing architectural frenzy, notwithstanding the cringe-inducing results of a mid-1990s edict in Beijing (since rescinded) that all new high-rises must wear a vaguely Chinese-style red hat. That absence is irritating to traditionalists and innovators alike.

“Architecture is an expression of one's culture and heritage,” says Xiao Mo, a professor at the Chinese Art Research Institute and a prominent critic of the foreign invasion. “Current Chinese architects have just forgotten all that. Their architecture could be anywhere, in any city or country. There's nothing about it that's uniquely Chinese.”

Thirty-seven-year-old architect Dong Yugan, a professor at Beijing University, rejects the nativist backlash. Dong welcomes the presence of Western architects in China. But he is scathing about the stampede of imitation the Western interlopers have inspired. “That is no kind of exchange,” he says. “It's just following.”

Dong is searching for a contemporary architecture that embodies ancient practices and ideals without imitating the past — an informal, utilitarian architecture of “strong flexibility” inspired less by tiled-roof imagery (a “crutch,” in Dong's view) and more by traditional ink paintings and their poems.

“In the future, there won't be this attitude that the Chinese lifestyle is backwards and that the architecture that reflects it is also backwards,” he says. “Western and Chinese architecture will be on par.”

But Chinese modern design is still unknown, even to its practitioners. “We are searching,” says Qi Xin, a leader among the handful of largely foreign-trained Chinese designers to have established a private practice in the country. “The problem is that the market is so busy,” he adds. “Architects don't need to think — they just build.”

To date, the one Chinese designer who has done most to show the world a distinctively Chinese architecture is Chang of the Atelier Feichang Jianzhu. He counts his studio among “maybe a dozen” regionally aware, design-led firms that have emerged in China since 1999.

“Before then it didn't matter how many buildings went up,” Chang says, “there was no worthwhile architecture — it was pure production.” Now, there is a visible legacy, albeit small and scattered.

The school is too new to have produced a distinctive style, according to Chang, although its members are universally dedicated to a “simpler, cleaner architecture” than the gaudy excesses of so much commercial design in China today. Himself a former acolyte of Marcel Duchamp and professor of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, he admits that “all of us are much too influenced by the West.”

So now he is steering his practice in a direction he never anticipated at Berkeley, investigating the Chinese garden as “a totally different way of organizing space in a city,” even toying with the characteristic “big roof” of traditional architecture.

China is undergoing a cultural upheaval even more thoroughgoing than the notorious Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, Chang points out. “Our culture changes so rapidly that we architects don't have any clear idea of what it should be and where it's going.”

But that's not necessarily a problem in his view; instead, it's an impetus for creativity.

“Chairman Mao, when he was still a guerrilla fighter, said something very interesting,” according to Chang. “He said, ‘A little spark of fire will burn a whole prairie.' I'm not sure anything like that will happen now, but I actually think we can get a pretty good bonfire going here.”

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