Category Archives: architecture

“Anger Swells After Floods Kill At Least 37 in Beijing”

The WSJ has a piece up recounting the floods that rocked Beijing this weekend, and the reaction they’re already getting from netizens:

Urban areas of Beijing were hit with an average of nearly nine inches of rain over 16 hours on Saturday — the heaviest the Chinese capital has seen in six decades, according the state-run Xinhua news agency.

The deluge, which caused more than 31 road cave-ins, led to more than 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) in economic losses, Xinhua quoted Pan Anjun, deputy chief of the Beijing flood control headquarters, as saying. Even more shocking, at least 37 people died in the downpour, according to a statement released Wednesday night through the Beijing municipal government’s official account on Sina Corp.’s Weibo microblogging service. Of those, 25 drowned, six were killed as a result of collapsed structures, five were electrocuted and one was struck by lighting, the statement said.

News of the storm spread rapidly on social media, where users posted video footage of flooded intersections and where messages of support appeared alongside pointed questions about how a city that spent billions building facilities to host the Olympics could struggle so badly in dealing with a thunderstorm

Among the sharpest criticisms came in the form of a series of photos, posted to Sina Weibo around midnight, contrasting Beijing’s flooded streets with images of sewer systems in other famous capitals, including Tokyo’s massive “Underground Temple” flood prevention system.

“Sewers are not a face-giving infrastructure project,” artist Li Yijia wrote in response to the images, repeating a sentiment widely expressed elsewhere on the site.

“Beijing’s glossy appearance can’t withstand the erosion of a bout of heavy rain,” wrote another Sina Weibo user. “In just a few hours, Beijing is washed back into the old days. The city government hasn’t stopped rebuilding this city, but they can’t even deal with getting waterlogged.”

Beijing isn’t alone on that front- as far as I know, Qingdao is the only Chinese city with a proper sewer system, a legacy of the old German Concession. The bizarre thing is that even these new cities that China is building in the middle of nowhere from scratch still utilize tiny water management systems, not proper sewers. Like the netizens are saying, sewers don’t seem to be face-giving enough to justify their construction as is.

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“China’s Dangerous Tofu Projects”

The Diplomat on why China urgently needs to address their building standards problems:

In July 2010, anger over shoddy construction erupted in an area hit hard by the Sichuan earthquake when a building intended to be a new home for earthquake victims collapsed (or was demolished, according to state sources) just a few weeks before completion.

In November 2010, 53 people were killed in a high-rise apartment building fire caused by an unlicensed welder. And last month, a car accident in Jiangsu Province revealed that a dam built atop of a Yangtze River tributary was filled with reeds instead of steel beams.

Why is the quality of some of these structures so poor? Corruption and graft undoubtedly play a role when project money is skimmed off the top for and by officials, leaving less funding for quality materials, qualified staff, and acceptable workmanship. Additionally, projects are often granted to companies that have more political ties than qualifications. In January, the Beijing Municipal People’s Procuratorate disclosed that bribery and corruption cases increased in 2010, with urban development and rural election issues involved in the majority of cases. From January to August 2011, the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection announced that 6,800 officials had been prosecuted for corruption in infrastructure projects.

But there’s a reason the “tofu project” conversation should be restarted: new measures to combat this problem have recently emerged. After a State Council meeting on January 12 of this year, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine announced that they would establish a “blacklist” of businesses reported for quality issues and “shoddy practices.”

Ultimately aside from the danger to human life, “tofu projects” create credibility issues for the government, undermining citizens’ belief in the reliability of government to create safe infrastructure.

And the issue also offers an interesting case study of center-local relations, since many of these issues arise at the local level. At this point, there are far too many counterincentives for rapid construction (mostly at the local level) for there to be an effective central response – officials are rewarded for growth, and large infrastructure projects give local governments status. Sadly it will therefore probably take more accidents like those I described to create sufficient political will to clean up and prevent so many of these projects happening in the future.

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“Razing History”

A writer named Jonathan Kaiman has a piece in The Atlantic about Beijing’s war on hutongs, which are still being demolished despite official claims that they would be protected:

The demolition of Beijing’s historical courtyard alleyways, called hutong, has long been one of the city’s most controversial issues. At the height of the city’s headlong rush to modernity in the 1990s, about 600 hutong were destroyed each year, displacing an estimated 500,000 residents. Seemingly overnight, the city was transformed from a warren of Ming dynasty-era neighborhoods into an ultramodern urban sprawl, pocked with gleaming office towers and traversed by eight-lane highways.

Remaining hutong dwellers are worried, and for good reason — they have a lot to lose. Their courtyard houses have survived centuries of war and revolution, the strain of collective ownership, and the turbulence of early economic reform. Passed down from generation to generation, they are often last-remaining monuments to entire family lines.

Patchy compensation schemes have left some displaced families insolvent. Unable to afford a new home in the old city, which is gentrifying almost as quickly as it’s disappearing, they are forced to move into shoddy high-rise communities on the city’s exurban outskirts.

But Zhongnanhai-area demolitions are not like other demolitions. They’re more frightening, less easy to understand. Their location eliminates the possibility of a commercial motive. I called the neighborhood police and the district government looking for answers, but their spokespeople hung up the phone or put me through to disconnected lines. Remaining tenants responded to my questions about their neighborhood’s future with incredulous stares.

In January, 2005, over a decade of negotiations between officials and hutong preservationists culminated in the passage of a sweeping proposal called the Beijing City Master Plan. The Master Plan designated a large swath of hutong in central Beijing as a “historical and cultural protected area,” immune from redevelopment. On a map of protected areas, the hutong around Zhongnanhai glowed in a bright, safe yellow. Obviously, it didn’t do much good.

Overhead satellite images viewed on Google Earth suggest that the protected safe zones were neither safe nor protected. In images from early 2005, a small area by Zhongnanhai’s eastern border appears as a dense cluster of trees and rooftops, virtually indistinguishable from any other hutong neighborhood in Beijing. In an image from April, 2006, it is a construction zone.

I decided to take one last walk through the neighborhood on a bright afternoon in early February, but found the site sealed off by a high concrete wall. I followed the perimeter until I came across a discrete metal door. Within seconds, somebody opened it.

The man wore a black police coat and ushered out another man, who was wearing a hardhat. Although I only caught a glimpse of the site, I could see immediately that the last remaining street was gone. The space was enormous, the ground covered in white dust from the wreckage. A fleet of empty police cars was parked to one side. A few men walked around holding clipboards.

Then I saw it, at the far end of the expanse — one house was still standing. Of course it could be empty, I thought. But what if it wasn’t? I strained my eyes for signs of movement. The house’s roof still looked intact, but its walls were crumbling, its windows broken. Under the circumstances, what could possibly justify staying behind?

Issues of human rights aside, it’s really sad to see China’s architectural heritage getting demolished like this. I find it hard to believe that the government couldn’t invest more in renovating these homes (many of which have water, electrical, and plumbing issues) instead of of completely destroying them, but apparently selling the land to developers makes more sense to them right now. A pity.

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“Architect: Beijing airport damage not design flaw”

Remember all the incredible infrastructure projects and architectural masterpieces Beijing threw together for the Olympics? Someone should write a book about what’s happened to them since then, what with Bird’s Nest designer Ai Weiwei facing down the government and now reports of problems with Terminal Three of the Beijing airport caused by… wind. Yep:

One of the architects behind the busiest airport in Asia said Thursday that substandard materials or installation — not design flaws — are likely to blame for wind blowing parts of the roof off Beijing’s three-year-old Terminal 3.

The airport is the result of a frenetic Chinese building boom that has produced numerous architectural marvels, though some of the iconic new projects have been hit by quality and safety problems.

State media say passengers reported seeing bits of white and yellow roofing material blowing across runways and through parts of the $2.8 billion terminal on Tuesday. In statements issued earlier this week, the airport said no one was hurt and operations were not affected.

“If the products provided by the suppliers were not up to their highest standards, or if the individual items were not installed properly, then this kind of thing could happen,” said Shao Weiping, an architect with one of the firms that collaborated on the structure, the Beijing Architectural Design and Research Institute.

I don’t know anything about Mr. Shao, but given the constant flow of problems caused by poor installation that really wouldn’t surprise me. Some huge sum of money is blocked off for a project, put in a bag, and then passed from person to person until eventually arriving in the hands of the actual construction company, which barely has enough money for materials after skimming their own bit off the top. If the regulators come by at all, it’s just to pick up their bribe.

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“Harbin’s Past, Modern Style”

Writing in China Beat, James Carter talks about the unique architectural heritage of Harbin, and why it may soon be lost. A familiar story, being played out in cities across China:

When I first visited Harbin, in the early 1990s, the city’s architecture was shabby, but magnificent. Russian-designed onion domes and spires are Harbin’s signature, but they were just one element. Near my dormitory, the former Danish embassy—then a kindergarten—resembled a fairy-tale castle. The city’s mosque, built in the 1920s, seemed to combine Islamic and art nouveau influences. Unique to the city, in the Fujiadian district—Harbin’s “Chinatown”—was the “Chinese Baroque” style, found nowhere else. Developed when Harbin was truly cosmopolitan (because of the Trans-Siberian Railway, it was closer to Europe than any other Chinese city and boasted a sizable population of Russians), this style blended European and Chinese with a result that was neither Chinese nor European, yet both Chinese and European.

A June China Daily article discussing ongoing changes to Harbin’s streetscape shows that this idea of Chinese Baroque has taken a new turn. The city government, eager to spur development in this economically depressed metropolis, is razing millions of square meters in the city center and replacing the old with new buildings intended to recapture the architectural sensibility of the structures being torn down. The new development style, also named “Chinese Baroque,” is meant to be modern and efficient, while maintaining the city’s architectural richness. But in the process the very buildings that made up Harbin’s older diversity are being lost.

Chinese Baroque, the sequel, will certainly maintain a sense of Harbin’s unique identity. But it will do so in the soulless, too-perfect spirit of Shanghai’s Xintiandi or Nanjing’s 1912, Beijing’s Qianmen Dajie or any of the other dozens of projects that remodel China’s architectural past in user-friendly packages. Soon, China’s major cities may all be unique… in exactly the same way.

I can see the appeal in the clean new ‘ancient’ areas, for people who grew up in far shabbier circumstances. I’m afraid that in time, though, the Chinese may come to regret choosing to replace, instead of repair, their ancient architecture.

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