China’s Urban Landscape: Driven By Political Vanity Or A Field Of Green Dreams?

China some 30 years ago witnessed its very first urban building boom. Since then, the rise of the nation’s new urban setting has come paired with the demolition of many a core urban cultural aspect. This demise, in turn, affects the energy of a city, a force that relies on its long-timers. 

How sustainable is this desire for an urban layout seemingly driven by political vanity? Moreover, how do Xi Jinping’s personal dreams of Yongle Emperor ( 永乐帝|Yŏnglè dì) visionary green glory come into play?

Architect June Deng takes us through the status quo of China’s stylistic and social cityscape. Where Discontinuity meets Disneyland.

2011. Videographer Jonah Kessel and journalist Kit Gillet produced a series of docu videos about the destruction of Beijing's historic hutongs for Asia Society's China Green project. Watch the four-part series right here, on Vimeo!
2011. Videographer Jonah Kessel and journalist Kit Gillet produced a series of docu videos about the destruction of Beijing’s historic hutongs for Asia Society’s China Green project. Watch the four-part series right here, on Vimeo!

With Beijing hosting the 2008 Olympic Games, surfaced an entirely rebuilt| -born city. It was this particular construction super slam that inspired U.S.-| China-based June Deng to study architecture. Of Chinese (Beijing) descent, Deng laid her architectural foundations across Vancouver (Canada) and New York City (U.S.). All hail the Chief.

About Urban Styles and Social Refurbishings

Deng’s personal professional interests lie in the realm of sustainability. From building to repositioning,  the question of how physical issues transform face and mindset alike proved intriguing. As stated above, China’s first urban building boom took place some three decades ago and this landscape now, as Deng puts it, “is in need of a refurbishing overhaul. Big city design in China was never very human-oriented. Nevertheless, the notion of thoughtfulness is gradually improving”.

Given the major Chinese government spending on power- and regime-related projects since 2000 (i.e. the skyscraping CCTV Tower in 2004) was often met with much criticism of the people, government funding is now being redirected. Towards restoration.

Sustainable architecture, just to name the game, is all about translating the narrative of one building into a vision; a new way of living for one population. The creation of a new job market starring as the cherry on its sundae — and hopefully some support for emerging companies and businesses to boot. To be or not to be… Human-oriented.

A modern, open-minded and welcoming China reflected in its shiny, dazzling, blinding urban panorama. 

Beijing's CCTV Tower. Architect: Rem Koolhaas.
Beijing’s CCTV Tower. Architect: Rem Koolhaas.

Architecture: The Gender Blueprint

Deng currently works for a company that divides its specialties between New York (interior design) and China (hardcore architectural behavior). For this interview slash fast feature, we choose to focus on the China tales.

Small side dish: When attending Rice University, Deng founded “InGender Zine” as part of her Women&Gender Studies curriculum. The zine was a compact campus flip through discussing, obviously, women and gender issues. Applied to architecture, Deng explains the ongoing female versus male debate  as follows:

“The higher the level [pun intended], the fewer the women. Architecture to this day remains somewhat of a male-dominated industry. It’s the consolidation of money and power, creating and building the face of a city. One urban landscape at a time| dime. Women often find themselves more on the ‘indoor’ side of the spectrum, adding those final touches.”

Architecture is all about leaving a mark — how very yang, indeed. This creative niche has been an essential tool in the creation of China’s New Face. A face with standout, sharp features; a stature that is tall and eye-catching. Fodder for the fire to some, food for funding thought to others.

And speaking of leaving a mark… Thus we arrive at Xi Jinping’s plans for eternal grandeur: Xiong’an City. 

I had a Green Dream: Xiong'an. Image via China Daily
I have a Green Dream: Xiong’an. Image via China Daily

The X Files: Xi Jinping And Xiong’an City

Xi wants to create a city in his own image. At a designated location pinched in between Beijing and 135 km down the road Tianjin, the current president of the People’s Republic of China intends to realize his vision: The city of Xiong’an.

Like the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Yongle Emperor who moved the nation’s capital to Beijing and in that light commissioned the construction of The Forbidden City to be executed over the course of 13 long years (1407-1420), Xi has decided to write his own story of legendary and green glory. The fact that China still largely applies the rules of collective (state) land ownership — a tricky matter of national importance to say the very least — came in handy here.

The X Files — according to China Daily:

“The Xiong’an New Zone occupies a total area of 1,770 square km. Both blue (wetlands) and green (forest) areas take up to 70 percent. Some 10 percent of the new area’s land will be put under permanent protection as basic farmland. The total area of land available for development and construction work will be capped at 30 percent — approximately 530 square km. By 2035, Xiong’an will basically develop into a modern city that is green, intelligent, and highly livable. With stringent standards for power supply, household waste treatment, etc.”

“We built this city”, anyone? The plans have all along been met with criticism. According to Deng, “urbanists want to know why this major investment is allocated to the construction of an entirely new area. Instead of the repositioning and refurbishing of those existing ones in need”. Legit.

In late April, the news was confirmed that China’s digital currency (DCEP) will be formally adopted into the monetary system come May 2020, following its test run earlier that same month. The DCEP will transact initially across four Chinese cities, Shenzhen, Suzhou, Chengdu. And Xiong’an.

Part of the government and state-sectors’ salaries and wages in these four cities will be paid in DCEP starting May.

Hangzhou-based architect Wang Shu ((王澍 in Chinese) is a keen supporter of architectural heritage where globalisation has stripped cities of their special attributes. He in 2012 became the first Chinese citizen ever to win the Pritzker Prize, the world’s top prize in the field of architecture.

Ningbo History Museum. Design: Wang Shu and Architecture Studio. Image via Architecture Studio
Ningbo History Museum. Design: Wang Shu and Architecture Studio. Image via Architecture Studio

Wang Shu: Inviting A Return To Tradition

Aside from the abovementioned, Xi has previously flexed his muscle in the domain of China’s urban architecture. The period following the Beijing Olympics witnessed the sky-high rise of one “ill-fitting”, “un-inviting” construction after the other, mainly due to the adoption of Western language and concepts (scale-wise) in turn leading to a clashing of styles. Literally set in stone. Xi too had had enough. A halt to “weird” architecture ensued. A halt to western fetishisms. Enter Hangzhou-based Chinese architect Wang Shu (王澍 in Chinese). (With special props to his partner in practice crime Lu Wenyu.)

Deng, a fan of the man, clarifies, “Wang creates modern buildings making use of traditional materials and applying older techniques. From roof-tiles to local materials, Wang advocates a sort of ‘vernacular’ architecture”. The Ningbo Museum, par prime exemple, is constructed of bricks salvaged from buildings that had been demolished to facilitate new developments. Wang is a keen supporter of architectural heritage where globalization has stripped cities of their special attributes.

The architect in 2012 became the first Chinese citizen ever to win the Pritzker Prize, the world’s top prize in architecture. His victory did not go unnoticed by China’s urban residents. Millennials, especially.

“PAL Design Group took ‘online living’ as their major inspiration for the Yongjia Sales Centre, designing four show flats for UNStudio’s vertical living pods in Wenzhou, China. Lead designer Joey Ho (Design Partner at PAL) used modernist curves and a neutral colour palette to appeal to young millennial families living in the information age.” Quote, InDesign Live 

Modern 2D Love And Millennial Mindsets In 3D Motion

The designing and styling of urban structures nowadays has found new online fame in China, a trend one may largely attribute to the rise of social media. The power to generate shareable 2D moments has sparked a new love and admiration for, plus critical assessment of, their actual 3D beings.

The political center of a nation is its face and understandably to all needs to look refreshed and ready to rock on another day. Nevertheless, sometimes it’s better to skip the full-on facelift and leave some room for pure and simple moisturizer. For China’s millennial, it’s all about balance. Clean, bright, and essential living space balance. A balance between future and tradition, minimal lines, and maximal comfort.

Which brings us back to where it all began: Those Beijing alleyways. “The capital has different identities, depending on the area you find yourself in,” Deng concludes, “The image of the city exists of three layers, juggling the political and social views of three generations — the hutong, the communist building, and the skyscraper. With the disappearance of the city’s hutongs, urban life is being stripped of its authenticity. Gentrification is pushing through. Harder than ever before.”



The direction in which China’s urban identity will evolve remains to be seen. China’s politically architectural influences and motives — i.e. land ownership| the federal powers that allocate| the Green Dream — have resulted in great repercussions for more than one city’s layout as well as the social and economic future of its residents.

One can only observe….

China’s urban Discontinuity is well on its way to one day soon sculpting a new Disneyland. The happiest place on Earth?
























First off: A big thank you to June Deng for taking the time and having the patience to explain a thing or two
Featured image: China’s Ghost Towns. Image via ZEB Books

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.