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Chinese Identities

More than ten years ago Area dedicated an entire issue to a critical reading of the Chinese reality on the basis of a study of its two biggest and most important metropolitan cities, Beijing and Shanghai. That research was based on a work carried out as graduation theses by two students at the University Institute of Venice, Stefano Avesani and Marcella Campa who invited us to develop and publish it. That issue is, not just for me but for the whole editorial staff, a mythical one which gave us the opportunity to discover a reality which we had only observed from afar and of which we had not quite taken cognizance, and the cover already pointed in a direction we were to continue working on over time, and which all our activities in China have centred on. More than ten years later Stefano and Marcella, who immediately left for Beijing where we first opened a research and study centre, are two established architects and artists and have a son who speaks perfect Mandarin; they are still working in the same research area, the Hutong or the traditional urban structure of the city made of court houses and narrow streets, while our relations with the country of the Dragon has ever since been assiduous and constant. We have built up friendships and buildings, proudly realized a Chinese edition of Area, continued with constancy to visit and study a reality which from day to day has become more and more interesting and exceptional, in the literal sense of the word. That China was and is profoundly different from the present-day one; the country was then the world’s most populated, while its dizzying development has made it, as of 2014, the leading economy of the planet, surpassing the United States who has occupied the first place for decades. That China destroyed itself on a physical level, razing hutongs nonchalantly to the ground and building on their ruins according to architectural and urban models imported from the United States, mixing them with an empty international style void of contents or clumsily enlarging traditional Chinese icons as pagodas and temples to the scale of skyscrapers. That China did not know architecture, if we exept a small milieu of intellectuals and artists who cultivated international relations, and everything was designed and built by gigantic design firms with governmental roots. But that China, which was already capitulating with a maturing process which was as explosive as its GDP, had already ceased to exist and is today disappearing in the areas of greatest visibility, even if the critical tension which has sustained the awareness of the change cannot stop precisely now that the meaning of what is being done is becoming subject of more attentive reflections. That China, with the opportunity of the Olympics, has invited the greatest international authors to create the most important and symbolic works, from Foster’s airport to Koolhaas’ CCTV headquarters, to Herzog & de Meuron’s Olympic stadium, eventually spreading from the capital outwards to many other growing metropolitan centres, as witnessed by the recent Shenzhen airport, designed by the Fuksas firm. But it is not so much or not only with exceptional and amazing works – this period has by now finally come to an end with prime minister Xi Jinpin’s recent diktat on the morality of constructions – that change is measured, as with the decision to cease demolishing the historical tissues and to preserve them from extinction, with the discovery of restoration and the enhancement of buildings of historical value, with the criticism of gigantism – which has anything but disappeared – and with the new awareness of a need to rediscover a national pride and identity which was and still is running the risk of being phagocytized by the compulsive and uncontrollable modernization of every everyday activity. A state without architects, where there were only governmental architecture and projects, to the Pritzker prize won by Wang Shu – an architect who deserves the merit of having worked on the subject of the cultural identity of China and of having proposed it as an alternative to the dominant globalization of taste – has now become a country which has given an enthusiastic welcome to the returning hundreds of thousands of youths who had left the country and who still continue to study at the world’s best universities, and who bring contributions and researches which have by now gained a foothold in the conscience of the country. On the other hand a great number of foreign masters and teachers are constant presences at the most important and prestigious Chinese universities, where they open the doors to a critical rethinking of the first period, and it has thus been possible, for more than ten years, to accumulate works of extraordinary architectural value precisely because of their links to a cultural milieu which abounds in history, in traditions and awareness and which is willing – and this by now applies to the whole country – to experiment. As to architecture, we must recognize that the low cost of labour and the need to build whole cities, infrastructures and dwellings in a short period of time have in the course of a few years turned China into the world’s biggest architecture workshop, with all the risks and contradictions this entails and has entailed: from ghost cities and districts, built and never inhabited, one example for all being Ordos, to the obsessive repetition of anti-urban dwelling models which carry to extremes the models of gated communities, residential districts populated by immense mansions fenced in by walls. However, and this is something this issue of Area demonstrates, a more conscious and cultured, reasoned and reflexive architecture is under way, and when something is launched in China the consequences may be dizzying. While it is still an elite phenomenon – but that may be said for whole world – it is working constantly, realizing buildings and constructions of great quality, which show respect for the surroundings and which experiments without aspiring to the iconic exaggeration and amazing effects which were so trendy a few years ago, and which reflects on the value of the local condition and culture. And in this development the East has rid itself of the dependency on imported models, both classical and modern, which are however observed critically without that levelling, in the sense of copy, which has done so great damage in terms of image, and especially in China. The cultural battle for the assertion and study of autochthonous values – figurative, typological and constructive – is anything but easy in such a great, endless and varied country; everything changes from east to west in China, including the needs associated with the time differences, even if the government has decided to keep the same hour and time in the whole national territory. But this is precisely why it is necessary to work towards and insist on the assertion of those cultural values which are capable of enhancing and capturing those differences which represent, for China as for the rest of the planet, the only real reason which make us travel and get to know new places; that feeling of being elsewhere is a quality China is discovering and which is being invoked from above as an attention to sobriety and morality, especially in the building sector.

Marco Casamonti

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ProjectNovember/December 2014