When I first set foot in China in 1994, reform leader Deng Xiaoping’s proclamation that "to get rich is glorious" had already ignited a genuine revolution, albeit a capitalist one. Development was proceeding at a feverish pace, with high-rise buildings sprouting like mushrooms.
Yet at the time of my first visit, Chinese architecture was merely playing catch-up with the West. Their new buildings were, for the most part, ham-fisted attempts at what they perceived to be classical Western design, much of it inspired by the one American city no wealthy Chinese tourist would think to miss: Las Vegas.
The bizarre results of this early devotion to the Strip are almost beyond imagining. Chinese buildings of this era, whether large or small, were an inchoate ragbag of Greek columns, Roman arches and Byzantine domes, carried out with hulking proportions in clunky plaster-rendered brick.
This Vegas phase of Chinese design lasted a decade before it was superseded by a series of more sophisticated yet still fully Westernized styles, most based on the modernist glass box.
What remained glaringly absent from these fevered pursuits was the simple acknowledgement of China’s own ancient aesthetic, which had, after all, evolved to suit the Chinese climate and lifestyle over several millennia. Yet as an architect working in China during those years, I was perplexed to find my Chinese counterparts slavishly copying details from Western design magazines while showing utter disinterest in their own brilliant architectural past.
Ironically, it was a 2003 project by the Boston architect Benjamin Wood that brought about a pivotal change of course. Wood’s Xintiandi shopping development in downtown Shanghai employed a strategy of adaptive reuse familiar and even shopworn in the West, but virtually unexploited in China. Carved from a warren of old Shanghai courtyard houses, it was the first large-scale project pointedly celebrating rather than eradicating the city’s architectural past.
Shanghai’s Xintiandi shopping district. Photo credit: Xintiandi.com.
Xintiandi’s colossal success — both architectural, and perhaps more important, economic — generated vast publicity and rekindled interest in native Chinese design among architects, developers and the public alike.
More recently, the Chinese-born American architect I.M. Pei has completed a museum for his birthplace of Suzhou in a modern style that nevertheless respects the city’s ancient design tradition of stark white plaster, dark wood and gray roof tile.
I.M. Pei’s Suzhou museum. Photo credit: Peter17/Wikimedia Commons.
Not far away, a new high-speed rail station, which in years past would have been a predictably Western-looking glass box, also recalls this venerable aesthetic.
One needn’t look to multimillion-dollar developments to see the arc of this cultural change, however. In the village near my own Suzhou home is a small noodle shop that’s as telling a barometer as any. Over the years, its oft-remodeled interior has run the gamut of Western-inspired design fads. I stopped in the other morning after a two-year absence to find its interior once again redone. This time, though, in place of Western glass and glitz, the place was quietly appointed with tapestries and traditional Qing dynasty benches and tables.
It’s just possible that, after so many years looking westward, Chinese architecture is finally coming home.