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Chinese architecture comes full circle

After years of copying the West, country returning to its own traditions

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 This Vegas phase of Chinese design lasted a decade before it was superseded by a series...