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The Great Leap Forward

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA, Editor in chief


Have we stepped into a parallel universe? Sitting in traffic on the 4th Ring road in Beijing, these Lexus- and Mercedes-choked avenues and freeways may seem like a surreal Atlanta, but the Mandarin characters on the signs say Coca-Cola with a Far Eastern accent. They also declare that China is on the move. Beijing. Shanghai. Nanjing. Despite worldwide economic challenges, the immense pace and scope of construction in this ancient civilization is accelerating in radically different contemporary cities, and more development is coming to a dozen more. The unparalleled expansion, however, has deep roots in Chinese history. Remember the Great Wall?


To better understand the great leap forward, set the clock for the 18th century, when the Emperor Qian Long decided to move his imperial court to a cooler climate, and the earth moved. Literally. In order to construct a large lake, an army of laborers diverted the course of a river to form a new body of water at the Summer Palace, an architectural and planning wonder of the world. Soon breezes wafted across the water, up the slopes of the hills, an ingenious natural air conditioning system for the exquisite villas and for pavilions for wives and concubines and courtiers alike. Soon, the view from the pine-scented hillsides comprised an earthly paradise, from hilltop to hilltop, as far as the eye could see.

That same spirit, in which anything is possible, in which whole cities can literally arise where none had stood, governs Chinese sensibility today. While we, in the West, fret about individual projects—this university building or that new hotel—China is literally reinventing itself. Parks spring up where none had been. An army of workers arrives at nightfall, and, presto, a neighborhood vanishes in order to make way for something new.

You can see the future for yourself at Shanghai’s museum of urban planning, where a model of the city blankets the floor in a mind-boggling expanse of towers and parks by a model builder (or an army of model builders) gone mad: the ultimate model shop. The plan displays new stadiums, residential towers, office complexes, and government buildings arrayed as a field of high-rises blanketing the river delta in a dizzying array. Superlatives abound: inside the Jin Mao tower, the world’s tallest hotel; soon to come, the world’s tallest building. Talk about delirious Manhattan? Try delirious China.

Much has been made of the tower tops in downtown Shanghai, China’s largest city, in which local architects take liberties with the tips, in some cases reprising famous skyscrapers around the world. Over there, isn’t that the John Hancock tower; and is that a doily? The word exuberance comes to mind.

Whereas Shanghai invites comparisons with New York or Paris, Beijing has heft. Already the air, once a wretched fog of hazy brown smoke, is clearing, as coal-fired industry converts to natural gas (although plenty of smog remains). New ring roads radiate out from the Forbidden City, punctuated by office and residential towers that render the circular city almost impossible to decipher: on an overcast day, there seems to be no way to tell east from west.

Four years ago, Paul Andreu’s airport gave the city a new identity at its critical international portal; despite a raging debate over the competition, Andreu’s titanium and glass, egg-shaped National Theater in Tienanmin Square, where the Red Guard reigned, is proceeding at rapid pace. In preparation for the Olympics in 2008, Beijing recently announced that the Swiss firm Herzog and deMeuron would design the main new Olympic stadium. As we reported in Record, Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV headquarters, which will be the city’s tallest structure at 750 feet, should arrive in a couple of years. The stars have arrived.

The numbers are mind-boggling. Millions of square feet of new construction render Beijing the busiest construction zone on the planet. 2,000 high rise buildings are underway, in one form or another, in a concatenation of architecture, urban design, and construction that make Berlin look like an opening act. And the Chinese love American architects.