AD Essentials: China

AD Essentials: China

This article is part of ArchDaily Essentials, a series of articles which give you an overview of architecture's most important topics by connecting together some of our best articles from the past. To find out more about ArchDaily Essentials, click here; or discover all of our articles in the series here.

In recent years, there seems to have been a near-constant stream of architecture news emanating from China. The fast pace of development in the world's most populous country is capturing the attention of people from all over the world, garnering reactions ranging from admiration to trepidation. However with China being so markedly different from the West, both culturally and politically, it's easy to lapse into oversimplifications and assumptions about the many changes that are taking place. So what's really going on in China, and why is it so important to architects?


What's the big deal with China?

China is important in the architecture world because it is urbanizing at an unprecedented rate, requiring unprecedentedly large cities to be built unprecedentedly quickly:

China Plans to Move 250 Million into Cities by 2025

The Chinese government is pushing forward with a plan that will move 250 million Chinese people from rural communities into newly constructed towns and cities over the next 12 years.

China's Pearl River Delta Overtakes Tokyo as World's Largest Urban Area

China's Pearl River Delta has surpassed Tokyo in both size and population, making it the largest urban area in the world, according to the World Bank.

This urbanization is fundamentally the result of the wide-ranging economic reforms made by China's communist government, starting in the late 1970s under Deng Xiaoping, which have caused China's economy to grow incredibly rapidly. It wasn't until around the late 1990s that this economic growth led to the "urban explosion" that we see today, but now for almost two decades China's urbanization has been relentless. It's often said that China has achieved in 20 years what the Western world took a century to do, as it shifted its population from just over 25% urbanized in 1990, to reach the threshold of 50% urbanized in 2012. [1] But with the United Nations pegging the marker for "developed" countries at around 70-75%, this trend is set to continue in China for some time.

Is China's urbanization out of control?

It's important to note that, just like their economy as a whole, China's urbanization is heavily planned and controlled by the central government. China operates a "tiered" city program, with five cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Tianjin and Chongqing) designated as the Tier 1 "National Central Cities." While urban migration in the rest of the world is a largely unpredictable process, in China they have a mechanism to control it: the Hukou system, stemming from an ancient law that tied citizens to the area they were born in, now requires members of the rural Chinese population to gain a permit to resettle in a city. It has been suggested that the Hukou system actually acts as a way for the Chinese government to restrict urbanization, preventing the deluge of people moving to cities that would be expected with such rapid economic growth [2], and in turn limiting the formation of slums that has plagued urbanization in other developing countries.

Combined with a planning and construction system that is geared for rapid development and heavily influenced by the central government, this makes for a very different type of urbanization than we see in other developing nations, as explored in this article by Austin Williams which compares Chinese and Indian urbanization:

India's Evolution vs. China's Revolution

This article, by Austin Williams, originally appeared in The Asian Age as "India, China: Talk of the Town."

How does this affect architecture in China?

To cope with the incredible influx of people to cities, much of Chinese architecture comprises relatively anonymous and repetitious blocks which can be designed and constructed incredibly quickly. As written by Jacob Dreyer, it's a city model that is heavily rooted in Communist ideology, originating in a model imported to China by the Soviet Union:

(Re)Made in China: The Soviet-Era Planning Projects Shaping China's Cities

The development of Chinese cities is, of course, controlled by the Chinese government through a variety of mechanisms linked to land use and ownership:

China's "City-Making Process": Investors' Power in the People's Republic

Aren't these types of development dehumanizing to the Chinese people?

Not necessarily. Though China's unstoppable change can seem intimidating to Western eyes, and many people criticize the country's apparent disregard for its cultural inheritance and its people's way of life, it's important to remember the purpose of this urbanization. Urban development is driven by economic growth, but economic growth is also further driven by urbanization, and thanks to this the quality of life for the average Chinese citizen has improved dramatically in just one generation. Nevertheless, coping with the pace of change can require a tremendous amount of adaptability from people, as was made clear by photographer Tim Franco when he captured life in Chongqing, one of China's most rapidly developing cities:

Tim Franco Captures the Overscaled Urbanization of Chongqing

This incredible speed of development means that creating high quality urban environments is difficult, and China is in a constant battle to maintain both design and construction quality. Issues such as sustainability (made more urgent in China thanks to increasingly poor air quality in cities such as Beijing) and badly planned developments which result in a number of "ghost towns" make urban development in China a minefield of challenges. However, contrary to popular Western belief, the Chinese government is open to reviewing its approach and changing it when desirable, as the following examples show:

How I Built A New China: A talk with Expo 2010 Planner Siegfried Zhiqiang Wu

"We need a new generation of cities in China" - Siegfried Zhiqiang Wu

How to Bring China's Ghost Towns Back to Life

*     *    *


In the Chinese architecture system, everything is controlled by the Design Institutes - a relatively small number of organizations which in some cases comprise thousands of architects, and have the sole authority from the government to sign off on construction documents. Until the early 1990s, all of these institutes were state-owned, and all architects had to operate within one of them. However, in the 1990s the system was opened up a little; the largest Design Institutes, such as the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design (BIAD) are usually still state owned, and it is now possible to run private architectural studios in China, outside of the Design Institutes. However, all architects, both Chinese and Western, must at least collaborate with a Design Institute if they are to have anything built. [3] Many of the famous Chinese architecture firms we hear about in the Western media are either small studios within a Design Institute, or independent studios who must collaborate with one.

With all this development, there must be a lot of architects in China, right?

Far from it. In fact the number of architects in China falls far behind the number in many other countries, with one architect for every 40,000 people, as shown by this infographic released by Monditalia at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale:

The Ratio of Architects to Inhabitants Around the World

How is it possible to have so much construction if there are so few architectural designers?

As discussed above, one of the main answers to this question is simply that design and construction in China happens at a frenetic pace compared to other countries; buildings are designed more quickly by fewer people, and constructed by large teams of inexperienced construction workers, and quality can suffer as a result. But besides this, there are three main strategies at least partly connected to the need to build quickly that have caught the attention of the global community:

1. Copycat Architecture

In China, it is common to see designs copied from pre-existing sources; most commonly, this happens in housing, where the designs of apartment blocks are copied exactly from previously completed blocks, as discussed in the article "China's 'City-Making Process': Investors' Power in the People's Republic" above. However, more famously, China has become known for creating imitations of entire European towns, as was the case with their copy of the Austrian village of Hallstatt:

China Replicates Austrian Village

A small Unesco-protected village in Austria, Hallstatt, has been recreated, brick for brick, in the subtropical district of Guangdong, China.

Most famously, though, the Chinese were dragged into the complex debate surrounding international intellectual property law, when a Chinese development company was found to be not only copying a Zaha Hadid design, but also on schedule to complete the copy before the original:

Zaha Hadid Seeing Double in China

The Chinese tendency to copy has drawn derision from many Western observers - but as others have pointed out, Chinese culture actually prizes learning from (and thus copying) previous generations, and the assumption that China should conform to Western ideology may be unreasonable:

Video: Bianca Bosker Discusses Architectural Imitation in China

In China's effort to modernize its cities, it has used architectural mimicry - essentially "copy-cat architecture" as journalist and author Bianca Bosker puts it - to rapidly and substantially "adapt to the market" for urban development.

In fact as Vanessa Quirk argues, incidents of Chinese copying and the subsequent reaction to them even offer us a chance to turn the mirror on ourselves and examine the West's supposed originality:

Why China's Copy-Cats Are Good For Architecture

2. Technology

Another result of China's need for speed is a number of construction companies who test the limits of efficiency through the latest technology. In practice, these companies do not yet directly produce much construction in China; however, a select few Chinese companies have been among the world's most progressive in pushing for the next "revolution" in construction. In contrast to the West, where revolutionary techniques are largely developed in universities and ignored by risk-averse construction companies, in China these changes are researched by the companies themselves. The logic of this approach was explained by Coop Himmelb(l)au's design principle Wolf Prix:

The Robot Revolution: Coop Himmelb(l)au Founder Wolf D. Prix on the Future of Construction

One of the most prominent technologies developed in this way, pushed into the spotlight by WinSun Decoration Design Engineering Co, has been 3D printing. Having created the world's largest 3D printer, the company made headlines with a series of world firsts including the world's tallest 3D printed building:

Chinese Company Constructs the World's Tallest 3D Printed Building

Another company that has grabbed attention has been Broad Group. Inspired to find a solution to the poor structural quality of buildings constructed too quickly and cheaply, Broad Group made headlines with their radical prefabricated constructions that can be constructed astonishingly fast, and are designed to withstand even the strongest earthquakes:

Chinese Company Builds 57-Story Skyscraper in 19 Days

"Three floors in a day is China's new normal," says a representative for this 57-floor skyscraper that was built in just 19 days.

Broad Group's most ambitious proposal though is Sky City, an 838-meter-tall skyscraper that has been in planning since 2012:

World's Tallest Skyscraper To Be Built...In 90 Days

China is well known for its mind-bogglingly fast-paced construction, but its latest claim is truly one for the record books.

All three of these cases show a proposed future for Chinese construction. However, despite these impressive technological feats, many people have called into question the quality of these designs. In the case of WinSun, Austin Williams has revealed that the 3D printed show homes are plagued by poor construction finishes [4], and the quality of building designs produced by Broad Group's strict pre-fabricated system has been questioned in this article by Vanessa Quirk:

Beyond the "Made In China" Mentality: Why China's Innovation Revolution Must Embrace Pre-Fab Architecture

3. Western Architects in China

Finally, the most visible aspect (in the Western media at least) of China's rapid construction, has been the presence of Western architects. Though much of the country's construction requires no more than anonymous cookie-cutter architecture, China still has an insatiable appetite for notable "designer" architecture. To fill the gap between demand and supply, China has become the world's major importer of architectural talent, and most Western architects have jumped at the chance to design with fewer restrictions than they encounter in Europe, North America and elsewhere:

China as Architectural Testing Ground

This practice has created countless "iconic" designs as Western designers are freed to realize their most fantastical ideas - but one building, OMA's CCTV building in Beijing, has emerged as symbolic of this larger phenomenon:

CCTV Headquarters / OMA

Indeed, it was this building (nicknamed "big pants" by the locals) that was quickly dragged into the conversation when China's president Xi Jinping called for an end to "weird buildings" in 2014, bringing the status quo of Western architects in China under scrutiny:

Why China's President Says "No More Weird Buildings"

This event has prompted varied reactions from Western architects. While some are reluctant to see it as a threat of change, in other cases it taps into a wider belief that Western architects are not properly engaged with the context they are working in. Two of these reactions are covered in interviews with Joseph di Pasquale, the architect best known for the striking Guangzhou Circle, and Ole Scheeren, who in fact led the construction of the CCTV building while he was partner-in-charge at OMA:

Encountering the "Weirdness" in China: A Talk with the Guangzhou Circle Architect Joseph di Pasquale

Recently, lots of controversial "Jumbos" have been erected on mainland China, leading most of their creators, architects from Western countries, to be placed at the centre of public discussion. Furthermore, China's President Xi Jinping's recent comment about "no more weird buildings" has led the Chinese central government into this whirlpool.

Interview: Büro Ole Scheeren Unveils Designs for Guardian Art Center in Beijing

*     *     *

So are Western architects the only ones who are creating "high design" in China?

In fact, a select group of Chinese architects are receiving increasing international recognition, and this may have been a key factor in Xi Jinping's statement against "weird buildings" as explained in the article above. Perhaps the most visible of this new generation is Wang Shu, after he won the Pritzker Prize in 2012:

2012 Pritzker Prize: Wang Shu

Wang Shu, Chinese architect and founder of Amateur Architecture Studio, has been just announced as the recipient of the 2012 Pritzker Prize.

Is Wang Shu's work typical of architects in China?

Wang Shu's work is a good example of a certain conception of how Chinese culture could be reflected in its architecture. However, just like in the West, there is far from a consensus on how to do this. Perhaps the most prominent example of an architect using the same cultural input to create a completely different aesthetic is Ma Yansong. In this interview with TCA Think Tank, he describes his approach and its relationship to traditional Chinese values:

An Interview with MAD Architects' Ma Yansong: Constructing Icons, Identity & China's Future Cities

On the whole though, it is important to remember that there are a wide variety of responses to all of these issues - from the speed of construction to poor workmanship, and from the fusion of Eastern and Western ideas to the expression of an increasingly developed China. All of these issues are explored at length in a series of interviews with Chinese architects conducted by TCA Think Tank for the book "The Condition of Chinese Architecture". Most of these interviews have also been published on ArchDaily, providing a fascinating cross-section of the state of architecture in China at this critical point in its evolution:

TCA Think Tank Interviews


  1. "Urbanization Data by Province" section of Urbanization in China article, Wikipedia. Accessed June 21st 2015.
  2. Pier Alessio Rizzardi, "Peasant Construction Workers" in The Condition of Chinese Architecture (forthcoming publication)
  3. Bert de Muynck, "State-Owned Local Design Institutes," DutchCulture | China Desk. Accessed June 21st 2015.
  4. Austin Williams, "3-d Printed houses?," The Future Cities project. Accessed June 21st 2015.

About this author
Cite: AD Editorial Team. "AD Essentials: China" 17 Jul 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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