Trends in architectural design, master planning, the construction sector and how architects will matter for the future of China

Contemporary China was in the focus of the Montagabendgespräche (Monday evening chats), a well-established series of guest lectures organized by Prof. Dr. Axel Sowa and his Chair of Architecture Theory at RWTH Aachen.

Developments in contemporary architecture in China puzzle observers from other countries. The speed of development and its sheer scale leaves them without a reference frame. Some scholars caution that Chinese contemporary architecture, despite its uniqueness may be prone to repeat errors made in other countries in the past.

Understanding the role of architects and urban designer and their leeway is important to fully acknowledge the artistic and innovative contribution of today’s avant-garde in Chinese architecture. This is best explained by looking at several scales.  

At the national scale, the skills of those workers who pour concrete, install building machinery, facades and do fit outs dramatically limits the options of style, material. In addition a ferocious real estate market does not leave time or financial resources for experimentation. Over the past four decades since opening-up and reform China has seen strong growth based on consumption of non-renewable raw materials, namely land and construction materials. The main criteria for success were output figures, speed and growth ratios. In recent years, the shortage of resources puts the modus operandi in question and the demand for quality becomes stronger than the demand for quantity.

On a sectoral scale, the residential market can serve as a good example to for quality. The residential market particularly, leaves few options to future home owners. Land legislation does not allow for custom designed single family homes. Villas are usually built by the dozens, with the exact same floor plans, by developers that make profits on economies of scale. The same holds for medium and high-rise living. Compared to Germany or other central European countries, where self-determined building collectives dream up, finance, and live in multi-family buildings tailored to their needs, we do not see this tend yet in China. But there are signs that the high cost of buying flats calls for more innovative forms of living. Those might not be the self-funded development models of Central Europe but new forms of collective living in rented apartments, particularly for young people who are transitioning from College to their first jobs. Those residential units and the shared amenities that make them particularly attractive, are however neither affordable, nor accessible to renters who are old or non-college educated. Responding to the needs of, for example elderly who are still living in the densely populated, historic residential building in inner cities at government subsidized rents or for migrant workers brought into the city to take up jobs as trash collectors and street sweepers, market dynamics won’t produce any sustainable results.

Cases from both ends, from co-living commissioned by developers and the micro-regeneration of historic residential neighborhoods illustrate, that despite the constraints and trends set by national planning and the set-up of the construction industry, architects do find niches to innovate and explore new programmes, spatial constellations and material finishes. What I more, the architects at the forefront of the new trends do not only master the skill of spatial design, they are also able to recognize stakeholder interests and moderate the process. Contemporary trends in Chinese architecture indicate, that skills are shifting from pure spatial problem solving to integrated planning. Architects that understand not only aesthetics, space, style and materiality but citizen needs, economic and political constraints will shape China’s architecture of the future.