Join the cleanup

After passing more than one year in China and getting engaged in the local market for independent architectural services, I feel that it is time to start adapting my educational background and its preconceived notions of site, programme and regulation to the specific context of working in China.

As far as I can conclude, the context within which I am working is one where the concepts of tradition and modernity are still in conflict. By this I mean that the vast majority of Chinese live in a weave of systems that were developed in the west (although I object to this notion of  longitudinal quasi-cultural polarization), during a post-enlightened era of rapid industrialization, but nevertheless alongside a emerging democracy and increasing political pluralism. These systems, commonly known as socialism (in the political realm) and modernism (in the urban realm), have been imported and consequently distorted by a Chinese mono-cultural totalitarian regime. The same regime that is currently running this country (or at while bearing the same name) has also, in a perverse, twisted travesty of a political conflict, rejected its own culture and historical values, leaving the current generation with no other choice than to adopt a new global culture: Consumerism.

For the past thirty years, China's cities have become the main stage for a socio-economic upgrade on an unprecedented scale. But since these are essentially the same processes the developed countries in the west went through about 80-50 years ago, we are left to look at the incongruities; an authoritarian political system (Socialism with Chinese characteristics) and a vast population (almost twice the size of Europe). The third dimension which is much more difficult to approach, is what you could call Culture. There are many indicators that the business culture in China is the child of a marriage between socialism and confucianism.

Politics aside, it is time for me to find my own purpose. The only way to change things is to do things as good as you can yourself and hopefully inspire others to do so as well. Not that there aren't any good Chinese architects, it's rather an issue with the current Chinese Zeitgeist. Most people here are simply not ready to embrace new and different ideas about how to build. Admittedly, there are many new cities being built in China, but for the most part they look, work and smell the same. For all its image as being a place for experimentation, very few politicians or developers in China go out of their way to fully realize the high ambitions of planners and architects. And there are many examples to back this up.

So what can we do? Hope for the real estate bubble to burst so we eventually get a more balanced and mature market? Well, since this will happen eventually, we can either sit around and wait until the shit hits the fan, or we can try to act now, through small but ambitious projects that might draw a direct line between the verbs locate, design and build. Meaning, we need to realize that there will come a time when architects also in China will have to deal with small-scale projects, renovations and additions. Actually, the prospects for architects working in the "cleanup"-phase of China's future development are indeed looking bright.

So where to start? Bottom-up, unsolicited architecture. Ambitious, sure, but more and more people are doing it, also in China. For example, my previous tutor Li Xiaodong, professor in Tsinghua, built schools in remote villages in China together with his students, and eventually gained international recognition (which led to big commissions for commercial projects which led to a certain loss of credibility).

Nevertheless, during the Studio workshop in Wuhan I aim to locate a community, a local client of some sort, for whom to build in locally sourced materials using our competence as architect builders. Now I don't think this will be easy to realize in the first attempt, but hopefully with time we'll be ably to establish credibilty and enough local connections to carry out more of these projects.