Recent years have seen a shift in emphasis from quantity to quality and a focus on closer ties to local culture, says Li Hua, academic and curator of a new RIBA exhibition, Building Contemporary China
What are the most important movements in Chinese architecture right now?
The large-scale construction of space has almost come to an end in China. There is less rapid urbanisation and growth and, instead, is a slowing of the economy. Now there are about enough buildings!
So the focus has switched from increasing quantity to improving quality. We see urban regeneration projects, rural revivals and environmental renovation projects. The projects are small, although it is all relative. From many countries’ point of view, these are still large. I think of the Pavilion of the 13th International Garden Expo where the landscaping and the many gardens as well as the pavilions sought to restore damage to the mountain from mining.
More typical are small projects like Dong Gong’s renovation of the Captain’s House (Vector Architects) on the Huangqi Peninsula, Fujian Province; Ren Lizhi‘s work on the City Memory Museum on Yuyuan Road, Shanghai; and Meng Fanhao’s design of Dali Erhai Lake Rest Station.
So there is a shift in ideas and approaches. Social and cultural elements are coming to the fore, noticeably with closer ties to local culture, working with restricted conditions and people who are already living in the area. These kind of complexities and difficulties bring out innovation in design.
Where are the most interesting projects?
Ten years ago, the most interesting projects were in major cities and new areas, in Shanghai and Beijing. Now the situation has changed and we find more interesting buildings in the provinces, in rural areas and the countryside. The Captain’s House is one of these; West Village, in Chengdu, south-west China, is another. It was designed by Jiakun Architect and is really for local people. We see mining areas being brought back to life, interesting town centres, galleries and tea houses.
How are architects in China changing their designs to reduce climate change?
We see projects using bamboo and local timber structures, and architects trying to avoid air conditioning and use natural ventilation. There is a sense of architects trying to put people back in touch with nature, as with Cui Kai’sMain Exhibition Hall of Tianfu Agricultural Expo Park, Chengdu.
How are practices changing?
From the 1980s and into the 2000s, many Chinese students went abroad to study, to the US and then to the UK and Europe. These students then came back and practised in China, working in state-owned teams, basing themselves in universities and operating as private practices. Through this, the diversity of China’s architectural scene emerged, which is what we are showcasing in the exhibition.
Li Hua is a professor and deputy director of the Institute of Architectural History and Theory, School of Architecture at Southeast University, and curator of the RIBA Building Contemporary China
Building Contemporary China is at the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1B 1AD from 29 September to 29 October