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China, design superpower
David Taylor

China, the world seems to agree, is set to supplant the US as the world’s leading superpower, if it hasn’t done so already. And its architecture looks to be following suit.

Whilst a recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that 67 per cent of Japan’s population believe that China will become the world’s premiere superpower and 53 per cent of Chinese also see that as their fate, even the US has had to acknowledge the way that the land is now lying. Earlier this month, President Obama declared a new era of ‘cooperation, not confrontation’ with China, despite the two nations’ growing trade gaps and China’s unease over soaring US budget deficits. It is a relationship that he believes will ‘shape the 21st century’.

China’s strength in many departments depends to a large extent on sheer numbers – its population as of this year was 1,338,612,968, or almost 20 per cent of the world’s, bolstered by 119 ‘megalopolises’ of more than 1 million people. Shanghai and Beijing lead the list of its biggest urban areas, with 14.46 million and 12.77 million, respectively. But these demographics tell only part of the story. A firm and notorious one-child policy has led to the birth of an estimated 400 million fewer people and, consequently, has ushered in an ageing population. Cities such as Shanghai have responded by actively looking to their future growth and employment needs, pushing the benefits of having two children to their citizens.

China's demographic concerns undoubtedly call for architectural consideration, catering for those large numbers of people across residential, commercial, leisure and transport sectors. And architecture is an area that is showing much promise and activity. After the rapid construction activity and architectural élan required to support the Beijing Olympics last year, the next indicator of China’s design prowess, extent and new spirit of openness to the world is Shanghai’s Expo.

The show, which takes place between May 1 and October 31, 2010, is expected to lure some 70 million visitors – or more than the population of the UK. To put that into more context, just six million came to see London’s Millennium Dome during its own annus horribilis, compared to a projected figure of 12 million. At the Expo, though, rather than the

 

ill-thought-through succession of zones that was the Dome’s hasty concoction, a series of pavilions representing countries from around the world will do battle in an unofficial international play-off of design acumen, mixed with political messaging. Some 192 countries have already confirmed their participation.

The event – which takes place on a 5 sq km area in the centre of the city and is fittingly themed around improving urban environments - will also provide another snapshot of China’s architectural arsenal. For a start, China is spending £4 billion on the six month-long exhibition – twice as much as it spent on the Olympics – including $1.5 billion on its pavilion, the Oriental Crown. This will be just as other countries are scaling back their efforts, in line with global economic conditions. The US, in particular, struggled to raise money for its $61million pavilion, another gauge of how things have shifted in terms of the global power structure. Then again, the US did not make it to the last Expo in Hanover, Germany in 2000, at all.

China’s burgeoning cities will be the key area for developers

Beyond the pavilions themselves – including an environmentally-focused one with seeds embedded into its structure by Thomas Heatherwick for the UK – major construction projects have been undertaken to serve the event. New metro lines will connect the expo site with other parts of the city. And the main building – called the Expo Axis, has been designed by Germany’s SBA architects and consists of steel and glass funnels and 1km-long (Dome-like) membrane over a 100m-wide elevated walkway linking the metro stations.

Beyond the Expo, China’s burgeoning cities will be the key area for developers, of course. Much has been written about Dongtan, the environmentally-progressive new eco-city being created by Arup and others for developer Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation (SIIC) on the island of Chiongmin in the Yangtze River near Shanghai. The multi-billion pound project will provide homes and jobs for some 500,000 people, as well as a model of green development. But there are many more mega-scale projects. One developer, Modern Green, has already completed five new cities, with another under construction and a marketing company now newly commissioned to ‘brand’ all six. The mixed use environments – all designed by US architect Steven Holl - include residential, office, retail, leisure and hotel spaces. One, known as Modern Moma, is near to Beijing’s old city wall and will include some 750 apartments alongside hotels and commercial space within its 220,000 sq m site.

Chongqing is also getting a $200 billion makeover over the next decade, with new railway lines, an urban light rail system and new airport, along with parks and promenades. Shenzhen, one of the fastest growing cities in China, is transforming its adjacent district of Longgang into a new business centre, with a masterplan designed by Mecanoo. It will include more than 8,000 homes and

 

400,000 sq m of commercial.

Furthermore, CBRE also reports that the spread of economic growth, beyond Beijing and Shanghai and into the central, north and west regions of China is having another knock-on effect in terms of fostering new demand for commercial space in second-tier cities such as Tianjin, Quingdao, Chengdu and Wuhan.

It is mainly the actions of the Chinese government which have done much to prop up the nation’s economy and guard it against the worst effects of the recession, and enable it to become a happy hunting ground for the world’s architects.

Hard-and-fast statistics are not easy to get hold of. However, according to the 4th China Architectural Expo, which takes place later this year, China’s construction market is a major driver of its economy. During the 11th Five Year period (2006-2010), the plan for total construction is estimated to reach 2 billion sq m each year. And, according to the Industrialization Report issued by the Ministry of Construction’s Promotion Center for Housing, by 2010, China will have built 80 billion sq m of new housing. By 2020, estimates are 205 billion sq m. The National Bureau of Statistics of China Construction, meanwhile, reports that spending in China increased 165% in the last four years and is still expanding at 25% annually.

Furthermore, despite a gloomy picture on jobs in the general economy (more than three million graduates are seeking work), the Chinese authorities have predicted growth of 8 per cent for 2009, thanks largely to the four trillion yan ($585bn; £390bn) economic stimulus plan launched last November. That was credited with the economy growing at an annual rate of 7.9 per cent between April and June, which was up from 6.1 per cent in the first quarter. The money – which is around seven per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) each year - was pledged to more major infrastructure projects: new railways, subways and airports and to rebuild communities that were devastated by the earthquake that hit the south west of the country last May. The government then said that this stimulus would cover 10 areas including ‘shovel-ready projects’, such as low-income housing, electricity, water, rural infrastructure and projects aimed at environmental protection and technological innovation. The plan was that these would incite consumer spending and bolster the economy.

And, as Obama and the rest might note, the plan for the world’s newest superpower in design appears to be working.

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