A newly opened exhibition at the Building Centre in London offers unprecedented insight into the work of a new generation of Chinese Architects. The most prominent showcase of its kind in the UK, the launch on April 12th was attended by a swarm of the architects’ eager London-based peers. Among the eminent figures to make an appearance was Zaha Hadid, who currently stands amongst Nouvel, Gehry and Safdie as a finalist in the China National Art Museum Competition 2012.
Serving also as Chinese architecture's contribution to the London Book Fair, the exhibition is elegantly presented with custom-designed plinths, each holding one of the 16 books dedicated to the work of the featured architects. Alongside these are covers of the Chinese Architectural Society’s Architectural Journal, assembled chronologically from 1978 to 2012, which provide the contextual backdrop to the evolutionary process leading up to today’s progressive thinkers.
An introductory lecture by Zhuang Weimin, professor at Tsinghua University set the scene with a synopsis of the country's unparalleled recent history and urban development, from the Cultural Revolution to the first 'opening up' era of the late 1970s with the Fragrant Hill Hotel, to the influx of foreign architectural influence in the 1990s. Within the past 30 years of China’s ‘squeezed’ urbanisation, it is only in the past decade or so that European architects have begun to leave their mark.
Following this introduction was an enlightening commentary by Wang Hui, principal of URBANUS who discussed the work of the 16 architects whilst revealing the creative development of new Chinese architecture as a whole. He was keen to emphasise that whilst the country’s rapid urbanization is well-known by outsiders, it is a lesser-known fact that clusters of forward-thinking, young Chinese architects are quietly altering other sections of the built landscape; not with competitively tall towers, but with sensitivity, intellectual rigour and great subtlety. He expressed a desire for what he referred to as ‘sociological minimalisation’: “To create peaceful, harmonious architecture in today’s chaotic China.”
This generation, who were educated in the period following the Cultural Revolution from the late 1970s through to the 1990s, had no ‘senior generation’ of innovators to look up to, as Wang Hui observes. Hence, they absorbed foreign design influences as they opened up their own studios and offices for the first time, in an attempt to create a new architectural identity for China. An innate pride in the old socialist system while embracing the new capitalism unifies their approach, and it is apparent that an underlying concern with retaining site heritage and cultural history is shaping every one of their new marks on this ancient civilisation. “In China, architecture is not just about buildings, it’s how to make a dream of a new society... encouraging citizens to have a new lifestyle without sacrificing our great history.”
'From Beijing to London: 16 Contemporary Chinese Architects' will run from 12-28 April at the Building Centre, London.
Arts and Media Correspondent