China’s Towering Ambitions

Last week, the New York Times ran two articles profiling Chinese skyscrapers. Building projects in China attract a lot of media attention, in part because they stand as newsy symbols of China’s modernization – with all the related pitfalls. And while the buildings ostensibly have nothing to do with each other, reading the two articles back-to-back I couldn’t help but feel like they represented two sides of the coin that is China’s rising ambition.

First, we have the CCTV tower in Beijing, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren. The tower is undeniably iconic in China, and is nicknamed “the pants” in Beijing because it looks a little bit like a pair of pants going for a walk. Here’s a picture I took of the tower mid-construction in 2008:

As the ancient Chinese proverb goes, one man’s pair of pants is another man’s futuristic spectacle. Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff can’t say enough good things about the building:

At moments monumental and combative, at others strangely elusive, almost retiring, it is one of the most beguiling and powerful works I’ve seen in a lifetime of looking at architecture…Mr. Koolhaas has created an eloquent architectural statement about China’s headlong race into the future and, more generally, life in the developed world at the beginning of the 21st century…No building has since done more to burnish the reputation of Beijing as a city of the future.

I’m not much of an architecture critic, so I’ll leave it up to you whether to take Ouroussoff’s word that the tower’s design “is also striving to make room for the impurities and imperfections that make us human,” and that the strange scale of the building is “an apt metaphor for the way giant media companies like CCTV have collapsed the scale of our world.” But I will say that I do really enjoy the building – click through to the Times to see a picture that does it justice. And while his prose may be a little purple, I think Ouroussoff is right that the building makes a bold and optimistic statement about China’s future. The China of the CCTV tower is the China that is a dream client for creative architects, the China that leads the world in clean energy investments, the China that plans moon missions as the US retires its shuttle fleet. If the CCTV building is a strolling pair of pants, it’s putting China’s best foot forward.

At 1,076 feet tall, the Sky Village of Huaxi outstretches the CCTV tower by thirty stories. Nicolai Ouroussoff probably wouldn’t have much to say for the tower’s design, which reminds me of nothing so much as the observation towers from the 1964 world’s fair in New York. There are plenty of other selling points, though: it will contain a shopping mall, concert hall, and five-star hotel. It will be home to Asia’s largest revolving restaurant. Every twelfth story will feature five life-sized water buffalo statues, with a $10.7 million solid-gold buffalo astride the top floor. But even without these features, the tower would stand out. It’d be hard not to in Huaxi, which has only 2,000 residents and is forty minutes from any major city.

Huaxi, known in China as a model socialist village, can count its tiny number of residents as a blessing. Business ventures in the town, including the tower, are communally owned and large revenues make for a high standard of living. And as the Times points out, a highly regulated residence permit system (which exists throughout China) allows the town’s enterprises to employ migrant laborers without further dividing profits by paying out more. And that’s how the corporate body jointly owned by the town of 2,000 socialists employs over 25,000 workers.

It’s not clear that the Huaxi Sky Village will fail economically (it doesn’t open until October). There’s a chance that Huaxi’s fame – augmented by the tower itself – will draw in enough tourism and business to make the project profitable. Or it could share the same fate as China’s “ghost cities,” developments designed for millions of people that lie vacant for years (Jiangsu province, home to Huaxi, already has several). But in either case, the Village is just one of many projects in China that give off the same impression: size, speed, and grandeur are their own justification, while utility is an afterthought. For another example from earlier this month, the port city Qingdao completed the world’s longest undersea tunnel and the world’s longest ocean-spanning bridge – building both in the widest part of Qingdao’s Jiaozhou bay when shorter and cheaper alternatives were available. Seeing Red In China recently ran a three-part series probing the motives behind vast projects like this, pointing to vanity, opportunities for corruption, and job creation as likely reasons.

These sort of projects play into a common theme in discussions of modern China, that of the image China projects of itself vs. the underlying reality. It’s easy to get cynical after seeing story upon story of attempts at impressiveness gone awry, or of the human cost imposed by some of these schemes. That’s why it’s nice to have an article like Ouroussoff’s from time to time as a reminder that China’s growth is behind ambitious and energetic projects that aren’t really happening anywhere else right now. And to be sure I’m not selling the Huaxi Sky Village short, one day I just might visit the 2,000 person town with Asia’s largest revolving restaurant. I hope there’s an open table.

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