The Concept of Useful Architecture in China
   2013-05-02 17:03:07      Web Editor: Yang Yang

By Stuart Wiggin

As the pace of modernization continues to increase across China, many cities and towns have had to address an unavoidable issue: upgrading China's architecture in order to accommodate today's society. However, many cities and towns have run into difficulties with residential and public works sometimes missing the mark. CHINATALKS spoke to Fritz Strauss, an Austrian architect who relocated to China following a career which took him around the world. Strauss is now Design Director at Uni-create Architects (UCA), working alongside his Chinese partner and Chinese staff, attempting to provide useful architecture for China within the context of rapid social change.

Due to China's rapid growth, there is a pressing need for more architecture. In an effort to exploit the opportunities which have arisen, more and more western architects are being invited to China, or coming of their own accord, in an effort to provide such architecture. Strauss, who studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in the Vienna Institute for Arts and Architecture, is acutely aware of the problem posed by Western architects coming to China and imposing Western norms on the facets of architectural design and construction. As Strauss told CHINATALKS, "Western architects are coming with their understanding of useful architecture to China, but this is not the useful architecture that China needs. Western architects are coming here with the rules of their surroundings, from their area."

According to Strauss, construction methods represent one of the biggest mistakes of western architects in China, as they go about designing and constructing buildings in the same way as they would in their homeland. "As an architect, I have to adapt my design on the possibility of the construction." However, Strauss also notes that the problem that many western architects have in trying to understand Chinese architecture is also being faced by Chinese architects themselves. As Strauss told CHINATALKS, "Due to the quick [pace of] development, they have no possibility to go back to their roots, to go back to their own traditions", claiming that Chinese architects end up subscribing to the behavior and design language of western architects and western architectural philosophy as a result of the country's rapid development.

Strauss calls upon Chinese architects to define Chinese architecture away from western constraints. Last year, Wang Yun of Atelier Fronti stated in an interview that, "[Chinese] cities are often designed based on an architects' ideal understanding of what a modern or a sustainable city should be like, but it is the people living in it that eventually make it modern or sustainable." Despite making the comment in the context of urbanization, the statement also applies to Strauss' comments, in the sense that architects employing a western architectural philosophy will be focusing upon an ideal that doesn't apply to the unique situation of China's cities and its peoples.

As for his approach to design and construction within China, Strauss points out that UCA pays significant attention to the concepts of function, design, construction and living space as part of the overall process to creating architecture. With regards to function, international standards and international knowledge are obviously applied, but Strauss underlined the fact that a building or structure needs to work over the course of a lifespan from an economic perspective. In this sense, buildings must bring money or value to the owner, government or developer over time; meaning that the design and construction stage for creating "useful architecture" must follow economic parameters.

Ultimately, urban planning at the public level plays a huge role in defining China's modern architecture. Unfortunately, according to Strauss, the move towards western thinking has backfired in terms of much of China's urban planning. "In the past 10 to 15 years, China has taken a lot of urban planning strategies from America, meaning big roads, big squares; all must be big. They've missed the human scale completely," Strauss noted, adding, "If you are looking in the old towns here, take a look in the hutong area, it's all [designed to] a human scale; all running according to what a person needs."

And yet China must modernize in order to adapt, which has seen hutong areas and traditional buildings demolished in an attempt to solve China's new social living problems. However, such modernization creates irreversible damage to China's cultural heritage. Under the new government, urban planners are pursuing a new path of urban design, using ideas from British urban planner Ebenezer Howard, the earliest proponent of the "garden city." According to Fritz Strauss of UCA, "This has opened new possibilities in urban planning and urban design to create much more human scaled cities, towns and villages."

Away from the more mundane aspects of urban design, cities like Shanghai, Nanjing, Shenzhen and Beijing have been transformed over the course of two decades into international cities thanks to the creation of iconic architecture. However, Strauss suggests that people steer clear of assessing a city's architectural style based purely on its unique landmark buildings. As Strauss mentioned to CHINATALKS, "architecture is much more than just making landmarks. Landmarks can follow any kind of architectural style. But daily use buildings need more useful designs, more useful character, and a [better] understanding of the Chinese soul."


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