China’s government has officially banned the use of “bizarre architecture” to construct any new “weird” buildings. The vague, Justice Stewart-style ruling comes after about a decade of innovative construction, which has left China with many of the world’s most interesting structures and many of the world’s most poorly conceived towers. New buildings should be “economical, functional, aesthetically pleasing” and “environmentally friendly,” according to the directive. What this means for architects, particularly the name-brand ones working out of Europe, is unclear.
The new rule seems targeted at the small number of eccentric buildings that gained popularity online for resembling trousers or a teacup, but could also be applied to more serious attempts at innovation if the goal becomes the creation of high-density, utilitarian spaces.
While the notion of Chinese censors pouring over architectural diagrams to determine whether they are too “oversized, xenocentric, weird” seems ripe for satire, it’s worth remembering that the Communist Party government in China enforces cultural uniformity. Capitalism may have arrived in the Middle Kingdom, but freedom of speech hasn’t. And design has long been an obsession of the country’s current leaders. In 2014, China’s President Xi Jinping gave a speech challenging new works of architecture to “be like sunshine from the blue sky and the breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles.”
The question now becomes whether or not China will continue to be a laboratory for architectural experimentation, giving the world buildings like the Huzhou Sheraton and the CCTV headquarters in Beijing. Given the government’s enthusiasm for the latter, it’s possible that prestige projects will proceed without harassment. But the decree is certainly bad news for some builders.
Arguably the next world-changing architectural project planned for China is the Phoenix Towers, which are set to be a kilometer tall and look like a hypodermic rethink of the Magic Kingdom. There was no specific mention of the project in the government decree, but projects of its ilk may be hard to get off the ground going forward if being ostentatious means struggling to get permits.
China had started to look like the future, but its past never left the building.