"Half the houses will be demolished within 20 years": On the disposable cities of China

The remains of Xiamen station. "I went there one day to buy a ticket and get on a train like I would do all the time. I looked up, and the place was gone." Image: Wade Shepard.

At times it seems as if China is one colossal construction site. The old is being replaced with the new, the new replaced with the newer, in a perpetual cycle of destruction and creation.

The sounds of jackhammers, backhoes, and pile drivers is the soundtrack of a country recreating itself as readily as the changing patterns in a rotating kaleidoscope. Like an aging actress, since the beginning of the economic boom period in the late 1970s, China has undergone so many facelifts that it is virtually impossible to recognize the country for what it once was.

"I don't know this place anymore," an elderly doctor who spent his life in the small city of Taizhou, 240km up river from Shanghai, once told me. In the space of a decade, his 2,000 year old city of winding gray brick, street-level houses and tight-knit neighborhoods gave way to wide, straight boulevards, luxury high-rises, and florescent-lighted shopping malls. The change prompted him to declare that he feels as if he’s living in foreign territory.


In the past three decades China has almost completely demolished and rebuilt itself. Research firm GK Dragonomics estimated that, between 2005 and 2010 alone, China dismantled more than 16 per cent of its housing stock. That's more than 1,850km2 of floorspace – enough to blanket Greater London.

And China isn’t stopping there. According to the Ministry of Housing & Urban-Rural Development, almost every structure built before 1999, roughly half of the current housing supply, is set to meet the sledgehammer at some point over the next 20 years.

New houses are built almost as quickly as the old ones are cleared away: upwards of 129m new homes have been built in China over the past 30 years. Each year that passes sees roughly 2,000km2 of floor space – enough to cover New York City one and a half times – built across the country.

But it would be a mistake to think that China is simply upgrading its housing stock to meet modern standards, and will stop and be satisfied once this is done. No, even the buildings that are being built today will hardly last out this generation. Qiu Baoxing, the former vice-minister of China’s Housing & Urban-Rural Development ministry, estimated that new buildings going up in China today will only stand for 25 to 30 years before being demolished. Li Dexiang of Tsinghua University told the China Daily that "what we see nowadays is the blind demolition of relatively new buildings, some of which have only been standing for less than 10 years".

I estimated that the place had to have been at least 30 or 40 years old. I was shocked when a security guard mentioned that it was built in 2004

"My students often tell me that they have visited a really old building when they go to one constructed in 2005 or so," says Austin Williams, a professor or architecture at Jiaotong-Liverpool University. "Perceptions of time and change are different over here."

He adds that he once gave his students an assignment to find the oldest building they could in their hometowns. One student from Ordos reported that the oldest building he could find was a mere five years old.

Since the Communist Party took over in 1949, China has been erecting massive amounts of substandard, quasi-temporary housing in waves. Originally, these quickly built, shoddy homes were a reaction to the conditions of the time, which saw a huge demand for housing from work units and a distinct lack of quality building materials. “Under Mao, for example, many buildings were constructed using bamboo as reinforcement because they didn't have the steel,” Williams explains.

While the initial, tumultuous decades of the communist rule are now over, the construction ethics of this area seem to have been retained. “Most of the housing built in China today is of substandard quality,” says Adam Mayer, an American architect who has been working in China for the past three years. “While the bones of most buildings – the concrete structure – are fine, the exterior finishes are generally of poor quality.”

Austin Williams concurs. “There are still far too many buildings built with no damp-proofing, no insulation, untreated timber and metalwork, unfixed balconies, dangerous electrical supplies... Labour is often untrained for the highly skilled architecture that they are carrying out. There are very few checks and balances in the supply chain, or rather there is very little responsibility taken or accepted for sending faulty goods back.”

One of China's rare old buildings, now being torn down. Image: Wade Shepard.

This lack of quality materials and workmanship can be evident just from a casual walk through the urban expanses of China. A couple of years ago I found myself lured in by an absolutely massive, grandiose, basilica-like building on the far outskirts of Shanghai's Hongqiao district. It was the centerpiece of a Western-style luxury housing complex that was built to resemble something from ancient Rome.

But on approach it became clear that much of it was condemned. One of the doorways was boarded up, the floors above the lobby were off limits, and entire wings were closed off. There were deep cracks spreading out over the exterior walls like the delta of a major river, and large chunks of plaster were succumbing to gravity and falling to the debris piles on the ground below. The place was literally descending into ruins.

I estimated that the place had to have been at least 30 or 40 years old. I was shocked when a security guard mentioned that it was built in 2004, just ten years before my visit.

“Buildings often look to me as if they were built in the 1950s, but in fact are built just 10 or 12 years ago,” says Austin Williams, echoing this sentiment. “The finishes are peeling, the metal is rusting, the rainwater pipes are leaking, the windows don't close properly, the cement is flaking... But this is not due to 50 years of wear and tear. It's due to inadequate specification, application, and maintenance.”


There are other, more nefarious reasons for the deficient quality of many of China’s buildings. "Construction projects require huge budgets and bank loans. By cutting corners here and there, developers and contractors can pocket large sums of money," wrote Adam Mayer on the Sustainable Cities Collective website.

“It's called capitalism,” quips Austin Williams. “Its early stages usually involve building shit, making a profit, and moving on to the next deal – even if the building falls down soon after.”

This lack of architectural longevity fits in well with China's broader economic structure: houses that can last a century are not nearly as profitable as ones that can be built and rebuilt many times over within that time frame. Buildings being destroyed simple means that more buildings can be created, and the incessant round of demolition and construction keeps the economic wheels of the country spinning.

And, as dozens of industries and up to a quarter of national GDP is fed from real estate and urbanisation, this is no mere fiscal provisioning either. “The Chinese government has an incentive to keep the working population 'busy' and employed,” says Mayer. “The construction industry is a key in doing this and keeping a steady stream of new projects going helps achieve this.”

Demolition increases GDP, too. A case in point: an entire block of housing that stands adjacent to the No. 1 Affiliated Hospital of Soochow University in the Tiancizhuan area of Suzhou is about to meet the wrecking ball. At 30 years old the buildings are not new, but they are well-built, function properly, and are not showing any overt signs of decay.

“Nothing is wrong with the building, the government just wants it gone,” Cody Chao, a medical student whose grandparents own an apartment in the complex, told me. “The location is golden. It's right next to a hospital, a university, and an elementary school.”

The shiny new cities that are going up throughout the country today are like home appliances that are designed to break down after a few years

Many relatively young and stable buildings across China are demolished, not because they need to be, but because the government wants them to be. There is no annual residential property tax in China: all taxes are paid upon purchase. And so, ever-lasting real estate just isn’t in the financial interests of local governments.

The result is that masses of otherwise adequate houses throughout the country are bought back by the government, and then torn down so the land can be sold to developers for a profit and a new round of property taxes subsequently collected.

Under this strategy there is really no limit on development, as fresh urban construction land can continuously be churned out and sold to developers. In fact, 40 percent of China's new development land is created via the demolition of older buildings. The Chinese have applied the economic stimulus of obsolescence to urban design, and the shiny new cities that are going up throughout the country today are like home appliances that are designed to break down after a few years so that you have to buy a new one.

And, explains Adam Mayer, "there is the perception among Chinese consumers that 'new' is always 'better', regardless of the quality of the new product."

This building is less than 10 years old. Image: Wade Shepard.

There is one moretwist to China’s development policies that adds to the built-in impermanence of the buildings that are constructed. When a developer buys a plot of urban construction land they are not permitted to sit on it; they must build something very soon after purchase, or they risk losing their development rights. So there is pressure to build quickly, and many developers respond by throwing up something fast and cheap.

The linchpin is that, as the typical lifespan of a modern Chinese building is so short, a developer could theoretically carry out two or three rounds of construction throughout the period of their lease on a particular plot of land (50 years for commercial property, 70 years for residential): building and demolishing, building and demolishing.  


The social and psychological impact that these churn and burn urban landscapes is vast. “For me, perhaps the most challenging aspect of the perpetual changing landscape is that the sense of community is being lost,” says Richard Brubaker, a professor of sustainability at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai. “That the natural sense of community that binds people together is weak, and as a result you have higher levels of tension, increased crime, and a general inwardness to the point where individuals are no longer interested in the quality of, or protecting, the community beyond their doormat.”

In a very real sense, what we see now across China are cities that are perpetually rough drafts of themselves – cities stuck in the loop of rampant development and re-development.

In the West, we tend to think of cities as fixed, almost immutable entities, and we take it for granted that what we see in them today will be there tomorrow. There are no such illusions in China. This is a country that exists in a suspended state of architectural vertigo – a place where cities are literally disposable.

Wade Shepard is the author of "Ghost Cities of China".

 
 
 
 

The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.


And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook