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".