Why has China banned “weird” architecture?

Tourists enjoy the skyline of Pudong, Shanghai's business district. Image: Getty.

The Chinese State Council is seeking to curtail the construction of “oversized, xenocentric, weird” architecture.

This kind of “weird” architecture first appeared in China after further economic liberalisation in the 1990s. Today, examples include the National Theatre, the Olympic Centre and the China Central Television Tower, among many others. As well as being visually striking, these buildings signify China’s transition from a planned economy to a market economy, and its re-emergence as a world superpower.

Mostly created by Western star architects, or “starchitects”, these buildings have a “Bilbao effect” on the landscape of modern China: like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, they signal an acceleration in economic growth, attract both foreign investors and mobile capital and help to integrate China into the world economy.

Some have speculated that the “ban” on “weird” architecture (more precisely, it’s a limitation for public buildings) will shut out Western ideas and stifle creativity. But it’s not quite as simple as that: rather, this is a country trying to find its way back to a more uniquely Chinese architecture – in part by fostering local talent.

Moderating the weirdness

One key consideration is that the cultural gains offered by ostentatious architecture have come at a high cost. Applauding the government’s new measures, the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong pointed out that these buildings have meant a huge loss for Chinese taxpayers.

Pursuing the visual effect of “weirdness” in architecture – as well as following the lead of Western architects, and starchitects in particular – has frequently resulted in buildings that are neither practical nor functional. In the worst case scenarios, they clash with Chinese cultural traditions, meet neither the public nor a city’s needs and squander public money.

Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences. Image: Maribelle71/Flickr/creative commons.

Of course, the phenomenon of weird architecture is not unique to China: similar cases are also found in the West. In pursuit of the Bilbao effect, many provinces in Spain invested heavily in striking new sites, such as Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences. But sadly, this ended up compounding the effects of Spain’s past habit of regional overspending, and added to the country’s fallout after the global financial crisis.

Even so, many Western institutions have regulations and criteria that prohibit projects that are considered too strange from gaining approval. Government finance is often more transparent, and subject to scrutiny. For example, when London’s Millennium Dome drew criticism because of the high cost of construction and maintenance, the politicians and contractors responsible were held to account.

Awkward: London’s Millennium Dome. Image: Yoshimai/Flickr/creative commons.

However, in China, officials aren’t as subject to such constraints. Despite its irrational costs and controversial appearance, “weird” architecture may still be approved with a nod from a senior official. In China, the people who control domestic capital also wield political power. So architectural designs – which should ideally be left to the market or urban planning institutions – are often in the hands of those who hold senior municipal positions.

The result is that new projects become “images of power” – a kind of symbolic capital, which makes local officials' achievements more noticeable and helps to sustain their political careers. That is precisely why President Xi Jinping said that the trend reflected “some city officials' distorted attitudes about political achievements”. In this sense, the limitations being placed on “weird” architecture are directly related to the president’s high-profile campaign against corruption.

Speaking the language

"The Big Underpants." Image: Verdgris/Wikimedia Commons.

Much of the coverage of the “ban” has overlooked that this architecture is “devoid of (Chinese) character and cultural heritage”. Many buildings have been given unflattering names by locals – from “The Gigantic Egg” (the National Theatre), to “Big Underpants” (CCTV Tower) and “Long Johns” (Gate of the East, Suzhou).

But rather than blaming locals for failing to understand starchitect’s conceptual metaphors, we should conclude that such nicknames show how distant these buildings are from Chinese city-dwellers' lifestyles and local customs. These buildings simply don’t speak to locals’ identities.

According to the State Council’s new guidance on architecture, buildings should be “suitable, economic, green, and pleasing to the eye”. This harks back to the guidance issued in 1953 by the government – that architecture should be “practical, economic, and pleasing to the eye when conditions permit”.

Beloved: China’s Cultural Palace of Nationalities. Image: Wwbread/Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps it was the politburo’s desire to see a new cohort of architecture similar to those “shida jianzhu” (ten great architectures) built in the 1950s, which are still much loved by locals in Beijing for their moderate style, which is expressive of Chinese identity.

So China’s limitation on “weird” architecture is not designed to reject Western architects or clamp down on creativity. Instead, these measures seek to encourage competition and local talent, rather than simply following the lead of Western starchitects. It indicates that the politburo is confident about the way China’s economy has developed over recent decades because it doesn’t need such conspicuous displays.

Moving on from the hasty boom times, China is taking a more moderate approach to its cultural and economic policies – and its architecture.The Conversation

Yue Zhuang is a senior lecturer in Chinese at the University of ExeterFeng Qing is an associate professor at Tsinghua University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.