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What China’s ban on “bizarre” architecture says about Canadian buildings

[The 33-storey Guangzhou Circle]

The Chinese government’s recently announced a ban on “weird” architecture, gated communities and illegal structures like makeshift housing raising a few questions about what these building’s really mean.

The directive, from the State Council, calls on urban architecture that is “suitable, economic, green and pleasing to the eye” versus the “oversized, xenocentric, weird” buildings which have been erected in recent years like the China Central Television headquarters in Beijing which has become colloquially known as the “Big Trousers” for its pants-like design.

While much of the global attention the ban has received has focused on the peculiarity of the directive, Patrick Condon, chair of urban design and professor of landscape architecture at the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture says the pushback highlights a rising global trend, one that we’re even starting to see at home in Canada over the past couple of years.

The Chinese, he explains, are expressing their discomfort with a move towards gated communities and provocative buildings, which attracts the well-off “to these strange architectural developments then gating themselves off from the rest of their surrounding cities.”

“In that way I think it’s dramatically emblematic of not just what’s going on in China, but what’s going on around the world with the one percent or the .01 per cent having such a profound influence that they’re changing the way that cities are being built,” he says nodding to places like Rome, London, Paris, Vancouver and Toronto. “This is a global phenomenon not a local phenomenon.”

In Canada, Condon says Vancouver is a prime example of this phenomenon, with five or six proposed and in-development “provocative” projects over the next years apt to reshape the city’s skyline.

One major example is 555 Cordova Street, next to the historic Waterfront Station. The proposed design by Chicago-based firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture has come to be known as Origami for it’s fold-like angles. Another is the curtain-like design for Vancouver House.

“They’re going to make a dramatic change in the level of weird in the city of Vancouver,” says Condon. “The skyline is presently dominated by relatively similar tall glass towers and is going to be interrupted for better or worse by taller and more substantial buildings.”

While there are many differences to be drawn between western countries lengthier and well-worn approach to regulating urban development and China’s new burgeoning cityscapes, the symbolism surrounding buildings and growing inequality can traverse that gap.

“These buildings have tended to be attractive to global investment and that’s been a huge issue in London and it’s becoming an issue here in the city of Vancouver – the more provocative or weird the building is, the more likely it is to be sold at a very high price and most often to international investors,” explains Condon.

It compounds the already challenging situation created by overvalued housing markets.

“Here in Vancouver the big concern is that most of the development in housing is sold as luxury housing and as such it’s not really, in the minds of many, satisfying the local demand for housing,” he says. “Symbolically it’s represented by the way these buildings look and how they do or do not integrate with the surrounding city – I do think that physical form and architectural gesture of these buildings does have a strong relationship to the inequality discussion.”

As for China, Condon admits that while guessing the inner-workings of the Chinese government and how this directive will pan out is impossible, he’s curious to see the results.

“Beyond saying ‘well this is a weird building’ the government hasn’t said much about how they make them not so weird or what it means to not be weird,” says Condon. “The suspicion is they’ll go back to forms which are simpler at the very least, potentially traditional at the very most (drawing from) Chinese cultural references rather than looking like a giant CD disc.”