China now has the world''s most advanced technologies for working with glass, steel and stone,and its socio-economic conditions make it possible to use materials that would be too expensive to use in architectural projects in other parts of the world.
The potential for using these costly materials, and the possibilities offered by Chinese production of components which are not always standardised, help create conditions favourable to great variety in architecture.
At the same time, the new generation of architects has been influenced by the international architectural studios that have opened offices or built projects in China: Gregotti Associati, Fox & Fowle with their commercial buildings, Paul Andrei and John Portman.
Outstanding Chinese architects include Wang Lu, who designed the Piantai Museum; studio MAD of Beijing, who won the 2006 international competition for construction of the Absolute Towers in Toronto, nicknamed the Marilyn Monroe Tower, as well as Yung Ho Chang, Liu Jakun and Zhang Lei, Atelier Deshaus, KUU.
Yung Ho Chang is one of the most emblematic figures in the new generation. Born in 1956, he works in Beijing, playing with the natural and artificial components offered by technology and never neglecting tradition but enriching it with use of contemporary vocabulary.
Some architects do not merely maintain a traditional style, but dialogue with the features of western architecture, renewing and contaminating forms and content, while other architects have a hard time reconciling the Chinese architectural tradition with international influences in their compositions. Many new buildings contain minor citations of the Chinese tradition which have no real function, but serve simply as a nod to the style of the past.
The Beijing Olympics in 2008 and preparations for Expo 2010 are the engines driving the economic and architectural ferment that has resulted in complete reconstruction of the city from the urban planning scale down to the details of individual buildings.
In what is probably the biggest process of urban transformation in the world in recent years, this reconstruction has affected more than 5 square kilometres and 16 million residents, plus an influx of new residents coming in from nearby towns. Shanghai has been growing at a rate of about 14 percent per year in the past decade, and every year 1.6 million square metres of old buildings are knocked down. The city centre has lost tens of thousands of longtang houses, traditional homes characterised by a blend of Chinese and western architectural styles, though in terms of layout they represent a much larger version of the traditional Chinese home built around a courtyard, with influences deriving from traditional architectural types which can still be found in the villages of southern China.
The population has been moved out into more sanitary suburbs with a single function, where it is essential to own a car and the rules of social interaction are necessarily changed; at this distance bicycles are entirely superfluous. In front of the Bund, on the opposite bank of the Huangpu, Pudong, which literally means "east of the Pu River", is the new centre of Shanghai, extending toward the China Sea to the east over land which was until recently occupied by slums and marshes, where no building was more than two storeys high. Here what was once a horizontal city is being made into a vertical one, and what was a colonial city is becoming a modern one, challenging the cities of Tokyo, Hong Kong, New York, Los Angeles: all the legends of urban planning of the past fifty years.
The lion''s share of Pudong is up taken by the Jin Mao Building (designed by the American architectural studio SOM), 420 metres high, now almost completed, with a central atrium about 300 metres high shaped like a glass super-pagoda.
Next to it is the Oriental Pearl Tower, a 468 metre high telecommunications tower, from the platform of which it is possible to admire the city''s horizontal extension, with its bubbles containing a hotel.
In Pudong ,unlike the city centre (Huangpu), the streets are wide and clean. Many of the buildings are surrounded by green lawns (inaccessible), and one of the city government''s declared goals is to eliminate all forms of improvisation, such as open-air markets and street food, seen as signs of poverty: Shanghai must look like a developed city, not a developing city
. Shanghai and Pudong together offer a perfect example, visible and tangible, of how the world economy is influencing urban planning and people''s lives, and how the city represents the new political and economic power of China, a nation once symbolised by its countryside. The people behind the cultural revolution did not like the city because they saw it as a place of consumption, but now the city is seen as a place of production. Pudong is also a spectacular museum of end-of-the-century urban planning, a trip through all the styles and stereotypes of our day, disconcertingly disorderly with its wealth of types: skyscrapers, malls, plazas, parking lots, hotels. Every building wants to be a landmark in its own right, there is no logic behind the pedestrian and vehicle accesses, the sidewalks are wide in some places and narrow in others, a thousand different materials are used, windows are designed in a multitude of different ways, names are ambitious, streets as wide as freeways run along beside dead-end alleyways. What is surprising about all this is not its scale, but the symbolic value the Chinese give it: progress is seen as incorporating the legends of the towers and motorways, which in turn evoke legends of distance and speed, vertically and horizontally. Here motorways are not just ordinary transportation links, but serve as panoramic terraces: viaducts offer spectacular views over the lower part of the city with its longtangs and the upper part with its skyscrapers, surrounding the viewer on every side. Walking under these viaducts, some of which are right in the city centre, is an unusual experience because they are so high up that they don''t even cast a shadow; children play between the pylons and old people stand and watch them; complicated pedestrian passageways wind through their guts; buses park inside them, and there are big bronze sculptures at their intersections. The circular ramps linking road level with viaduct level are not very steep, almost as if to take up as much space as possible; this space often acts as a round plaza, a monument to the traffic, which is seen as something to be proud of. The streets have been transformed from places where people do things to places people travel through; this is the urban revolution underway in Shanghai.
International debate still casts some doubts as to the quality of the transformations underway, an opportunity lost in which the extraordinary potential and energy at stake could have produced better quality results. But it is also true that a new consciousness is emerging which incorporates respect for the environment and for local identities, producing quality work at both the territorial and architectural levels; and China has demonstrated that it intends to pursue sustainable development policies by introducing a plan for reducing energy consumption.
For more about Shanghai, the reader is recommended to read Augusto Cagnardi''s volume Ritorni da Shanghai, published by Allemandi. Seventy trips between 2001 and 2007. On business in China, mostly in Shanghai, but also in Beijing, Hong Kong, Dalian, Ningbo and Seoul, with breaks in Qatar and other "technical stopovers". These are valuable pages for understanding the complex dynamics of professional dialogue between a European architect and the key players leading the process of modernisation in today''s China, with their plans for a new city for 100 thousand people or for recovery of an early twentieth-century "Italian city" that survived in China, for extension of Pudong''s downtown financial district or for a modern building in Shanghai''s historic centre: projects to which we may add a multitude of commitments for conferences, speeches at conventions and interviews in newspapers, all offering opportunities to recognise that the architect''s professional challenge is inseparable from a cultural curiosity about the enigmatic world of China. These stories, which unfold with the narrative rhythm of a travel book, return to us the difficult task of organising a project and, above all, introduce us to the surprising codes of contemporary China, with its deep roots in a very ancient civilisation.