How Foreign Architects became International Architects: A Case Study of China's Creative Construction Agenda

By Bert de Muynck

The Chinese City is a space of conflict, confusion, crowds, culture and construction sites. Despite its exceptional development and growth, the Chinese City has the same programmatic characteristics as the Usual City: city, housing, offices, parks and roads. Scale and the pace of construction distinguish the Chinese City from the Usual City. In Beijing, a group of artists accidentally discovered a new urban program, a way of living in-between art and economy. A couple of years ago they transformed an old industrial factory into an experimental laboratory. Eager to capitalize on their creativity, they failed to foresee how their act of innovation would destroy the source of this creativity: the place itself. The art factory soon turned into an art market. Art was produced in another part of town, but still consumed in the factory. In the end it was all about place-making, branding and imposing international policies upon a local context. Today it doesn't matter what is on display, as it is about a brand, 798, and the Creative Industries. Once that formula was understood, tested and controlled, it served as a model radiating from Beijing outwards. This led to a formulation of the future of the Chinese City, a city where Creative Business Districts (CBDs) and Special Creative Zones (SCZs) are an indispensable part of urban planning. These areas offer everything in-between creativity and consumption, folk cultures and foreign intrigue, coffee and cultural critique.

Much has been published about the contribution, involvement and role of foreign architects in the development of the Chinese City during the past decade. Leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the international press focussed on the notorious Beijing’s Gang of Five Foreign Architects: Rem Koolhaas, Steven Holl, Paul Andreu, Herzog & de Meuron and Norman Foster. In the past five years a major shift happened in terms of how these projects were analysed. Starting with numb reactions to their shock and awe renderings, debate then moved into a discussion about costs of construction and labour to culminate into a critique of the absence of the Chinese culture in the designs. Once construction started, a second reading of the designs provided the public elements of interpretation, appropriation and naming – Bird's nest, Flying Dragon and The Egg. In a timely manner shortly before the Olympics, a full international appraisal followed of the architectural marriage between import, export and innovation in architecture.

While the Beijing Gang of Five Foreign Architects forced all the attention to their work, one can see on a different scale a more comfortable, visionary and creative invasion of foreign architects in China. Ordos100 is one prominent example of this – a project set-up by milk and coal tycoon Mr. Cai Jiang and curated by Ai Weiwei. In Ordos, a city in the making located in the desert of Inner-Mongolia, 100 international architects from 29 countries were each invited to build a 1000-m2 villa in a neighbourhood called the ‘Ordos Cultural Creative Industry Park’. The selection of the participating architects was undertaken by Herzog & de Meuron, and as such, after the Bird's Nest, a new collaboration ensued between the Swiss architects and the Chinese artist-architect. In an interview some years ago they explained the reason to work with Chinese artist Ai WeiWei as follows: ‘Weiwei is someone who tests our ideas’ (Jacques Herzog). ‘We have lengthy talks with him about how things work in China today. You cannot just walk into China and do what you have always done. We like to learn from other places, and China is the oldest civilization on the planet. With Ai Weiwei, we find contemporary lines of energy from that tradition’.

This new collaboration made it possible for 100 architects to visit Ordos on two occasions in the first half of 2008. The first time to see the site, three months later to present their design proposals. In January 2008 Ai Weiwei explained one of the motives for the involvement of the architects as follows: ‘This project is about China and the world and how to bring in the world contemporary architectural knowledge into Chinese practice. This is an important factor. There should be less talk about new architecture, but more about action and understanding of today's culture’. The outcome of this project is a high-end residential setting, to some akin to a World Expo, while to others it looks more like Beverly Hills, where international ideas on housing can be tested under Chinese conditions of speed, quality of construction, labour skills, a creative industries context and return on investment.

The invited architects all operate in vastly different conditions, most work exclusively in their country of origin. Unsurprisingly, these architects travel with a set of ideas and design skills that now have to incorporated within the Chinese City. To some this import-export aspect of architecture doesn't pose a problem, as Mexican architect Julio Amezcua (AT103) explained to me: ‘We find a lot of similarities here to Mexico: the way we interact, build and communicate in terms of “yes, yes we are going to do it like that”. When you check the final result it always looks different, but at least they put the risk to do it, they didn't stop it. Also, in our culture a lot of the people start building based on the rendering, which can really be a problem’. Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena talks about the same loss of control when he explains the way his villa should be constructed: ‘A key issue in this project is how to manage distance. In my project, brick is the common language that shortens the distance and guarantees a quality of the design. I found a brick on the site and it is fantastic to see how easily it breaks, showing red on the outside, black on the inside. The breaking is very rough, construction workers can do it and place it on the outside. So it has this rough quality, independent if mistakes are made or not’.

Increasingly, architecture is becoming a profession of managing, creating and controlling reality at a distance. Whatever creativity the architect gains, he soon has to relinquish in terms of control. Ordos100, and its ‘Cultural Creative Industry Park’, is an interesting test case in the field of architecture to understand the impact of China’s Creative Industries ambitions, both as an urban and cultural model, as a real-estate investment (Mr. Cai Jiang), a curatorial practice (Ai Weiwei) and policy implementation (the local government of Ordos). Ordos100 is branded and legitimated by the involvement of ‘100 International Architects’ (note that they aren't called ‘Foreign Architects’), positioning this project as an import/export experiment at the centre of the debate on the Creative Industries. It is a project that imports, exports, adapts and experiments with our understanding of exchange and development in the field of architecture, labour, culture, media and urbanism. There is certainly an element of creative roughness, if not brutality, in inviting 100 architects for this project. As it currently stands, this project is clearly is an experiment in the production of a new architectural culture, irrespective of its shortcomings. As always, it is only through mistakes that we learn to make better cities and update urban models. Or as Bao Chongming, vice mayor of Ordos, explained to me in January 2008: ‘In the 1980s we looked at Shenzhen as a model for urban development, in the 1990s we looked at Shanghai and it is my hope is that in the coming 20 years when people look for a new model they will look at Ordos’.

Bert de Muynck is an architect, writer and director of MovingCities. Since 2006 he lives and works in Beijing, China. He has been lecturing and publishing internationally on topics of culture, architecture and urbanism. Publications include magazines such as LOG (US), Volume (NL), DOMUS (IT), MARK Magazine (NL), MONU, (AU), Urban China (CN) and many more.