Wenjia Zhao

Etta Steinberg Fellow

Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts: Architecture and Urban Design | MArch/MUD


Cohort 2012


Graduated 2015

Partner University:

China Agricultural University




Scholar Highlights

No More Weird Buildings in China

In 2014 Chinese President Xi Jinping said “no more weird buildings in China” in a two-hour speech made at a national literary symposium. President Xi Jinping began his attack by criticizing Rem Koolhaas’ CCTV building, which is one of Beijing’s most iconic towers and is nicknamed “Big Pants” in reference to its trouser-like shape. With China’s construction boom being the biggest market for architectural business in the world, President Xi’s comments could affect the landscape of architectural practice worldwide.

This speech has not simply been read as a call for the end of bizarre construction, but more specifically it has been considered as a ban for foreign architects to stop treating China as a playground. Ranging from a skyscraper shaped like a giant doughnut, to Zaha Hadid’s pebble-shaped complex, most of these unusual buildings are by foreign architects instead of native Chinese architects.

Although the population growth of China has slowed in recent years, the speed of urbanization has increased, with almost half of China’s 1.3 billion people living in or near cities in 2015. A booming economy, infrastructure programs, and private real estate speculation have all driven construction to unprecedented levels. In order to brand themselves, local governments and real estate businesses are eager to ask bold and innovative foreign architects to build their landmarks. Meanwhile foreign architects couldn’t find other places like China which have the funds, the space, and the ambition to experiment with structural hyperbole. China has been made to be a World Expo, something like an international art gallery where you can find the most diverse and cutting-edge architectural designs.

However, the boundary between “novelty” and “ weird” is not easy to identify. Because of a lack of deep understanding of Chinese culture, foreign architects used to simply translate local culture into symbolism. Unique buildings across China include a giant teapot-shaped building in Wuxi which is famous for its tea products, and Guangzhou’s Circle Building like a copper coin, is officially said to have a form that was inspired by the strong iconic value of jade discs and the numerological tradition of feng shui. These sorts of buildings have not contributed to improving cultural identity as they claimed. In fact they are out of sync with urban fabrication and local cultural context.

Meanwhile, usually these “big” projects can be truly gigantic. The wrinkle-roofed New Century Global Tower in Chengdu is already the largest building ever constructed—so big that you could fit three of the U.S. Pentagons inside. Shenzhen Bay Super City plans not only to have the tallest towers in the world, but also to have smog-battling powers on its cantilevered terraces. Aside from the huge economical costs, the environmental interruption and social effects caused by these building booms cannot be ignored — this kind of unregulated expansion that results in tearing down entire mountains and wooded areas will harm the ecological balance. Furthermore, human rights often have been violated when it comes to displacing older communities for new development.

From another point of view, perhaps the most reasonable reading of Mr Xi’s pronouncement on architecture is as an effort to crack down on corruption and extravagance within the Chinese Government, an initiative that has resulted in removing 51 officials from the government as of August 2014.

Also President Xi claimed that art should “disseminate contemporary Chinese values, embody traditional Chinese culture, and reflect Chinese people’s aesthetic pursuit.” Thus another interpretation is that Mr Xi’s comments on art reflect his tendency towards Chinese nationalism. It is not too far fetched to equate his criticisms of “weird buildings” with simply criticism of a Western style of design. Some Chinese social media directly report this speech with a title “China is not foreigners’ test field.”