Strelka Press is a digital-first publisher of new writing on architecture, design and the city. Reviving the essay as a popular form, we publish critical writing in digital and print editions.

SPLENDIDLY FANTASTIC
ARCHITECTURE AND POWER GAMES IN CHINA

by Julia Lovell

Mao once called the Chinese “a blank sheet of paper”, and the modernising that came with the Cultural Revolution treated cities much the same. But Mao’s destructive impulses were as nothing compared to the liberalised policies of his recent successors.

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China has undergone urbanisation on a scale never seen before – much of it speculative, some of it a brazen display of power. In this incisive analysis by the acclaimed Sinologist Julia Lovell, we get inside the politics of architecture and city-making in China. There is a colourful cast, from the Western starchitects rushing into the land of opportunity, to political dissidents such as Ai Weiwei, to rebellious residents singing defiantly as the bulldozers advance. In this trenchant critique of urban policy, Lovell wonders what good all this thrusting ambition will have been if the property bubble bursts.


About the author

She teaches modern Chinese history and literature at Birkbeck College, University of London. She is the author of The Politics of Cultural Capital: China’s Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature, The Great Wall: China Against the World and The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China. Lovell’s several translations of modern Chinese fiction include Han Shaogong's A Dictionary of Maqiao (winner of the 2011 Newman Prize for Chinese Literature); Zhu Wen's I Love Dollars; and Lu Xun’s The Real Story of Ah-Q, and Other Tales of China.

SPLENDIDLY FANTASTIC
ARCHITECTURE AND POWER GAMES IN CHINA

Architecture has always projected power. “It is a means for inflating the individual ego to the scale of a landscape, a city, or even a nation,” writes Deyan Sudjic. “What architecture does, as no other cultural form can, is to glorify and magnify the individual autocrat and suppress the individual into the mass. It can be seen as the first, and still one of the most powerful forms of mass communication.” Ambitious architects and dictatorial regimes have long formed a mutual-support act. For architecture, more than any other creative industry, depends on concentrations of wealth and power; on the state’s special ability to marshal resources and manpower. “Architects are pretty much high-class whores,” Philip Johnson (who himself had a thing for fascism in the 1930s) famously declared. “We can turn down projects the way they can turn down some clients, but we’ve both got to say yes to someone if we want to stay in business.” Hitler’s relationship with Albert Speer is the locus classicus of the affinity between architecture and power: the link between the two was so confused in the Führer’s mind that it is unclear whether he (a frustrated architect himself) saw his buildings as a way of creating his state, or created his state in order to erect the buildings of his dreams. “A strong Germany must have a great architecture since architecture is a vital index of national power and strength,” he pronounced in the 1920s. Ten years later, he remade his point from a position of command: “Our enemies will guess it, but our own followers must know it. New buildings are put up to strengthen our new authority.”As Speer’s half-built Germania lay in ruins after 1945, the Allies’ judges deemed his architectural schemes an ideological weapon of mass destruction. The last-but-one Nazi prisoner of Spandau, Speer languished in jail longer than other high-ranking Nazis with arguably more blood on their hands.

The Chinese have invested more meaning in the built environment than any other civilisation. For more than two millennia, imperial architecture was ruled by an elaborate body of rules called fengshui that — in the interests of maximising political auspiciousness — shaped every detail of building location and design. The Chinese emperor claimed to be the Son of Heaven; his power derived from his ability to commune between the natural and the human worlds. His palaces and temples were an important part of fulfilling that brief: they had to demonstrate the ruler’s skill in balancing the forces of nature and man. A succinct six-syllable formula, tianling dili renhe, summed up the cosmic demands on the empire’s architects: “Heavenly influences must be auspicious, geographical features beneficial, and the actions of man in harmony with the social, cultural and political situation”. In their position, layout and decorative schemas, palaces needed to be not only functional, but also symbolic of emperors’ potent combination of worldly and supernatural authority.