From Beijing to London: Contemporary Chinese Architecture 2012
The Building Centre, Store Street, London, WC1E
Until April 28
An exhibition exploring the explosion of Chinese design culture in the past three decades contains hidden delights
There is something terrifying about China – sublime as much as it is intimidating. From Beijing to London: Sixteen Contemporary Chinese Architects, showing at the Building Centre from April 12–28, chronicles the explosion of Chinese architectural culture in the past three decades and contains some surprising delights. It is, without a doubt, the most important architecture exhibition in London at the moment – at least, it should have been.
In the front gallery of the Building Centre, a collection of smaller than postcard-sized images of significant Chinese buildings are collaged on the walls in chronological order spelling out “A Pictorial Record of Contemporary Hinese Architectural Progression from 1978-2012”. (The arrangement of the letters on a less-than-ideal gallery wall had the inadvertent effect of obscuring from view a rather important ‘C’). Pretty concrete numbers sit on the floor along the wall indicating that this is a timeline, and a line of cover pages from the Architectural Journal, the official publication of the Chinese Architecture Society, underscores the pictorial lettering. In the centre of this space is an arrangement of beautiful books, each documenting two buildings by the 16 featured architects. The books, in an apparent effort to kill two birds with one stone, were also displayed at the 2012 London Book Fair.
In the wake of the recent Pritzker award to Wang Shu, Chinese architecture has come into the spotlight, and this exhibition was without a doubt intended to declare “we are here (too)”. And quite deservedly so, as the work on display is both exciting and sophisticated, showing a level of consciousness and sensitivity that matches more established Swiss practices, and is (dare I say it) potentially more exciting in the long run. China is the world of architecture’s new playground, after all. To build in Europe is to flog a dead horse.
The opening lecture by Wang Hui, a principal of the Chinese architecture practice Urbanus, had the audience of archi-celebs and foreign students transfixed. A detailed description of Chinese architectural culture, much of which is dominated by corporate and academic hierarchies, lifted the veil from what is a very different social system with very different social problems. But what was more enlightening was to see how exciting the times are for eager young Chinese architects. Architecture in China, Hui pointed out, is not just aesthetic. It is the material manifestation of a proposal for a future society.
This social cause of architecture makes it more relevant and more symbolic in a state undergoing so much drastic and rapid change than it could ever be in a more politically complacent West. Architects grow up being educated in Marxist doctrine, Hui points out, and you are always questioning what your building is doing for society.
One surprising aspect of the work on display was how the architects chose to feature small-scale projects, in what would seem a conscious effort to move away from the overwhelming scale of Chinese cities – small houses and galleries, rural museums, government centres and experiments in low-rise social housing, all with yummy materials and slightly naïve (but elegant) cultural references. The work certainly makes for an interesting debate on how Chinese architects are interrogating the consequences of China’s rapid growth.
With all of the energy and delight embodied in the pages of the books on display, the exhibition did not do justice to the work. Partly the consequence of the Building Centre’s suitability for the corporate display of industrial products, partly because it was an exhibition too keen to impress people with the idea of China, rather than focusing on the quality of the work that was supposed to be celebrated.
Architecture exhibitions are problematic enough as it is, let alone confining displays to miniscule icons and books – however well made. Furthermore, nationalistic exhibitions are always questionable, and there was a distinct confusion between individual passion and political constraints – often explicitly manifested in the form of the buildings. It is how this new generation of young Chinese architects overcomes this struggle that will ultimately be the deciding factor to their international success.