As an economic entity, China is developing at a faster rate and on a larger scale than any other country in the world; and this state of affairs has made its construction market a powerful force that cannot be ignored. China’s voracious demand for materials, equipment, and expertise is being propelled violently by the vast mass of desires and cumulative demands of 1.3 billion people making the transition to an open market economy.

After lying in a political and economic coma for several centuries, in the last three decades, China has undergone a capitalist transformation. Thousands of villages are turning into towns; many millions of peasants are becoming city dwellers and industrial producers; and up to 100 million households are moving. People long to get rich overnight and are prepared at any time to become a new person, in a new home, in a new society, and in anew city. The momentum created by these longings is raising this ancient culture from the dead, and at the same time signifies a brand new possibility, a revolution in the state of human existence in China.

In Chinese social practice over the last century, ethics and aesthetics grounded in traditional forms of culture have been heavily eroded, in some cases all but obliterated. They have been replaced by Marxist utopian visions, the ruthless “class struggle” ideology, and a savagely inhumane social reality.

Reform and opening to the outside world, a shift in official policy inaugurated in the mid 1970s, was a choice made by a people deeply mired in disaster, at a historical dead end, and with no real alternative. This choice has caused a once isolated country, currently home to one-fifth of the world’s population, to become part of the global political order and economy. As China and the world wonderingly discover each other, both parties have had to get reacquainted with themselves, as well.

The volume of construction that has taken place during the last three decades has already surpassed the total amount of building that took place during the previous several thousand years of Chinese civilization. In every sphere of activity, China today is exhibiting the fascinating behaviour of a strange and ravenous beast. Presently, 55 percent of the world’s concrete and 36 percent of all steel products are being consumed by China. This unrelenting demand is staggering world markets and leaving producers wide-eyed and open-mouthed.

In the midst of this unfettered boom in development, the Chinese people are reluctantly learning one painful reality after another. They have once again returned to an uncircumventable and foreign system of thought — “democracy and science.” While engaged in selling cheap labour, painfully accumulating money and wealth, and partaking of the products of human culture, China has also discovered that it must swallow this hard, bitter fruit.

In the area of urban development and construction, the conceptual and technical backwardness of Chinese architecture and construction is crippling its ability to deal with the problems at hand or to provide effective solutions. Apart from solving, after a fashion, the basic housing problems of a billion people, Chinese architectural practice has not produced any significant spiritual or cultural heritage during the last century. Faced with the current rate and scale of development, obtaining relatively advanced and proven cultural and technological resources from abroad has become a necessity. This is a matter of economic survival, not a question of psychological willingness.

Despite this realization, on many occasions and in various types of practice, insane obstructions are created by groups that represent the power and interests of older traditions. This conservative institutional authority frequently uses “the interests of the country” and “the national ethos” to camouflage the hypocrisy of its point of view and its academic deficiency.China’s transformation has attracted attention worldwide. During the last few years, a considerable number of projects, both large and small, have been undertaken by foreign architectural design and structural design offices inChina. These professionals include the “cream” of the world’s top-ranking architects and large-scale, multifunctional commercial groups, as well as idealistic young practitioners, endeavoring to explore and practice in a new world, and numerous university students. They bring with them their knowledge and experience; they arrive in an unfamiliar land ready to engage with an unfamiliar culture.

To build in China, ambitious architects must prepare for what might prove to be the biggest adventure of their lives. In most situations, they encounter difficulties caused by the language barrier, and they have to deal with a different power structure and social system, as well as different lifestyles, customs, and cultural values. The vast scale of the projects, the unbelievable speed of development, and the relatively low costs of construction, are matched by an unclear, irrational system of regulations; the complication of simple tasks and objectives by absurdly Byzantine operation procedures; and the changeability, lack of definition, and ambiguity that holds sway where there is no example to consult, no rules to follow. A mysterious culture in which Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism developed for thousands of years now also adheres to the system of Communist ideals. A cultural tradition based wholly on the Confucian ethical code has morphed into an extremely materialistic, covetous present reality; a dogmatic political theory sits alongside a society overflowing with liberalism. These baffling conundrums have created a China full of possibilities and impossibilities, opportunity and risk, excitement and frustration, energy and despair.

People come to China and pay attention to China because China is a part of humanity and an authentic part of global culture. As the West confronts China, it is truly coming to know another side of the world, another state of civilization and human nature. At the same time, it is coming to understand not only the limitations and fragility of reason and order in China today, but also to appreciate the wonder and delight born of possibility. Michael Maltzan is experiencing this possibility in his first project in China, a “Ministructure” bookbar/café of 80 square meters that began with a democratic astrology. Seventeen pavilions, an instant landscape for a brand new city, were assigned by lottery to seventeen architects and artists of different cultural backgrounds. During the public forum, when most of the architects were puzzled by the open design program and throughout the night drink when revelers sang “Happy Birthday” to him, one after the other, Maltzan remained gracious and calm. He submitted two design concepts, one of them starts with “The path that seems confusing is a path nonetheless.”

Originally published in Alternate Ground
Heinz Architectural Press, 2005