Unmade in China – Introduction

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Because the density of pure ice is about 920 kg/m³, and that of sea water about 1025 kg/m³, typically only one-ninth of the volume of an iceberg is above water. The shape of the underwater portion can be difficult to judge by looking at the portion above the surface.

From: Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia, lemmaIceberg

Last month, I visited the offices of friends in downtown Shanghai. My friends are three enthusiastic thirty-something Chinese architects, all trained in one of the leading architectural practices in the country. After exchanging the usual compliments, they gave me a tour of their impressive office. In the studio, staff and interns worked concentratedly behind their AutoCAD stations. Tests and models filled the model room, and sketches covered the whiteboard in the meeting room. Finally, we returned to the entrance, where the firm showed its presentation models. Here, the mindboggling portfolio of this ambitious trio became clear: hundreds of thousands of square meters of glitzy urban landscape appeared in front of me. One scheme in particular struck my attention: a commercial podium with two towers, interconnected by a garden in the middle. ‘What’s the status of this project?’, I asked my friend. ‘Well’, was his answer, ‘this is a project, but not a real project.’

China is a country known for its incredible building production, where the equivalent of the entire city of Chicago is built in skyscrapers every year. Unmade in China demystifies this architectural reality and shows that beyond the real world of urban construction, a realm of potential architecture exists that for one reason or another has not been realized – pieces of frozen ambition that outsiders do not often get to see.

What do Unmade buildings mean? Are they less valuable than built work? Or can they open up unexplored fields of interest for the architect? Why did projects in China become Unmade? And what do these Unmade projects say about the status and condition of the profession of architecture in China and in the rest of the world? Unmade in China shows unrealized projects by Western offices. It discusses the position of the Western architect in the East, it questions the cultural relationship between China and the West, and asks: how do western offices overcome the challenges they face while working in this vast and complex country?

The answers to these questions are probably in the eye of the beholder. Everyone will want to construct his or her own reality from the phantoms of what-could-have-been. The young western architect will try to find a recipe for avoiding pitfalls on the road to architectural success in China. The sceptical architect will see his prejudices about the downside of high-speed growth confirmed. And the Chinese architect will probably be surprised by the naivety about unrealized projects.

Since 2008, an economical and political crisis has hijacked the Western world. By explicitly showing the effects of the economic crisis in the West on architecture worldwide, Unmade in China clearly demonstrates the extent to which architecture has become globalized. Architecture has become an industry in which desperate professionals exchange their homelands for China in a quest for work – with the West no longer losing jobs to China, but China instead providing employment. Globalization also leads to architectural nomadism, with architects flying to the other side of the planet, visiting clients and building sites while suffering from an explosive mix of jetlag and translation problems.

The offices presented in this exhibition differ largely. Some are completely foreign, while others are deeply rooted in China. Some have only recently set up a so-called rep office, while others use their bases in China for expansion across the world, conquering the West from China instead of the other way round. The architectural production by these offices provides a breeding ground for surreal experiences and anecdotes about speed, misunderstandings and the clash of low and high culture. The stories in Unmade in China transcend the level of Tintin and the Blue Lotus, and tell the tale of the astonishing modernisation of a massive country and its urban condition.

This huge country is not one single reality – either in time or space. Some offices worked on their projects in the early 2000s – a prehistoric era in Chinese architectural terms. The locations of the projects also differ, with important consequences: a project in Shanghai has a completely different geographical, social and economical context than a project in Zhengzhou, an urban context is incomparable to a rural one. In short, the reasons why the buildings displayed have not been realized differ from project to project, depending on context, client and local conditions. Even so, one aspect is universal: all of the Unmade projects have been produced against the backdrop of an urban landscape subject to unprecedented change.

Academics, architects and students worldwide have studied Unmade architecture for decades. Projects by Boullé, Friedmann or Buckminster Fuller prove that Unmade projects can be as influential as, or even more influential than built projects. The 1970s phrase ‘paper architect’ celebrates this phenomenon.

Unmade projects can have an impact on the architectural debate as whole. But more importantly, they can affect to a large extent the course a certain architectural practice will take. It is impossible to imagine the work of Le Corbusier without Maison Citrohan, Kenzo Tange without Tokyo Bay or Koolhaas without the Très Grande Bibliotheque. Looking back, Unmade projects often appear as starting points for new investigations and as inspiration for new concepts. Rather than signifying failure, Unmade architecture is the herald of new opportunities.

Since the architectural opening-up of China, the country appears as an architects’ fairy-tale: a land of plenty where every volume falling from the foam cutter is turned into concrete and steel within months. Although architects and investors worldwide love to believe these stories, Unmade in China subtly shows the complex truth. Of course, developments in China can take on an incredible speed, with skyscrapers and cities appearing seemingly overnight. But they can also be treacly, unpredictable and slow. How many discarded projects are the collateral damage of this speedy urbanization? The exhibition does not answer that pressing question. What it does reveal is that under the tip of explosive construction hovers a mass of architectural production – an invisible volume that might be even bigger than the mountain we can see.

Daan Roggeveen
Shanghai, April 2012

Daan Roggeveen is an architect and researcher. With journalist Michiel Hulshof he is the founder of the Go West Project, a multidisciplinary research and design lab focusing on China’s emerging megacities. They recently published How the City moved to Mr Sun, a journalistic report on the development of new megacities in the heart of China.

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