Has 'weird' architecture had its day?

Steven Smit | 23 Mar 2015 | Comments

For anyone who has visited a Chinese city, it is obvious that the desire by Chinese clients, as expressed in design briefs to international and local architects to surprise the market with the next unique idea, has resulted in many ‘weird’ (‘qi qi guai guai’) buildings being commissioned. Foreign architects working in China have for years been uncomfortable with designing icons for icons’ sake. But sometimes weird buildings win international design awards – such as the new CCTV headquarters in Beijing, currently everyone’s favourite strange building.

The Chinese president Xi Jinping recently gave a speech to a group of culture sector professionals on the topic of architecture appropriate for China. He expressed a desire for ‘patriotic, socialist and nationalistic’ architecture, interpreted by many to mean more culturally appropriate architecture for China at this time. This architecture could be less flamboyant and ‘international’ and more ‘restrained’ and sustainable.

The speech has instigated a serious discussion among Chinese and international architects and property developers, and means that after two decades of creating thousands of architectural icons that replaced drab state architecture, further iconic buildings are becoming a risky proposition. It could lead to a more considered, constrained design culture, in other words, more ‘mature’ architecture. In every country a fine line exists between good architecture, strange architecture, ugly architecture and plain bad architecture. Architects around the world respond to a design brief and many factors, especially cost, will influence the end result.

In China the property market is now maturing rapidly, with rising construction costs (in particular labour costs) and the ’icon boom’ may be over for good. It is possible that under the slowed economic growth conditions adopted in China, clients and government bodies in charge of design selection and project approvals, like their western counterparts, are going to judge designs more on core performance parameters related to quality (including sustainability) and less on pure idea and shape alone.

If the president does not approve of ‘qi qi guai guai’ weird building designs in China, local planning officials – often second guessing the meaning behind iconic concepts – are not going to risk arguing with Beijing. The difficulty of course is to define what is meant by weird. At the moment everyone is waiting to see if the president’s thinking will and can be issued as a building policy or code. There will definitely be interesting implications for architecture in China in the future.