Blog | Architecture

China Contemporary at NAI

. 3 min read

I still get excited by everything Chinese, so this weekend I went to the opening of China Contemporary, Architecture, Art and Visual Culture, a joint interdisciplinary exhibition by the Netherlands Architecture Institute, Museum Boymans van Beuningen and the Netherlands Fotomuseum. I was particularly eager to see the exhibition at the Netherlands Architecture Institute.

When I arrived they were still putting the finishing touches to the exhibition, but they were so kind as to let me get a preview. The sawing and hammering actually added to the experience and it would have been fun if they'd just continued building, just as in any Chinese city.

China is booming and so is Chinese architecture. So far the projects that have received the most international attention are by major foreign practices, the CCTV Tower by OMA and the Beijing Olympic Stadium by Herzog & de Meuron to name but two of the most covered projects. The organizers of the exhibition at the NAI have done well to focus exclusively on a number of young Chinese architectural practices. While their approaches vary they all share a critical and pragmatic attitude towards the challenges presented by the rapidly growing and changing Chinese cities.

It is quite astonishing to see the scale of some of the urban projects, which bring to mind the "Haussmannization" of Paris. Since its designation as a special economic zone in 1980 the city of Shenzhen has been booming. It has swallowed up many neighbouring villages. One such village is Gangsha Village. In the middle of Gangsha village stands a housing block with a land area of 17 ha. In 1996 the block had a housing area of 270,000 sqm. By 2001 it had increased to over 400,000 sqm. At the same time the area is being "squeezed" by neighbouring business areas. A proposal by the Urbanus architectural practice calls for the demolition of the buildings of the poorest quality. The remaining buildings are then to be "stitched" together, creating new housing typologies and public spaces on the rooftops of the remaining buildings. A few years ago this would have been the kind of project for which a diploma student at the AA or the Bartlett received a distinction. In China today wild, original ideas may actually get realized.

In 2002 Qingpu, an old town about 20 miles north of Shanghai, had a population of 250,000. By 2020 this is projected to have doubled, meaning that over the next few years some 10 million square feet of new residences will have to be built. Under the leadership of vice district chief, Jiwei Sun, who trained and worked as an architect, before becoming a government official, Qingpu Xincheng or Qingpu New City has become a hotbed for contemporary architecture and a laboratory for new urban paradigms.

By far the most interesting project is the Informal China project by designer and critic Jiang Jun. It documents what Jiang Jun calls "dirtitecture", the improvised sheds people build from found material, the roof extensions and added balconies people construct on their houses, the gardens that emerge on roofs when plants are left to grow. This kind of architecture is far removed from the iconic buildings of the architectural mainstream. All photos can also be found in issue 9 of Urban China, a magazine of which Jiang Jun is the editor-in-chief. Apart from being a fascinating document of urban change it is also an exercise in looking or rather seeing. If you're interested in urbanism this publication is an absolute must-have.

Another interesting project is the video and booklet documenting the story of Zhang Jinli, whose house and restaurant in Beijing had to be demolished to make way for a wider street. He refused to leave his house as he claimed the compensation offered by the government was unreasonable. Zhang Jinli was given a digital video camera by the directors of the Da Zha Lan Project, a project sponsored by the German Goethe Institute documenting urban change in China. The footage shot by Zhang Jinli of his life and his battle to save his house and restaurant, a battle he eventually lost, give a fascinating and moving portrait of one man's fight and the dark side of any urban renewal project.

China Contemporary Architecture is one of those typical "money doesn't matter" exhibitions by the Netherlands Architecture Institute that makes museums in other countries jealous. With the exhibition design the curators have tried to bring across some of the hustle and bustle of Chinese metropoles. This works best at the entrance to the exhibition, a room filled with sounds and videos projected on the vertical strips that hang from the ceiling and through which you can pass to the main exhibition space. Here big cardboard columns that function as lampoons and billboards hang from the ceilings.

The exhibition is organized along five different themes, Chineseness, Critical Urban Renewal, Urbanscape, Public Domain and Informal China, but they didn't get in the way of my viewing. The projects are presented in the form of models of sites and individual buildings, drawings, photos and videos. There's also a small pavilion made out of tubes where you can sit down to browse through some books and magazines. The meaning of or the idea behind the pavilion escaped me, but it looked nice.

China Contemporary is at the Netherlands Architecture Institute, Rotterdam until 3 September 2006.