Strange as it may sound, most of the world’s buildings are not designed by professional architects. In China, news often surfaces about eccentric structures in towns and cities. Many of these headline-grabbing edifices are forms of representational architecture, a term that refers to buildings modeled on the appearance of something else.
In Langfang, a city in the northern province of Hebei, stands a hotel that resembles the three Taoist deities of prosperity, status, and longevity. In Yibin, southwestern China’s Sichuan province, Wuliangye, a well-known distillery, built an office in the likeness of one of its bottles of baijiu, a potent sorghum liquor. Shenyang’s Fang Yuan Building takes its visual cues from ancient Chinese bronze coins, which are circular with square-shaped holes in the middle. Arguably the apotheosis of eccentric architecture, however, may be the office buildings of real estate company Wanda, which are scattered all over China and shaped like curling stones, teakettles, drums, lanterns, porcelain, and conch shells.
Both professional architects and the general public often see such representational architecture as a collection of tacky, childish eyesores. As an architect myself, I find this view narrow-minded. In fact, I love the untamed, bizarre quality of buildings that are truly testaments to their designers’ peculiar tastes.
A 10-meter-tall sculpture of the Chinese character ‘gan’ is seen in Dalishu Village, Liaoning province, Jan. 6, 2017. Xie Kuangshi/Sixth Tone
Dalishu is a village in northeastern China’s Liaoning province. Over the last 30 years, residents have worked hard to cast off the shackles of poverty. To celebrate the village being officially listed as “well-off” by the central government, residents decided to build a public square on top of a nearby mountain, the centerpiece of which is a red, 10-meter-tall sculpture of the Chinese character gan, which means “work hard.” To drive the point home, they erected 360 more gan sculptures along the road leading to the square, each representing one day of hard work per year. (Villagers take three days off for Chinese New Year, one day off for Labor Day, and one day off for National Day.)
Putting the uninspiring designs aside, you would be forgiven for thinking that Dalishu is charmingly quirky. Not so: Gan also refers – somewhat crudely – to the act of copulation, a fact that has drawn childish chortles from the online community. But then again, what better way to capture the spirit of getting on with it than by decorating the entire town with the Chinese character for getting it on?
A view of a turtle-shaped building in Pingshan County, Hebei, March 7, 2010. Chen Zhanwu/VCG
Another personal favorite of mine is a building in Pingshan County, in the northern province of Hebei, that can proudly claim to be the largest turtle-shaped building on the planet. Measuring 39 meters long and 36 meters across, the building’s owner and designer, Fan Haiting, is a rural entrepreneur who made his money raising soft-shelled turtles for food. He also has a deep love for national sovereignty.
The building is a drab gray color, since in Chinese, the word for “gray turtle,” hui gui, is a homophone for the word “return.” Not only that, the vast reptilian replica has a further 1,997 turtles carved into its back. Together, they reference the 1997 return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. The path encircling the building has a diameter of 99.9 meters, a pun on the word jiu, which means both “nine” and “a long time,” symbolizing the eternal sanctity of the Chinese nation.
To give less-traveled villagers the chance to experience the wonders of the ocean, Fan surrounded his turtle with a small outdoor aquarium. But his most stunning design decision may have been the inclusion of a crudely built palace in honor of the Dragon Kings, who ruled the oceans in Chinese mythology. Fan’s palace captures, brilliantly but perhaps inadvertently, the culture and customs of its Chinese visitors, successfully combining traditional notions of the ocean with family-oriented amusements.
Given the significance of the dragon in Chinese mythology, it should come as no surprise that much representational architecture is replete with snaking, scaly beasts. On Mount Shizu, a peak in central China’s Henan province said to be the birthplace of a legendary emperor, is a dragon-shaped sculpture whose head reaches 30 meters into the air. Its body sits astride the mountain itself, winding along the ridge.
The piece’s original sponsor was a wealthy businessman named Guo Shenghai. Guo hoped to create a symbol of the Chinese spirit, something akin to Mount Rushmore in the United States. He therefore set about building the largest dragon in China, a monument that would draw patriotic Chinese from all over the world.
According to Guo’s original design, “China’s No. 1 Dragon” was meant to be 21 kilometers long, symbolizing China’s rise in the 21st century. The piece would also be lined with 5.6 million scales, a nod to the country’s 56 ethnic groups. While the dragon’s head and a portion of its body were built according to plan, a lack of funds and Guo’s mysterious disappearance soon caused the construction to grind to a halt. The artwork remains unfinished, and Guo’s whereabouts are unknown.
‘China’s No. 1 Dragon’ as seen from Mt. Shizu, Xinzheng, Henan province, April 28, 2015. He Xiaohua/VCG
Untamed architecture doesn’t follow the rules of conventional aesthetics. Still, the innovative individuals behind these works are ordinary people who have adapted their ideas to local conditions in order to accomplish their artistic dreams. Their approach stands in stark contrast to the increasingly industrialized, commercialized, and lifeless architecture found in China’s urban centers. Using a rural canvas, China’s wealthy, untrained architects are channeling their patriotism into works that shatter our preconceptions about what buildings should look like.
Academics and the general public scorn representational architecture because it lies outside mainstream notions of acceptable designs. In my view, however, what raises these unusual, illogical, and often hackneyed designs to the level of great architecture is the sheer joy their creators take in innovation and creation. Such works not only expand the horizons of what is possible, they also capture the unbridled joy that can only come from smashing the status quo.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A hotel façade depicts Chinese deities symbolizing prosperity, status, and longevity respectively, in Langfang, Hebei province, Nov. 20, 2017. Dong Bin/VCG)