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    The Hunt for China’s Ugliest Building

    For 13 years, the “China’s Ugliest Buildings” poll has documented the misfires and gambles that defined the country’s urban building spree. What can the results teach us about taste in architecture?

    Late last month, Changyan, a leading Chinese architecture site, published the results of its annual “China’s Ugliest Buildings” poll. The poll, which debuted in 2010 to document the worst architectural excesses of post-Olympics China, features both a readers’ choice section and feedback from a select panel of experts. This year, the public landed on a branch of the CORPUS Museum in the eastern Anhui province, which, like its counterpart in the Netherlands, features a massive statue that critics likened to a man sitting on a toilet. The experts, meanwhile, gave the crown to Tian An 1,000 Trees, a shopping center in downtown Shanghai designed by British architect Thomas Heatherwick, panning it as “an aesthetic and communications fiasco.”

    The popularity of Changyan’s poll reflects public frustration with the country’s urban design. China embarked on a building spree of unprecedented proportions during the 2000s and 2010s. Designs from renowned architects around the world were solicited, but some of the more ostentatious plans aroused the ire of nearby residents. The government itself eventually stepped in, issuing a ban on “ugly” buildings in 2021. 

    Zhou Rong, an associate professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Architecture and one of the poll’s founding expert panelists, called the list, “not the product of a well-thought-out organizational design, but a stress response crystalizing society’s collective emotions.” To look back at the poll’s nominees is to trace some of the worst architectural trends of the past 13 years. Early on, most of the nominees were copycat structures, like new government buildings in cities such as Nanjing, Fuyang, and Lianshui that imitated the U.S. Capitol building, or public spaces in Chongqing, Xiayi, and Linfen that aped Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

    More recently, the competition has targeted more well-known architects, including leading international designers. For example, the expert’s choice in 2018 was the Shanghai International Design Center, designed by the Japanese architect and Pritzker Prize laureate Tadao Ando. The judges ruled that “Ando’s style of design favors small-scale buildings that can be understood with a single glance, like small museums or cultural centers,” but said it was ill-suited to looming international centers.

    The 2019 title went to Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie for the 350-meter-high Raffles City Chongqing, a multi-use complex near the city’s old downtown. The panel declared the building, which dominates the city’s historic waterfront, “brutally trampled on Chongqing’s historical heritage.”

    The selection of Raffles City Chongqing marked a shift in Chinese architectural criticism. Architects’ transgressions were no longer limited to poor quality and taste, but also included any perceived disrespect toward local or Chinese culture. This shift helps explain the frustration with Tian An 1,000 Trees, a retail space, luxury hotel, and high-end office complex similar to an artificial island park Heatherwick had designed in New York. Some people associated Tian An with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, given the bizarre shape of the trees lining its rooftop, while others lampooned its resemblance to a traditional Chinese tomb. This year’s judges felt that Tian An’s architects “lacked a basic understanding of Chinese culture and did not bother engaging in extensive, in-depth emotional communication with the public in advance.”

    The Ugliest Building competition has helped China grapple with some of the excesses of the past decade, but its impact has not been entirely positive. To start, although the poll positions itself as a neutral arbiter of taste, what makes a building “ugly” is obviously a subjective concept. People have every right to question a building’s function, adaptability to its environment, and even the prejudices of the design team, but complaints about “ugly architecture” have seemingly morphed from individual instances of fault-finding into a campaign against the field itself. 

    The creators of the poll recognized this potential problem from the outset. That’s why they set up a system of checks and balances with the popular vote and an expert panel. The idea was to reflect public opinion while also enabling experts to give their professional assessments.

    For a while, this system worked. In 2012, the new CCTV headquarters in Beijing ranked first on the popular vote but was ignored by the expert panelists. Situated near the historically and culturally significant Beijing city center, the building features a bold, controversial design by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. One of the panel judges at the time was Wang Mingxian, former deputy director of the Architectural Art Institute at the China Academy of Art, who defended Koolhaas’ work. “Even though many people can’t stand it right now and think it’s ugly, (most of the panelists believe) the building represents an important trend in the development of world architecture,” Wang explained in an interview. “It’s not bizarre just for the sake of being bizarre. We believe that this kind of experiment is worth encouraging, so that’s why it wasn’t chosen as the ugliest building.”

    In recent years, however, emotions have increasingly guided the panel’s opinions as well as the public’s. For example, in his analysis of the 2022 poll, Zhou, the poll’s co-founder, wrote, “The public’s emotions and assessments also have social legitimacy and cannot be ignored or suppressed in the name of so-called professionalism.”

    This new stance is problematic, in part because it’s increasingly difficult to tell if the poll reflects genuine dissatisfaction with a building’s form or function, or if the results are driven by emotional and subjective assessments and colored by social media. When looking at responses to the latest poll online, it’s not hard to notice the hostility bubbling under the surface. Very rarely do people engage in serious discussions about architectural aesthetics; most are there simply to vent or even to incite personal attacks on the architect. In a sense, it’s a microcosm of the growing polarization of Chinese social media. Everything is either “the ugliest” or the “most beautiful,” and experts are expected to endorse the public’s judgement — or face its wrath.

    These trends have helped make Changyan’s poll a major annual event, but they bode ill for its critical value. To allow our judgment to become dependent on the volume of critical opinions, and not the quality of their analyses, is to allow the most inflammatory voices to hijack public opinion. Fixing what ails Chinese architecture will require more than just righteous indignation. It will take a good-faith campaign to educate the public on architecture and a willingness to include everyone, from professionals to nearby residents, in community-building and decision-making.

    Translator: Katherine Tse; editor: Cai Yineng.

    (Header image: The branch of the CORPUS Museum in Ma’anshan, Anhui province, 2021. From Ma’anshan Daily)