Are China’s Architects Out of Touch?
Rural China can be stubbornly difficult to describe. Although my hometown in the central province of Hunan is hardly wealthy, on my last trip back I was struck by the sheer number of new-built mansions that have cropped up over the past three years. Visiting the neighbors was like a trip through the pages of McMansion Hell: Garish attempts to recreate traditional Chinese aesthetics through upturned eaves sat uncomfortably next to European villas complete with verandas and Greco-Roman columns. The urban property market may have stagnated, but villagers in this part of the country are apparently still willing to invest in their homes.
Despite the surface-level variety, many of these new structures are copies. It’s increasingly common for villagers to find home plans by browsing short-video platforms like Douyin; when they find a video they like, they send it to a contractor who builds them an identical copy. Only rarely do they reach out to professional architects.
Viewed through the prism of China’s anti-elitist culture wars, this tendency is often interpreted as proof that Chinese architects are out of step with mass aesthetics. This view was perhaps best showcased by the reaction to a 2021 episode of the reality show “Dream House,” in which Beijing architect Tao Lei was assigned to plan a home for an elderly man in a rural part of the northwestern province of Gansu.
Tao approached the project like any contemporary architect would: For building material, he used the red bricks traditional to the area, while for the interiors he opted for a minimalist style. But the end of the episode, when the house was revealed to the owner, caused a firestorm of controversy online. The show’s largely urban viewers were outraged at Tao’s decisions, accusing him of “overriding the owner’s vision to spend 1.32 million yuan ($190,000) of his hard-earned money on a brick shell.” The deluge of online hate quickly spilled over into the real world, as an anonymous tipster reported Tao Lei’s residence in Beijing for unapproved modifications.
The irony is, the unnamed villager at the center of the controversy repeatedly praised Tao’s work, calling the newly renovated home “so beautiful.” He reaffirmed his praise a year later in a special segment devoted to the controversy. But his views were largely irrelevant to the backlash. In the minds of Tao’s critics, it went without saying that an old man from the Gansu sticks would prefer a lavish villa.
The “Dream House” incident is a dramatic reflection of an increasingly widespread distrust of “elitist” professionals. Tao’s design, manner of speaking, even his clothes all made him an easy target for a public disenchanted with public intellectualism. But viewing Chinese architects as part of some out-of-touch elite fundamentally misunderstands the reality of the profession. While architecture was a popular field of study as recently as a decade ago, the employment prospects faced by today’s graduates are abysmal. As urban construction slows down, job opportunities are increasingly hard to come by, forcing many qualified professionals out of the industry. Snarky comments about “1.32-million-yuan brick shell homes” aside, most architects don’t earn enough to buy a house in their city of residence.
Similarly overestimated is the influence that architects have over China’s built landscape. For dramatic purposes, “Dream House” portrays architects as having the final say, but in the majority of real-life construction initiatives, architects are merely contractors tasked with making their clients’ ideas, no matter how misguided, a reality. Chinese architects can be categorized into three groups. The first work at state-run design institutes. Although they have a broad canvas, their buildings must reflect official tastes. Those at large private firms, meanwhile, mainly produce apartment templates for real estate developers to build in bulk.
Although there are a handful of independent firms with firmly held ideals and a portfolio of standout work both in China and overseas, they work at the margins of the industry and have little sway over mainstream aesthetics.
Popular media only reinforces these misconceptions. To use “Dream House” as an example, the show’s producers sought to create dramatic tension by playing up the differences between the humble, old farmer and the big shot architect from the city. Though the man and his family were in regular communication with Tao throughout the entire design process, the editing gives the impression that they were kept in the dark until the final unveiling. This one-sided presentation manages to create an unflattering portrait of both sides: the architect as an out-of-touch city slicker and his client as a hapless yokel.
We all aspire to live in a beautiful home, and we are all entitled to our own aesthetic opinions. There are reasons for rural China’s tendency toward neoclassical mansions: Rural housing is often a self-conscious attempt to show off one’s wealth, success, and taste, an objective that meshes poorly with contemporary architecture’s emphasis on local materials, blending into the environment, and modern minimalism. Nevertheless, it is worth paying attention to who, exactly, is emphasizing the gap between what architects and ordinary Chinese look for in a building.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Villas at a village in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, 2018. VCG)