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Book Review: Chinese Brutalism Today

The fast pace of construction in China has become a cliché for the documentarians of our age. But when numbers are put to the stories and pictures, the stock comments fall away and this phenomenon takes on a larger life. From the sheer quantity emerges another story, one that yields more possibilities, especially about the “what” of what is being built. For the construction boom — riding the economic boom of the 1980s and coalescing into a 1989 regulatory law — focused on the use of concrete as a building material, which was then and remains now the most-used construction material in China. Architect and historian Alberto Bologna explores the implications and innovations of this phenomenon in his monograph Chinese Brutalism Today: Concrete and Avant-Garde Architecture.

According to Bologna’s sources, between 1980 and 2010, China “increased their extraction of minerals for the production of building materials twenty-five times over,” and “used more cement (and, as a result, concrete) between 2011 and 2013 than the United States did throughout the entire 20th century.” Much of this raw material has been dedicated to “pharaonic infrastructure works,” such as the Three Gorges Dam, but the cement also goes towards bridges, highways, ports, “underground networks in various megalopolises,” and other projects. Regulation and standardization have created favorable conditions, in effect reducing architectural freedom but also establishing measurements that allow for heavy prefabrication, speeding up production times and allowing for a “form follows economics” continuation of the construction boom. The Chinese government officially designated prefabrication an integral – and not just post-hoc – aspect of construction in 2016, recognizing both formalist and social dimensions of construction. In the end, the “what” of what was being built was a mode or method of fashioning the social world often through “pure market logic,” but also methods that have created challenging conditions for “new formalisms and spatiality.”

One nice thing about Bologna’s book is the lively writing that facilitates the reader’s journey through rather terse and data-heavy terrain. His ample examples and lucid and engaging tone make it easier for enthusiast non-specialists to see how the work of either a famous non-architect like Ai Weiwei, or the more-established Amateur Architecture Studio, play with established regulations while finding space for innovative solutions to the formal and aesthetic problems of concrete building in China. We learn that the field of professional architecture is divided into the tripartite system of design institutes, people Bologna calls “fake freelancers” (those who operate semi-autonomously within state institutions), and the self-employed, all of whom coexist more or less harmoniously and also balance their own, often economic, aims with clients, contractors, construction companies and other necessary players. He also points out how these nexuses always have the weight of culture — whether in the form of artistic innovation, or the pressure to express an essence — on their shoulders, and how “the compositional, formal, and spatial research today places exposed concrete at the center of the scene.” This is not as dry as one might imagine, and for specialists it should be especially readable and informative as Bologna takes us all through the controversies of “Chinese characteristics,” regionalism, and Western or international standards, across a legacy of roughly forty years’ architectural work.

For example, innovations in construction technique and form have met shortcomings in local capacity and capability. And in attempting the highly coveted polished concrete surface, Atelier Deshaus’ Long Museum (Shanghai) struggled to execute a “well-defined design idea.” Because building materials did not reflect the standard necessary for the museum, and local construction methods were similarly inadequate, “the construction effort aimed at containing a continuous surface in exposed concrete fails, compromising, if not the overall spatial outcome, certainly the expressive one.” Yet some other examples, such as OLI Architecture’s Mu Xin Art Museum (Wuzhen, Zhejiang Province), find success through infusing their project with “a large economic investment by the client and the use of workers ready to assimilate from abroad, bringing with them their knowledge and mastery of techniques.”​ This opens the door to questioning whether it is practical or desirable to follow the lead of mega-architect Renzo Piano, whose Hangzhou workshop, which looks so smooth as to be incongruous with the surrounding buildings, needed concrete finishing to be exported from China for finishing and mock-ups in Italy, where the (Italian) DottorGroup could exercise more control over chemical and other composition and analysis. Yet Piano’s locally contracted construction group, Zhejiang Jujiang Group, has adapted in ways that may make more innovative form sustainable in China, “demonstrated by the fact that it has accepted a challenge that has involved subjecting itself to the will, imposed on it by the client,” in this case a foreign architect, “to undertake a real process of education and training conducted through the comparison with specialists in the non-Chinese sector.” Here the possibility of international collaboration sounds both beneficial and, possibly, insulting.

The architects and firms in Bologna’s book have concentrated much of their energy on semi-public, or institutional, buildings: an athletic center here, a library there, yet another museum over there. Housing has been difficult to build due to funding, although there are at least a few notable exceptions, such as Vector Architects’ Captains House in Fuzhou, or either Atelier Li Xianggang’s or ZAO/standardarchitecture’s hutong projects.​ Here there may be room for extratextual comparisons with earlier public works that also made use of concrete and a more international building vocabulary, such as the National Agricultural Exhibition Center (Yan Xinghua, Ministry of Construction, 1959), or the myriad xiaoqu built between the mid-’50s and late ’70s (as detailed in Beijing Danwei: Industrial Heritage in the Contemporary City, eds. Bonino and de Pieri). The advantage of a comparison would not only be in methodology — which has dominated the legal discussion of Chinese architecture — but in form. For “even though China is setting itself in the world as the undisputed home of hi-tech in the field of building production there is still a clash with construction phase managed, in most cases, by unskilled workers who can be asked to carry out operations that are extremely rudimentary. The avant-garde architecture… is only the matter of designers who know how to manage their creative process, aware of the limits of the constructive context in which they operate.”

The question this leaves readers, as well as Bologna himself, with is whether the ideals and goals that contemporary Chinese architecture has set for itself — above all, an architecture that is both local as well as international in design as well as construction, along the lines of someone like Tadao Ando — can be achieved, ironically, in a geographically and culturally Chinese context. Proof of that may be provided in Atelier Li Xinggang’s use of glass reinforced concrete (GRC), a new building material developed in China by LafargeHolcim after new regulations on cement prefabrication in 2016. Atelier Li Xinggang has used GRC to great — and smooth — effect in several projects, notably their Hainan International Conference and Exhibition Center (Haikou) and, more significantly, their Third Space housing compound (Tangshan), which departs from the semi-public works that characterize much contemporary architecture. Li Xingang has also proved himself adept at negotiating with clients to scale down some of their more extravagant desires to work better with pre-existing Chinese construction practices, while also retaining a sense of improvisation around building construction, where “each GRC panel is designed ad hoc.”

This is maybe the most exciting area of contemporary Chinese avant-garde architecture today, and certainly its most exploratory. The groundwork that Chinese Brutalism Today lays is that it is one of very few works dedicated to the exploration of concrete as a versatile building material in China (another book which certainly opens the conversation is Jiawen Han’s excellent China’s Architecture in a Globalizing World: Between Socialism and the Market), and Bologna gives the sense that the field is still vital — artistically, legally, and constructively. However, one key term that I have not discussed so far is his use of the term “brutalism,” which Bologna asks that we apply broadly while also thinking specifically of the questions Brutalism originally raised and continues to raise, as an artistic and also ethical avant-garde. But when Reyner Banham posed his questions in “The New Brutalism” (1955) — was it an architectural or ethical practice? — the term was new enough, the context was decidedly different, and the possibilities of ethical practice could already be seen or would soon be seen in the affordable housing blocks that would appear in London and elsewhere. Whereas Brutalism took off there, in other countries, namely the US, it never took hold outside of semi-private buildings, mostly on college campuses, or occasionally in widely-hated government centers (most Americans never developing the aesthetic mettle for Brutalism’s ethical demands). Will this be the case in China? Even Li Xinggang’s housing work in Beijing is “no longer pursued by potential customers” due to the public nature of hutong life. Bologna cannot be faulted for not speculating in this regard, as the pace of change is as fast as the pace of construction. But one may hope, after seeing the exciting experiments in form that he enlists, that Brutalism finds a new home.

Matt Turner is the author of the poetry collections Not Moving (2019, Broken Sleep Books) and Wave 9: Collages (2021, Flying Island Books), and translator of Lu Xun, Ou Ning, Yan Jun and others. His essays and reviews can be found in Hyperallergic Weekend, Hong Kong Review of Books, LARB China Channel, and Cha. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Cover of Chinese Brutalism Today by Alberto Bologna,San Francisco: ORO Editions, 2019, link.

An aerial view of Mu Xin Art Museum by OLI Architecture PLLC, image from Link. © Shen Zhonghai

Micro Hutong in Beijing by ZAO/standardarchitecture, image from Link. © Wu Qingshan

"The Third Space" / Atelier Li Xinggang, image from Link. © Guangyuan Zhang

Renovation of Captain's House / Vector Architects, image from Link. © Howard Chan

Published: 2020.09.24