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Red dawn.


By Layla Dawson. Munich; Prestel, 2005. [pounds sterling]25

China uses 54 per cent of the world's concrete production and some 36 per cent of its steel. No less than 90 per cent of the world's most polluted cities are in China. Layla Dawson has heroically dived headfirst into the filthy maelstrom to find herself surrounded by creatures at least as bizarre as those encountered by Alice in the Caucus Race, but they are, for the most part, a great deal more nasty and less endearing than Lewis Carroll's characters.

China's New Dawn: an Architectural Transformation is a mainly pictorial survey of some 50 projects, recently completed or in train, with a perceptive introduction that sets the current building boom into historic, political, economic and philosophical contexts. Paradoxes abound. The authoritarian state still exists (and makes the construction explosion possible while just about keeping it under control). While keen to demonstrate cultural independence, the Chinese collect work by Western superstars. Wanting iconic object buildings, they nevertheless demand profitability in crude real estate terms. Frank Gehry's response was that 'these guys were out to lunch!... Chinese architecture seems so skin deep'.

Perhaps that is why China brings out the worst in visitors. Foreign architects renowned for their capering in Europe and North America can make even thinner and more perverse gestures in China, as long as they can be run up on the cheap. They make up most of Dawson's examples. Horrors like Koolhaas's absurdly writhing Chinese television headquarters in Beijing, Andreu's literally carbuncular National Theatre next to the Forbidden City, and P & T group's cardboard neo-fascist compositions slither off her pages. They are relieved by gigantic commercial towers and vast empty neo-PoMo piazzas. But here and there is decent work like that of von Gerkan, Marg & Partner, who play a very straight bat, Rocco Design's delicate (though expensive) Boao Canal Village on Hainan island and Shanghai practice MADA's humanly scaled urban buildings for smaller cities.

Dawson is far from being an uncritical chronicler. She rarely tries to excuse the excesses, superficiality and inhumanity, but ends in hope, quoting I. M. Pei--'China needs to develop confidence in its own culture. Out of confidence will come a new life, a new culture, and a unique architecture'. Yet, until then, as Dawson says, 'China is wearing Western camouflage'. With energy, insight and iron guts, she has recorded both camouflage and some of what it conceals: one of the most extraordinary episodes in the whole history of architecture.
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Title Annotation:China's New Dawn: An Architectural Transformation
Author:Davey, Peter
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2005
Previous Article:Specifier's information.
Next Article:Reaching for the sky.

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