Canton Eyes Guangzhou China – Culture Musings, Architecture Oddities, Urban Design


I’m a Hollywood star!

up in the air 1

Foreigners living in China can easily land one-day gigs acting for commercials and other productions.  Earlier this year, I put on an ill fitting tuxedo, was made-up, and "welcomed" people to an expensive high rise apartment at their extravagant opening day party.  For this, I was paid the average factory worker's monthly wage.  Knowing that makes me feel guilty, but not guilty enough to reject the money.  Actually it's not much money if I exchange it to dollars. And that is the normal rate for doing that kind of work, as dictated by scarcity of supply and strength of demand.

Last month, I spent a morning along the sea wall in Zhuhai pretending to be a foreign good-Samaritan who helps a stricken fisherman, while all the Chinese bystanders stand around him doing nothing.  I walked up and knelt down to place an unknown medical device on his chest.  Then he sat up and vigorously thanked me, and I said "you're welcome" in Chinese.  A German guy was hired to wear a white lab coat and hold the device while speaking medical jargon into the camera.  The device seemed to be just a little plastic disk with a blinking red light and a switch.

people playing bystanders surround a man playing a fisherman in Zhuhai

The whole concept was curious.   Why do the "white" guys get to save the day and play doctor in the Chinese commercial?  Neither of us are health care professionals, or even real actors. My impression is that the people who produce these commercials assume that using foreigners provides them some amount of credibility and "prestige". I later felt some regret that some people may interpret my appearance as an endorsement, as if my relatively pale skin color represents knowledge and experience.   Perhaps the device is real and useful.  But, I suspect my appearance was being used to deceive people.

You can see that doing commercials in China makes me a bit guilty.  But I've just got news that I'm an actual Hollywood star!  No more China commercials for me, I've hit the big time.

There is George Clooney from the 2009 film "Up in the Air" (Chinese names: 在云端,型男飛行日誌 ).  Where am I?  In the carpet!

In my last job as an architect back in the states, I was responsible for design when that same apartment building was renovated a few years ago.  I chose that rich orange color for the carpet and doors, among other things.  What do you think of the colors?

Now, if I can just figure out a way to build my new career on this...

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New generation train stations

China still travels by rail.  That may not be news to you, but let's make a comparison.

In my hometown, there is a beautiful old train station. The grand passenger building guards over the city's main axis, it's heavy carved stone stacked in arches. Behind is a soaring iron and glass train shed. In the 1940's, when most Americans traveled by rail, it was one of the busiest train stations in the country. It closed in the seventies, after the number of passengers declined so much that the station could no longer support itself. These days it's used as a hotel and a mall. It's a common story.  As passenger travel shifted to highway and plane, US passenger rail shrank to a bare minimum served by Amtrak, and much of the original infrastructure was lost. In china, the old way of traveling by rail is changing very quickly, but it isn't giving up on rail travel.

The old generation.  A train station in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi Province

China's old railway stations are relatively chaotic places, teeming with people trying to get somewhere else.  China had a station building boom in the 60s and 70s.  Most stations are low and flat, the only defining characteristic is a few giant red characters standing on the roof to represent the city name.  Inside dark passenger waiting rooms, people wait on rows of dirty molded fiberglass chairs.  There are often beautiful murals with socialist or traditional Chinese themes.  The environment always seems tense with fear of thieves, others, police.  If you ever happen to see indications of social instability in China, its most likely to be in old train stations.

A mural inside the passenger waiting room at Taiyuan Station

The Guangzhou-Wuhan high speed train, which opened last December, takes just 3 hours to make the journey, at a top speed of 350km.  It connects the biggest city in southern China with one of the bigger cities in central China.  A big part of this project was the 2 new terminal stations built at both ends. Eventually, this line will be extended north all the way to Beijing.

The China Ministry of Railways is building new stations for it's high speed rail lines.  Each station is a major infrastructure project costing around US$1 billion each.  The existing stations in both cities were deemed already overcrowded and unable to handle the additional passenger load of the high speed train. The area around stations today are dense with development related to the proximity of the station, so it's hard to build something new there. The new stations are far outside the city center, a 45 minute subway or bus ride away.  It's probable that the areas around the new stations will eventually be densely developed. These stations will create major cities around themselves, pulling the center of the old cities toward them.

But for now, the stations are still surrounded by farm land.  These stations are huge, you can see them rise like small hills as you approach.  The feature that seems to connect the new stations is they are all open and light-filled.  The ceilings incorporate skylights, and the light is usually moderated by lovers or shades.

The next generation. The new Wuhan station, which features an open train platform in the center

Wuhan station detail

The new Guangzhou South station and its dramatic arching roof

Beijing South Station.  With some fake palm trees, just for fun

They all seem to be descendants of the old glass and steel train sheds of Europe, like the old train station in my hometown.  The new stations are relatively calm.  One reason is that poor travelers can't afford the high speed tickets, so there are much fewer people in a much larger space. But the stations are not that relaxing, not to me. The stations are grandiose statements, and the images are all postcard worthy.  But there isn't much that is scaled to people. All the interesting detail of the building is raised far above your head, with little that is interesting down at eye level.

These expensive train stations represent a commitment to rail travel in China.  But the fact that they are so far from cities reduces their advantage over air travel.  The stations are almost as far from the city as airports, so when you add the travel time on both sides, the train will take a lot longer than a plane.  Will the grand new generation stations themselves lead to the decline of train travel in the long term future?

The new Guangzhou South station and the Beijing South station built in 2008 were both designed by TFP Farrells, based in UK and Hong Kong.  Wuhan station was design by Arep, based in Paris.  The local design institutes serve as local architect-of-record. For now, the way to get to the Guangzhou South station is a shuttle bus from the Hanxi Changlong metro station on line 3.  Walk to the small bus terminal above the station, and its easy to find the bus going to the South Station.  The ride takes about 15 minutes each way, and costs 2 yuan.  A new subway line will go there someday.

[UPDATE, October 2010: The new subway line to Guangzhou South station is now open.  line 2]


China’s First Starchitect

Ever since the founding of the People's Republic, China has mostly avoided overt traditionalism in it's public buildings.  In the early years they were in a stark, Soviet style. More recently, the country has embraced international contemporary architecture.  If you need examples, think of the Beijing CCTV tower, Shanghai World Trade Building, Guangzhou Opera House.  Most have been designed by starchitects (a recently invented word combining "star" and "architect", meaning celebrity architect) who happen to be from somewhere outside the middle kingdom. To it's credit, so far China hasn't cared too much where the designer is from, as long as the design is good (the China Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo is a recent exception; it was designed by a local architect. I will discuss that building in a future post, after I get the chance to visit).  All of this was put into motion by a pioneering generation of architects from the Republic of China era.

At the forefront of that generation was Lu Yanzhi 吕彦直(1894-1929). He was born in Tianjin, spent time in Paris as a child, was educated at Qinghua University, then went abroad to study architecture at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. While there, he would have studied the typical curriculum of the time, based on the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.  It focused on studying and imitating classic European buildings. That included making lots of drawings imitating traditional European styles. Much of his student work still exists in the Cornell University archives. After graduation in 1918, he returned to China and practiced in Shanghai.

It was from his office in Shanghai that he won international competitions to design two important buildings: first the Sun Yatsen Mausoleum in Nanjing, and soon after the Sun Yatsen Memorial Hall in Guangzhou. Sun, whose Chinese name is Zhongshan, had died just a couple years before in 1925. The purpose of the buildings was to memorialize a man beloved for overthrowing the last emperor in 1911.  They also were meant to legitimize Sun's successors in the Nationalist political party and solidify their power by connecting them back to a great hero.  I think they can thus be seen as the most important civic buildings in China at that time.

a student drawing by Lu Yanzhi, from the Cornell University online archives

Lu's great innovation was to introduce modern building technology to Chinese architectural form. In doing so, he helped liberate Chinese building design from it's old conventions.  Actually, while his buildings use Chinese motifs and decorative elements as inspiration, they are in many ways very modern in their planning and massing.  He achieved shapes and forms that we're impossible before.  And the traditional elements are stylized and adapted to new materials: concrete and steel.

The Sun Yatsen Memorial Hall in Guangzhou is a large auditorium on the north-south axis of the old city, at the foot of Yuexiu Hill.  In terms of form and layout, the building is a circular hall with pavilions on each side.  It is clearly a descendant of the Pantheon in Rome, which has inspired the form of so many structures, including the Columbia University Library in New York, and the Qinghua University library.  The building is made with structural steel construction, with reinforced concrete infill.  It's shaped like the Chinese character for mountain or hill "山".  At the very peak is a octagon shaped room.

Layered roof design is something often seen in significant Chinese buildings.   The Memorial is divided into 4 layers.  Here it is quite unique and complex, as everything is intersecting at 45 degrees, instead of the typical 90.

For comparison, below is another significant building in Guangzhou from the same time period.  This is the old administration building at South China Agricultural University.  It's plan is a "U" shape, with the traditional arrangement of rectangular buildings, corridors, and small rooms inside, relating back to Qing Dynasty government buildings. The building also uses concrete but primarily as a decorative material, to form the roof ornament and railings.  It employs more traditional, less stylized traditional ornament.

Many traditional Chinese buildings used wenshou ( also called "zoomorphic") ornaments on the roof eaves.  Traditionally, these ornaments are very detailed sculptures of animal and human forms.  The wenshou on Lu's building are very highly abstracted into nearly geometric forms, almost "deco" in style.  Clearly, Lu didn't totally accept the slavish imitation of ornament encouraged by the Beaux-Arts style.  Stylized wenshou can be seen on other buildings from that era, but Lu's are particularly genius.  They represent the form of tradition but question and modify it.

Wenshou ornaments at Sun Yatsen Memorial (above), and the Forbidden City in Beijing (below)

The auditorium has no columns, an example of long span steel structure which was rare in Chinese buildings at that time.  The roof is suspended by a complex trussed steel structure.  Above the suspended ceiling is a large light room, which softens the light before allowing it to trickle into glass lights in the ceiling.  The effect is very wonderful.

auditorium interior

an original architectural drawing showing a section through the building.  Notice all the space above the auditorium ceiling.

a photo of a photo, showing the steel structure above the roof

decoration on the porch ceiling, made of mosaic tile.  Not a traditional Chinese material, this is an example of adaptation of western materials to Chinese design.

A detail at the stone course that surrounds the base of the building.  Notice the Celtic/Victorian stone carving.

Lu's fame was too short lived.  He died in 1929 at the age of 35, while the Sun Yatsen Memorial Hall was still under construction.  He surely designed other buildings in his short career, but unfortunately they have been forgotten in the fog of history.  The Sun Yatsen Memorial hall represents the promise of a bygone era.  Reflecting on Lu's work, I see a vision of a different China that could have been, where east and west gracefully intersect, without the schizophrenic hate-love relationship between outside and inside China that persists into our time.


Guangdong Provincial Museum

irregular openings colored red on the grey exterior intrigue the viewer to come closer

I made my first trip to the new Guangdong Provincial Museum on Tuesday, June 29. It won't be my last visit. It's in the middle of the new planned CBD, Zhujiang New Town, next to the Opera House, with a nice view of the river, and the new TV tower across.  This prominent location of the museum for China's most populous province shows both the importance of the museum and the prominent place ZJNT is destined to have in the province. The architect was Rocco Design Architects from Hong Kong.

The official metaphor for the building is a Chinese lacquer box. From afar, it's most notable exterior feature is irregular rectangular cutouts. The inside of the cuts are a bright Chinese red and the building cladding is a dull dark gray, creating an intriguing look that demands the viewer to investigate. The form is such a monolith, with so little information about what's inside, that you have to be forgiven for not noticing that the building is oriented away from the street and towards the central axis. From there is a sweeping grass ramp that rises up to the structure's pedestal. For now, that means most people are entering from the rear.  Make sure you walk down to the axis to see how the building connects with its site.

As I walked up to the pedestal under the building, my first impression was amazement at the tremendous cantilever hovering above.  It seems very simple but a lot of work went into creating that illusion. It's made possible by a huge truss that takes up the entire 6th floor.  Structurally, the building's walls and floors are actually hanging from the roof.  Not to be missed, there is an exhibit on the second floor about the building's design, where you can view a video illustrating the process of building that truss next to the building and sliding it into place on tracks.

Now that you're inside, remember those irregular cutouts? Turns out that they are small window alcoves between the exhibits that make nice places to look out at the views of the city.  When I visited, visitors were very enthusiastic to look out these at the newly unveiled views.  They also bring natural light into the spaces between exhibits.

From inside, the exterior concept is mostly not evident.  Instead, the organizing principle is a center atrium.  Around the atrium are a few layers of punched and folded aluminum panel suspended between roof and floor, resulting in different levels of transparency in places.  The panel breaks up the space of the atrium, allowing you to see through the building but never get overwhelmed by its scale.

The building's design is certainly ambitious, but unfortunately it's plagued by some sloppy finish work.  The wood floor was scratched badly throughout the building, though the building had been open for about a month when I visited.  And there were too many random little boxes built out of the floor or wall, evidence of poor integration of structure with mechanical systems.  Another problem is that there is a lot of wasted space, especially high up around the atrium, large areas that aren't part of circulation and don't have something like a nice view that could make them usable public space.

Ultimately though, any museum will succeed or fail on the quality of the exhibits.  By that account, the museum is very good.  Some of the highlights:  a beautiful collection of traditional wood carving, thorough exhibits of the province's history during the Republic of China period, and an exhaustive display of preserved specimens of Guangdong's varied plant life.  The presentation is superb, and almost all displays include English translations.

To get there, take metro line 3 to Zhujiang New Town station, exit B1.  From there, it's about a 10 minute walk south towards the river and around the opera house.  Admission is free, but you must show some ID to get your free ticket.


Putting on a Jacket, Donning a Hat

In preparation for hosting the Asian Games this November, Guangzhou is frantic with activity.  Part of this is what the creative Guangzhou people are calling "putting on a jacket and donning a hat", the project to remodel the exterior of many buildings. It's happening in quite a few older areas of the city commonly visited by tourists, including Shamian Island, Yide Street near Haizhu Square, and much of Zhongshan 1-8 Avenue.  First, bamboo scaffolding goes up over the facades.  Underneath, migrant workers from the countryside are doing re-plastering and repainting, some long-deferred maintenance, and in the case of Shamian Island stripping many layers of paint from the beautiful old stone facades.  After a month, the buildings emerge, looking like somebody with a very recent haircut.

A newer neighborhood, my neighborhood, Tiyuxi, is getting deeper surgery.  The neighborhood is known as a place to find independent fashion boutiques, coffee shops, and small western style pubs and restaurants.  There is a busy subway transfer station at the NE corner, and the neighborhood is wedged between the current CBD, Tiyuzhongxin, and the future CBD under construction, ZhuJiang New Town.  The area is pretty successful, most businesses seem to thrive.  Unlike in America, in China pedestrian only shopping streets seem to do pretty well.  Maybe it's because of the high urban density and people are accustomed to getting around on foot.  Of course, this may change if the China auto boom continues and the masses here develop a taste for the suburbs.

The buildings are mostly 8 stories tall, with one room shops in the ground floor and a network of paths between.  The whole area is about 8 square blocks, but there is only one public street.  A few of the paths are only open to resident cars, the rest are for foot and bicycle traffic only.   Most of the shops have unique storefronts, which seem to wrap the interior out over the exterior of the building.  Many shop owners have claimed the space between their building and the sidewalk, making stepping stone paths or decks. The shops seem to continue out into the public space.  The trees between the buildings create a nice scale.  Above the ground floor is all 1980s China apartment bloc monotony, drab mosaic tiles on concrete, stainless steel window bars and plastic awnings haphazardly added over time.  The area has a nice unpolished, urban feel.  There are high fashion young people parading around and grandmas walking babies.  It's usually a quiet place compared to the city outside, with little traffic noise.  But the sound of construction has come, and it seems all this is changing.

Workers are chipping off the tile and stripping the exterior to bare concrete, replacing windows, and gluing on new brick-colored tiles.  Some buildings are even getting mansard roofs and dormers.  The presentation boards brag the neighborhood will be European style.  Now, the scaffolding from the first building has been removed and the results are visible.  Other than the condensate and coolant lines  for AC which are now visible in high contrast with dark brick tile, the view from afar is not unpleasant.

From up close the work is incomplete, but already quite disappointing.  The exterior accoutrement of each shop has been removed.  Presumably, its now up to each shop owner to replace their storefront.  But its unclear how much freedom each store owner will have to design their storefront.  From the look of the rendering, the exteriors will be uniformed and sanitized into something resembling an American exterior "lifestyle center", a euphemism for a strip mall.

This is the contradiction.  The atmosphere of the place is what draws people here, and the businesses follow.  It is not regularity and conformance aesthetic standards that makes the place attractive, but individuality and uniqueness.  I don't know enough about the history of the neighborhood to know for sure, but I would guess it wasn't planned as an area for stylish shops.  Probably it just happened that way because of the ideas and motivation of individual of shop owners.  In Asia, uniformity is famously a virtue, and modernization is often seen as instituting uniformity.  Even the innately creative people who had a hand in forming this neighborhood may not see the contradiction in taking this functionally beautiful place and and "putting on a hat".