China Wants No Icons

From iconic to patriotic


Take note of this, architects, especially in the West: Xi Jinping does not like buildings with “weird” shapes. He stated this bluntly – and when a president of the People’s Republic of China says something bluntly, it has got to be taken seriously – during an art symposium held in the capital some weeks ago in which the old (not to say hackneyed) theme of how art “should serve the people” was discussed. It is rare for a top world dignitary to attend events of this kind, but in a very prepared speech that lasted all of two hours, the Chinese leader defended an architecture of moral purity at the service of values, which he defined, falling into utter corniness, as being “like sunshine from the blue sky and the breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clear up undesirable work styles.”

The specific example he used to illustrate “weird” architecture was the CCTV (Chinese Central Television) headquarters in Beijing, a building completed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas in 2008 which locals, because of its strange shape and not without a dose of jest, have nicknamed ‘Big Pants.’ Xi Jinping called for a shift to more “patriotic art,” but without explaining what exactly he meant by ‘patriotic,’ whether moral construction, moderate style, or perhaps art made for the Chinese and by the Chinese. At any rate his statement is a warning of a change in the course set a couple of decades ago, when China’s government decided that the best way to convey to the world the image of a new and vibrant financial and global China was through iconic architecture.

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